Attack of the Self-Serving Pol!

A deft film in which a southland legislator and lazy journalists rewrite history, blame Enron for the energy crisis, and leave Sacramento corruption untouched

Actor/producer/writer J. Stephen "Rock" Peace's 1978 film Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! set such a high standard of campiness that for two decades nothing topped it -- not Return of the Killer Tomatoes!(1988), not Killer Tomatoes Strike Back(1990), not even Killer Tomatoes Eat France! (1991).

During the ensuing years Peace became a state senator (D-El Cajon) best known for drafting the energy-restructuring bill that preceded the 2000 California electricity disaster. As surreal as that production was, Peace didn't quite re-create Tomatoes' genius for defying plausibility.

Then, 24 years after Tomatoes' release, Peace finally outdid himself; on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2002, Peace's office contributed to a front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle that blamed the nation's current catch-all scapegoat, Enron Corp., for hoodwinking California into passing a disastrous 1996 energy-deregulation law that Peace created.

The article opened by quoting Peace aide John Rozsa as saying, "Enron's fingerprints are all over all of the dysfunctional parts of the market," in one short sentence negating the prevalent view that it was Peace and his fellow lawmakers, with the help of big-money lobbyists for PG&E, Southern California Edison, California manufacturers, and the state's labor unions, who actually bear responsibility for California's electricity debacle.

Under the headline "California system was easy pickings/Enron helped build market, then exploited weaknesses," Chron writer Mick Martin went on to suggest that Peace, PG&E, and the rest of the campaign contributors who helped the senator draft the bill witlessly allowed Enron lobbyists to fool them into spawning the California energy disaster. Peace has been telling reporters different versions of this story for years. Last year, Peace even used campaign donations to have his Tomatoes production company, Four Square Productions, make a video absolving him of blame for the electricity crisis. He played the video for a while on his state Senate Web site. No word yet on when it hits theaters.

The video, the Chron article, and Peace's other efforts at rewriting history are ludicrous, of course. Peace is right in telling reporters that California's energy-restructuring debacle was a clear example of the corrupting, destructive role money and lobbyists play in California politics. But the culprit wasn't that Texas bugaboo Enron. During the years leading up to the 2000 electricity fiasco, it was Californiacompanies and labor unions that gave money to Californiapoliticians, who in turn made policy based on contributors' wishes. The grossly mutated energy law that eventually passed the Legislature threw our state into financial disaster. California suffered an electricity catastrophe because it had become a campaign-finance house of horrors. The idea that Steve Peace might enlist hyperbole surrounding the unrelated collapse of Enron Corp. to explain away his own role in the electricity debacle, and the corrupted mess our Statehouse has become, is not merely unbelievable. It's as bizarre as the idea that killer tomatoes might someday take over the world.


For lobbyists who represented companies in the electricity business, the summer of 1996 was surreal in a way that is unmatched outside low-budget scary movies. Legislative aides present during that time recall oceans of Gucci shoes topped by a land mass of panicked lobbyists. The deregulation law was the highest-stakes piece of legislation to come along in decades, and the special-interest sharks were swirling. Naturally, legislators involved with the bill, including Peace, saw campaign contributions from electric utilities triple during the deregulation years.

There were differing motives for manipulating Peace's forthcoming electricity law. Peace ally PG&E Corp. wanted to be paid swiftly, and in full, for the $16 billion worth of nuclear power plants and other bad investments it had made during the regulated-monopoly years. PG&E was also enthusiastic about a plan encouraging it to sell off billions of dollars of old power plants. The company was undergoing a corporate restructuring aimed at transforming PG&E from a California-based utility into a global energy giant along the lines of Enron. According to this PG&E corporate pipe dream, the California utility would be fattened with deregulation cash, then would buy up electricity and gas companies and trading operations around the globe. It had even dallied with Bechtel in an overseas private-energy venture.

California manufacturers wanted cheap, reliable energy. Labor unions wanted to keep their old public-utility jobs. Lobbyists for these interests began to converge on a system imported from Britain that would channel the vast majority of wholesale energy purchases through a single regulated trading floor, similar to a commodities exchange.

Enron opposed many aspects of this plan. The company had negotiated successful direct-power deals with the University of California and the San Francisco Building Owners and Managers Association, and it saw the trading floor/nuclear bailout- focused system as an obstacle to more such direct, long-term contract deals.

Enron's lobbyists supported separating the Independent System Operator, the state agency that would manage the electricity grid, and the Power Exchange pooled trading floor into two agencies. The existence of a single agency might create conflicts of interest, Enron said at the time.

Though Peace's electricity bill involved highly technical issues involving electricity infrastructure, untested commodity markets, and massive, widespread economic reorganization, he seemed to view his job as less a task of expertly crafting a restructured electricity market and more a matter of reconciling big-moneyed political interests.

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