Brian Dahle and Kevin Kiley on Fire in Not-So-Special Election

Digital illustration by R.V. Scheide

Every election needs a demon, and in the showdown between Republican assemblymen Brian Dahle and  Kevin Kiley for the 1st District State Senate seat vacated by Ted Gaines, the evil spirit is a familiar one: Pacific Gas & Electric, the largest electric utility in the United States, for more than 100 years the bane of politicians and ratepayers alike.

The San Francisco-based utility’s failure to properly maintain its massive electrical grid has been blamed for more than a dozen of the mega-wildfires that have plagued northern California during the past several years, including the Camp Fire, which last fall killed 85 people and consumed the entire village of Paradise, once home to 30,000 people.

Now, in a fiery battle being waged by gaudy, misleading campaign fliers sent to thousands of rural voters in the 1st District, Dahle and Kiley each claim the other is in cahoots with this infernal fire-starting demon, PG&E.

It’s virtually impossible to tell if any of the claims on these apocalyptic fliers are “true,” in the common usage of the word, but I’m going to give it a shot. But first, a little background.

The 1st District encompasses the state’s northeastern quadrant, stretching south from Yreka to the Sacramento suburbs and east from the edge of the Sacramento Valley to the Nevada border.

Most of the voters are in those Sacramento suburbs, where Kiley, 34, the 4th District assemblyman based in Rocklin, hails. Most of the territory is profoundly rural, where Dahle, 53, the former Lassen County supervisor and current 1st District assemblyman, calls home.

It’s a suburban vs. rural shoot-out, the upstart millennial Yale Law School graduate against the longtime ranch and trucking company owner with triple his opponent’s political experience. No need to worry about party politics here. Each of these Republicans claims to be the real tax-fighting, gun-protecting, abortion-denying candidate in the race.

Kiley’s flier landed first in my rural mailbox, like a blast of heat from a furnace. On the flier, Dahle is depicted with his hands up against the backdrop of a raging forest fire. The garish orange flames appear to be emanating from Dahle’s hands like some sort of heat-ray, burning down the woods. A crudely scrawled arrow points at Dahle, who, the flier claims, has been “bought and paid for” by PG&E.

Paid for by Kevin Kiley For Senate 2019.

“AFTER voting to let PG&E off the hook for the fires it caused,” the flier reads from the top, “Brian Dahle has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash from the utility and its executives.”

Under cartoon moneybags, the amounts are broken down: “$400,000 from PG&E and utility companies to a pro-Dahle PAC,” “$10,000 in Campaign Cash from 16 different PG&E executives over a 10-day period to Dahle’s committee,” and “$679,000 in special interest money directly to Dahle’s bank accounts.”

“Brian Dahle voted to allow PG&E to escape responsibility for fires they cause,” the back of the flier reads. “Now PG&E is funding his campaign for State Senate.”

Almost all of it, as we shall soon see, is total bullshit. But before I could examine the flier’s outrageous claims, another firebrand landed in my mailbox, this one from Dahle’s campaign, making the exact same audacious accusations against Kiley!

Paid for by Dahle for Senate 2019.

Set against a flaming backdrop on the flier, a bemused Kiley looks not unlike the serial killer Ted Bundy, pondering where to stash the bodies in the burning woods. Turns out it’s worse than that.

On the flier, a statement attributed to Yuba County Supervisor Andy Vasquez claims that, “After taking over $500,000 from PG&E and other special interests, Kevin Kiley refused to support legislation to hold PG&E accountable for the wildfires and prevent future disasters like the ones that wiped out Paradise, Redding and Loma Rica.”

Whether the supervisor actually said this or not, it’s what we in the trade call weasel-wording. The legislation in question is SB 901, the Wildfires bill passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last September. Kyle abstained from voting for the bill, so he indeed did not support it, as the flier states.

But it’s not because PG&E (“and other special interests” is the weasel-wording) gave Kiley’s campaign $500,000. Nor did PG&E give Dahle “hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash” as asserted by Kiley’s facetious flier.

In fact, PG&E has placed bets on both candidates in the past, but hardly in six-figure amounts. According to FollowTheMoney.org, the nonprofit that tracks campaign funding across the United States, PG&E has donated $25,300 to Dahle, a four-term assemblyman, since 2012. PG&E has given Kiley, who first took office in 2016, $8200.

As far as the current campaign is concerned, PG&E Corp. has so far donated $2000 to Kiley this election cycle, according to the Secretary of State’s Cal-Access website. Dahle has received $250 from a PG&E employee who lives in McArthur.

As far as I can tell from information currently available on Cal-Access, PG&E has not donated any money to Taxfighters For Brian Dahle, a political action committee separate from Dahle’s campaign that, among others things, runs commercials on right-wing radio stations and sends out the crazy-ass fliers I receive regularly in the post.

