Assembly District 1 Special Election: Who Can Keep the Lights On?

AD-1 candidate Megan Dahle and a few of her donors.

It’s Saturday night, and the lights are back on in Whitmore, the tiny hamlet of 800 or so people where I live, 30 miles east of Redding in the forested Sierra-Cascade foothills. Like 800,000 other northern California Pacific Gas & Electric customers, our electricity was turned off Wednesday morning as high winds and low humidity rushed into northern California, setting off red-flag warnings up and down the state.

PG&E gave us advance warning, by phone and email, and we were prepared for the bankrupt utility giant’s first ever widespread public safety power shutoff. Thanks to our propane-powered emergency generator, we didn’t lose the sides of beef, goat and venison in our big freezer during the three-day outage. The land-line was down for two days. The wind toppled a large oak 50 feet from the house. I lost three days of work substitute-teaching due to school closures. Otherwise, we survived the shutdown just fine.

Others weren’t so fortunate. Those without generators lost all of their refrigerated and frozen food. I’ve seen reports of at least two rural deaths caused by electrical medical equipment that ceased functioning during the outage. At the Whitmore Store, over the roar of a gasoline-powered generator, I heard second-hand rumors that pissed-off customers were taking potshots at PG&E employees inspecting the 25,000 miles of line in the 70,000 square mile blackout area.

Certainly PG&E, which in addition to filing for bankruptcy earlier this year is being sued by thousands of plaintiffs for allegedly causing 13 recent northern California megafires, including the apocalyptic Camp Fire last year, should be held accountable for any loss of life and the estimated $2 billion hit to the north state’s economy caused by the blackout.

But the reality is, PG&E will never be held fully accountable, in part because it has been buying Sacramento politicians — Democrats and Republicans — for decades.

That includes 1st District State Sen. Brian Dahle, who received tens of thousands of dollars from the utility during his three terms as 1st District Assemblyman. The Carr and Camp Fires happened on his watch, despite repeated warnings from climate scientists over the past decade that catastrophic megafires are inevitable unless we take action to increase the resiliency of California’s forests and the wildland/urban interface.

The senator likes to joke that “he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed.” Now his wife, Megan Dahle, is running for his former Assembly seat as an outsider who will take on the special interests in Sacramento.

Yet her campaign is being funded by the political machine her husband has assembled over the past seven years, including large donations from Sempra Energy, Chevron, Phillips 66, Phillip Morris, Monsanto, Ely Lilly, Mallinckrodt, Health Net, Blue Shield, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and a host of other public safety employee unions, and the California Real Estate Political Action Committee and other assorted building interests.

As some of her conservative Republican opponents noted in the run-up to June’s special primary election, Dahle is already beholden to the very special interests she claims to be taking on, should she get elected. And she may very well be elected, if corporate and PAC donations have anything to do with it. So far between her own campaign and an independent political action committee, Dahle has raised $593,472, more than a half-million dollars, according to the state’s Cal-Access website.

Elizabeth Betancourt, her Democratic opponent who doesn’t have a political action committee and has shunned corporate donations, has raised just $88,848, most of it from small individual donors.

Elizabeth Betancourt, with husband Pedro on their Happy Valley farm, has the goods. But can she deliver?

The Dahles, both the senator and his wife, also have the blessing of Redding’s homophobic, anti-intellectual megachurch, Bethel. Like Bethel lead pastors Bill Johnson and Kris Vallotton, Sen. Dahle believes President Donald J. Trump was ordained by God, and we may safely presume Megan shares that belief. How long they maintain it as the craven depths of Trump’s criminality are exposed by the House of Representative’s ongoing impeachment inquiry remains to be seen.

The point is the 2019 special election for the AD-1 seat is heavily rigged in favor of the Dahles. They are not the plain-spoken country bumpkins they pretend to be. Well, maybe they are, but they are also heavily connected to the corporations and special interests that have corrupted California’s political process on both sides of the aisle for decades.

Betancourt, on the other hand, is a breath of fresh air. An accomplished natural resources scientist who has worked in northern California’s Sierra Nevada watersheds for 20 years, the political newcomer has a deeper knowledge of northern California’s economy and ecology than both Dahles combined—a valid comparison since Megan is running on her husband’s coattails, and neither has a college degree.

