Could PG&E Sink Harris?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The PG&E bankruptcy, and the scandals surrounding it, are about to go national.

That could be both embarrassing and healthy for California and its leaders.

The vehicle for this nationalization is the presidential campaign of California U.S. Senator Kamala Harris.As her record draws scrutiny, critics are zeroing in on her failure as state attorney general to put more pressure on the utility, especially after the deadly gas explosion in San Bruno. The New York Times recently quoted a former San Bruno mayor and lawyer claiming that Harris’s office had blown them off when they requested charges be filed.

Instead, PG&E went on being a favored political player, spreading money and business around California’s political world, including to the consulting firm that manages Harris’ campaigns. Instead of strong intervention by Attorney General Harris that might have led to more serious action on maintenance, PG&E continued to neglect its responsibilities, contributing to deadly fires. It’s now in bankruptcy and is seeking what amounts to another bailout from the state.

That’s an ugly picture, and one that deserves far more scrutiny than it’s gotten. So if the national spotlight falls on PG&E, it would be good for California. But the story is powerful enough to sink Harris, who is running as a progressive outsider, an image at odds with her record as a powerful insider and establishment player in San Francisco and California.

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