(I was disappointed not to receive the Dahle flier instructing Democrats to vote for Steve Baird, the well known state of Jefferson State supporter who registered as a Democrat for the special primary election then dropped out before his name could be removed from the ballot. Nor did I receive the one with Kiley’s image photoshopped to look like he was standing next to now-Sen. Kamala Harris when she was attorney general. Kiley, a former assistant attorney general who worked under Harris, says he never actually met her.)

PG&E might not be donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to either candidate, but other corporations, labor unions, political action committees and individuals are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into both campaign’s coffers.

Between January 1 and April 20, Dahle for Senate 2019 raised $922,575 and spent $268,547.

Taxpayers For Brian Dahle, the pro-Dahle PAC sponsored with major funding from the California Association of Realtors and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, raised $404,521 and spent $210,976.

That’s more than $1.2 million going to the pro-Dahle side since the beginning of the year, of which almost a half-million has been spent.

During the same time period, Kiley raised $757,344 and spent $308,830. Like Dahle, his largest donations come from the finance, insurance and real estate industries. Unlike Dahle, he has virtually no support from public sector and general trade unions, whom Kiley refers to as special interests.

Anyway, if neither one of these guys appears to be on PG&E’s payroll to any significant degree, what the hell are all these fervent fliers about?

I found the tiniest of hints on the back of Dahle’s flier, a minuscule footnote under a list of all the ways Dahle has held PG&E accountable and Kevin Kiley hasn’t: “Source-SB-901.”

That would be the aforementioned Wildfires bill signed into law last September, for which Dahle voted yay and Kiley abstained. Claiming the bill holds PG&E accountable may be premature—the utility, facing an estimated $15 billion in wildfire lawsuits, filed for bankruptcy in January.

SB-901, passed while the Carr Fire was still smoldering and the Camp Fire was set to take off, was the Legislature’s reaction to a state that was literally burning down around them. It was a fat piece of legislative sausage, with something for everyone to love—or to hate.

As Dahle’s flier claims, the bill limits pay hikes and bonuses for PG&E executives and requires the utility to better maintain its equipment. It provides funding for victims of recent wildfires. The bill requires the state to remove dead and dying trees that fuel forest fires, and provides $1 billion from the state’s Cap&Trade greenhouse reduction program over the next five years to facilitate the task.

For future fires, SB-901 requires PG&E and other big utilities to conduct a financial stress test, to determine the amount in wildfire settlement payments the company can bear before filing for bankruptcy (here’s an educated guess: $15 billion). It also allows PG&E to sell bonds which will be used to spread out the ratepayer increases necessary to pay the settlements over time.

How much PG&E pays out in settlements to wildfire victims will determine how much electricity rates increase in the future, and only then will we know if PG&E was actually held accountable.

In the meantime, the electricity is still on, the presence of PG&E maintenance crews in the field appears to be on the rise (at least where I live in Whitmore), more help for fire victims is on the way and some of the credit goes to Dahle, who helped craft SB-901, including the Cap&Trade elements, a program he voted against.

“To do nothing would be on us,” Assembly Republican Leader Dahle told Captiol Public Radio last August. “We’ve done something that’s not perfect. But I think it’s a step in the right direction.”

No doubt it was, if the object was to keep the lights on and get the ball rolling on cleaning up the wildland urban interface.

Yet now SB-901 is just a small footnote on a pro-Dahle PAC campaign flier that claims Kevin Kiley has been possessed by the demon utility, PG&E. I suppose taking credit for a bill that acknowledges climate change is real might be perceived as “too liberal” in more conservative parts of the 1st District.

Better than to scare the living daylights out of rural voters with scenes from Armageddon. You can thank California’s top-two primary system for pitting two arch-conservatives against one another.

To be fair, Kiley recently sent me a kinder, gentler campaign flier, this one in softer blues and greens, assuring me that he is “The only senate candidate who stands up to the Sacramento politicians and lobbyists and fights for us.”

Kiley, who as a teacher founded and coached the Granite Bay High School debate club, has been calling for Dahle to debate him. Dahle, who finished with 28.7 percent of the special primary vote to Kiley’s 28.5 percent, has so far followed that golden rule of politics, never debate a debating coach.

Indeed, contrary to Kiley’s recent nice-guy approach, the latest Dahle flier to arrive in my mailbox goes for the jugular.

“Did Kevin Kiley sell out cancer victims?”

The answer is no, but that’s another story. The special election is June 4. These guys have money to spend and I suspect things are about to get really ugly.

R.V. Scheide
R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas. He can be emailed at RVScheide@anewscafe.com.
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