Way back in the 1980s, when Willie Brown was the untouchable speaker of the State Assembly and by all accounts the second most powerful politician in California, he came to an event at the San Francisco Press Club and gave a few dozen reporters a lesson in how to defeat a ballot measure. I'll never forget it.
A group of reformers some Republicans, many unhappy with Brown's leadership placed a measure before the voters that would have taken the power of drawing legislative districts away from the State Legislature and given it to a panel of retired judges. The Democratic leadership, which had used its redistricting power with shameless brilliance to create safe seats for Democrats, wanted to kill the proposition, but polls showed it passing by a good margin.
So Brown went to the notorious Los Angeles political consulting firm of Berman and D'Agostino (a.k.a. BAD Campaigns). "And they told me," Brown announced to the audience, "that any piece of legislation has something in it that can be used to upset and confuse the voters. You just have to find the fatal flaw."
So the BAD boys decided to run against the judges. Brown turned on a TV his aides had set up and showed the reporters a series of TV ads. None mentioned redistricting. They didn't mention the legislature. They didn't give you any idea what the ballot measure was about. Instead they featured a bunch of shadowy figures in black robes, raising their right hands and swearing to uphold party loyalty. "Judges belong in the courtroom, not the back room," an ominous-sounding voice-over said.
Thanks to the grossly misleading ads and Brown's ability to raise millions to blanket the airwaves with them the redistricting plan was defeated. Brown was positively gleeful about it.
I keep thinking about that when I watch the cable-TV ads against Proposition H. The ads feature a series of people Hunter Stern, who works for PG&E's house union; John Hanley of the SF Firefighters Union; and Sup. Carmen Chu, who has become a wholly owned subsidiary of PG&E talking about losing the right to vote on revenue bonds.
Nobody ever votes on revenue bonds. In California, we vote on general obligation bonds, which are backed by taxpayers. Revenue bonds are backed by a defined revenue stream; airports, ports, and other agencies issue them all the time.
And none of this has much to do with the substance of Prop. H, the Clean Energy Act, which sets renewable energy goals and calls for a study of the city's energy options. Yes, Prop. H would allow the city to sell revenue bonds for new energy facilities but the city issues revenue bonds (without a vote of the people) for all sorts of enterprise projects.
So what happened here is that Eric Jaye, PG&E's political consultant, realized that the Clean Energy Act was polling well and looked for something he could use as a fatal flaw. Like the judge in the back room. He settled on the revenue bonds, manufactured a right that doesn't exist, and pretended that Prop. H would take it away.
I'm sure Willie Brown who collected $200,000 in legal fees from PG&E last year is proud. *