Moreover, Betancourt accepts and understands the science underlying anthropogenic climate change that informs California’s ambitious plans to adapt to an ever-warming future. Both the Dahles appear to be climate change deniers, though they are loathe to admit it publicly.

PG&E’s three-day public safety power shutoff should set off alarm bells for the 276,000 registered voters in AD-1. This was a large-scale climate change event. PG&E was forced into the shutdown because the bought-off Legislature has been unable to bring them to heel, and the utility’s managers, who have long eschewed maintenance in favor of excessive executive salaries and shareholder profits, understood they risked sparking a new megafire that would surely doom their already crippled company.

What happens next time the wind blows the wrong way and the lights go out?

A lighter moment between candidates Elizabeth Betancourt and Megan Dahle at the forum.

A Night at the Forum

The night before the lights went out, I attended the AD-1 candidates forum featuring Betancourt and Dahle and hosted by the League of Women Voters Redding Area at First United Methodist Church. Dahle once again played the role of the beleaguered small business owner/Sacramento outsider, an act long-burnished by her husband on the campaign trail.

“The policies coming out of Sacramento don’t work for the north state,” she said. “They’re not conducive for business owners. … We make a payroll every two weeks, we create a job. That’s something we need to be doing more of, incentivizing business owners such as ourselves.”

As I’ve reported in the past, when the Dahles say things like “incentivizing business owners such as ourselves,” they sometimes mean it quite literally. As an assemblyman, Brian Dahle voted against extending the state’s cap-and-trade greenhouse gas reduction fund. But he didn’t hesitate to raid the fund in order to subsidize his trucking company’s major client, Burney Mountain Power, when it nearly shuttered in 2016.

The Dahles, alleged small government conservatives, have also received $251,530 in federal farm subsidies since 1995.

The topic of campaign finance came up early at the forum. Betancourt, understanding Dahle has out-raised her seven-to-one, admitted that fundraising has been difficult and that she’s relying on individual donations and a small but growing team of dedicated volunteers.

Dahle admitted she’s been “very blessed” by the individuals, corporations and special interests who have financed her campaign.

“I’m very proud of the money I’ve received,” she said. “Public safety is behind me and I freely accept that. They’re under attack every day and I want to be a strong conservative voice for them.”

An actual “strong conservative” would arguably never accept money from labor unions, public safety or otherwise, because in the conservative economic view, unions artificially push up wages and benefits.

Yet Dahle has been raking in the union cash, particularly from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association—the prison guards’ union—which donated $9400 to Dahle’s campaign and $50,000 to Dahle for Assembly 2019, an independent political action committee.

Dahle did not mention the more controversial names on her donor list. Fossil fuel companies Chevron and Phillips 66, both of which have been major polluters in the golden state for decades, donated $4700 and $1500 to her campaign respectively.

Tobacco company Phillip Morris, which is heavily invested in the vaping industry, donated $9400 to Dahle.

Agricultural giant Monsanto, which has recently been ordered by California courts to pay more than $2 billion in settlements to plaintiffs who contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after exposure to the company’s Roundup herbicide, donated $2000 to Dahle.

Big Pharma is also on Dahle’s list of donors. Ely Lilly, which is currently refusing to publicize increases in the price of insulin for diabetic patients in California as required by state law, donated $1500. Mallinckrodt, the largest manufacturer of generic opiates in the United States that was once called “the kingpin of the drug cartel” by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, donated $1500.

At the forum, Betancourt brought up the Mallinckrodt donation during a discussion of the opiate crisis, which has hit rural communities, including AD-1, particularly hard. Earlier, Betancourt had named addressing the statewide homeless crisis as her number one priority upon taking office. Ensuring homeless drug addicts have access to rehabilitation treatment will be a major component of the effort. Holding drug manufacturers responsible for the injury their products cause could help fund it.

“I definitely believe in holding pharmaceutical companies responsible, and that’s a huge reason I’m not taking money from those companies,” Betancourt said. “That’s not something I think is an ethical thing. I think we all know about the issues associated with campaign finance, the access that companies get when they buy an elected official. I’m making sure that I don’t have those compromises.”

Dahle acknowledged the opiate crisis exists but noted that painkillers such as Vicodin can be useful for people recovering from surgery. She implied that existing drug treatment facilities have the capacity to solve the problem that’s plaguing the entire state.

