Commission Impossible

An underfunded Democrat takes on a powerful Republican in a quest for the state's least-sexy elected office

Newman says he'll take whatever he can get.
"To be honest, I knew my name was going to help in overcoming all the chits that Tony has over the years, doing people favors, and all the power that Carl [Kunasek] has over the years, doing people favors," Newman says. "It's a huge mountain, to overcome that chit network."

Newman's legal career has included work as a public defender and, before he came to Arizona, as a court administrator and consultant in California. He currently runs his own private law practice in Bisbee.

Newman is no political novice. A member of the state House for the past six years, he was the only Democratic sponsor of House Bill 2663, the Legislature's deregulation bill. Newman managed to get several amendments tacked onto the bill that provided for consumer education and protections for rural customers.

As a legislator, Newman staked out consumer protection as his turf. He once criticized a tax break for a satellite-TV facility as a giveaway to billionaire Rupert Murdoch. He also took a strong stand against a bill dubbed the "Polluter Protection Act" because it enabled companies to escape fines for environmental hazards. He criticized the Republican majority's support of random drug testing in businesses, in terms so strong he later apologized on the House floor.

State Representative John Loredo, a Phoenix Democrat, has counted Newman as a friend since Loredo came to the Legislature two years ago.

"Paul's relentless in representing people who don't usually have a voice," he says. "He's always very outspoken, and he'll press his issue no matter how much it aggravates the other side of the aisle, and that's exactly what we need in the corporation commission."

Loredo recalls Newman's clashes with Marilyn Jarrett, the Republican chair of the States Rights committee. Jarrett once ruled that Newman couldn't question any witnesses before the committee, just to keep him quiet. House Speaker Jeff Groscost and House Minority Leader Art Hamilton had to be called to smooth things over.

"Everybody in that room was going to hear his point, whether the chairman wanted him to hear it or not," Loredo recalls. "What he had to say was usually on behalf of people who didn't have a lobbyist in the room. Regardless of the pressure, he was going to get his point across."

Jarrett, who confirms the incident, will only say about Newman, "If you think the corporation commission is interesting now, just wait until Paul gets there."

Newman's known for questioning opponents to the point of exhaustion. He even once earned the dubious honor of being the runner-up for "Biggest Windbag" by the Arizona Republic for his filibusterlike speaking style.

One on one, Newman comes off a lot better than he does in debates or speeches. He explains himself without bogging down as he did at the investors' luncheon debate.

Newman's motto for the campaign is "lower rates, better service." Consumers are going to need a lot more protection under deregulation, he argues, not less. Someone has to make sure that power is still reliable and affordable, and that's up to the commissioners.

He ticks off a list of measures he wants to implement if elected: an equitable solution to stranded costs "that doesn't favor utilities," funding for consumer education about deregulation, and an alternative energy portfolio that encourages investment in solar power.

Newman's passion for detail in these areas is almost comical, but Jennings says Newman's intellect is one of the best reasons to elect him.

"He's a smart guy, but I think you want a guy who's a little wonky," Jennings says. "He's got intelligence and a consumer orientation; and that's the purpose of the commission, to protect the consumer against the concentrated power of the utilities."

First, Newman has to convince people that there's even a reason to care.
With so many newcomers in the state, Newman may be a victim of the Democrats' success on the panel. There are a lot of people who don't remember the astronomical utility bills under the GOP-controlled commissions of the '70s and early '80s.

When the Republicans ruled the commission from 1975 to 1984, electric rates rose from 4 cents per kilowatt hour to 10 cents. From 1985 to 1994, under the Democrats, rates only went up a quarter of a cent. (Kunasek, however, blames the increases under the Republicans on the energy crisis and high interest rates.)

Voters finally reversed the trend in 1985 by electing Jennings and Marcia Weeks, another Democrat, who led a push for reform. The Republicans reclaimed the majority in 1996, when Weeks was replaced by Irvin.

"That's the difficulty for the Democrats today: The rates aren't skyrocketing, so you won't get a Republican crossing party lines to vote," says Weeks, who, like Jennings, is supporting Newman.

Today, rates are comparatively under control, thanks largely to the rates decided when Democrats were the majority. But under deregulation, rates could climb again.

"There's no threat to the public out there, but it gives the public time to get the Dems back in, because once those freezes are off . . . I'm worried what will happen," she says. "Is the consumer going to benefit at all from competition?"

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