“Opioids themselves are not …” she paused, thinking her next words over, “… the devil.” Perhaps pharmaceutical companies can include the addresses of local treatment centers with their addictive products, she offered.

It’s worth noting that most of the law enforcement unions supporting Dahle have historically lobbied against drug rehabilitation programs that don’t involve incarceration. They’d like to go back to the good old days, when we locked all the drug addicts up, even though it doesn’t work and the state can’t afford it.

Sen. Brian Dahle and his truck.

Keep On Trucking

As the candidates worked their way through the 20 questions selected from the hundreds submitted by the audience of roughly 110 people, a pattern developed. On topics ranging from homelessness, the north state’s water supply, the difficulty in recruiting doctors and teachers to AD-1, free or reduced college tuition, permitting teachers to carry concealed weapons in schools, forest management, climate change, Prop 13 and separation of church and state, Betancourt demonstrated a mastery of the issues that’s simply lacking in her opponent.

Betancourt is a bit of a policy wonk and talks in long, fluid paragraphs that often connect to the over-arching themes of her campaign. For example, she said teacher recruitment can be increased by providing beginning teachers with a living wage. How do we pay for it? The Schools and Communities First initiative on the 2020 state ballot will, if passed, split the residential and commercial property tax rolls, eliminating a long abused corporate loophole in Prop 13, providing $10 billion annually for public schools.

In contrast, Dahle rarely displayed any detailed knowledge of the issues she will face if elected to the Assembly. She opposes the Schools and Communities First initiative because she “supports Prop 13 as it is” and her contacts in the commercial real estate industry, which has donated tens of thousands of dollars to her campaign and PAC, told her some of the money might be spent on “single payer” or “climate change.”

Dahle’s lack of knowledge about anthropogenic climate change and the challenges it poses to northern California is her most glaring deficiency. “I believe the climate is changing,” she hedged when asked if she accepts the scientific consensus on global warming. She’s developed a novel theory about what we as a society should do about it.

This theory is based on the fact that the gigatons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases spewed by megafires are not currently counted in the state’s carbon budget. For example, the 2013 Rim Fire in Yosemite equaled the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 2.3 million cars, but was not counted in the state’s carbon budget.

Because these megafire emissions are not currently counted, Dahle believes the emissions from weed whackers, lawn mowers and her and her husband’s 20-year-old semi-truck—currently in need of an upgrade thanks to California emission regulations—shouldn’t be counted either.

“We’re monitoring our weed eaters and our lawn mowers while we’re burning down our forests, and they call that neutral,” she said. “So I’m forced to buy a new semi-truck, and I’m in a clean air basin, so when you’re in a clean air basin, you can’t … get an incentive to upgrade your piece of equipment.”

I’m told by a reliable source most of the people in attendance were Betancourt supporters.

Dahle’s half-right. The emissions from megafires should be counted in the state’s carbon budget, and if and when they are, the state’s timeline to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 will suffer a serious set-back, particular if we don’t get the megafires under control.

Asked if she supports California’s right to set its own emission standards—now under threat from Trump’s EPA—she side-stepped the question and complained about her truck again.

“I would just like to count those things, those carbon from forest fires should not be neutral,” she said. “I don’t think that’s a fair and equitable way that we look at carbon, verses taking every car off the road for one year, one forest fire is equal to that.”

What’s her answer? Less regulation and more capitalism, of course.

“I just believe it will evolve and our technology will come along and we’ll just have better … capitalism will come in and we’ll be better at everything,” she said. “But I just don’t want to be forced into buying something when something I have already works.”

Perhaps because she’s been blinded by her own self-interest. Dahle hasn’t grasped the scope and scale of the response required to deal with climate change, particularly in the area of forest management, which again is left up to deregulation and capitalism.

“The first thing we need to do is open up the forest, we need to streamline regulations so that we can get our timber industry in and start fire-safing our communities,” said Dahle, who has received thousands of dollars in donations from the timber industry, including $2000 from Sierra Pacific.

It was left up to Betancourt to explain why counting megafire emissions in the carbon budget is vitally important to AD-1, and why the timber industry alone can’t address our overgrown forests.

“One of the ways California has disenfranchised rural areas is not including forest fire emissions in their accounting of carbon,” she said. “I worked at the Sierra Nevada Conservancy for a number of years and we actually put out that number. The Rim Fire burned more carbon than all the cars in California in a year.

“By investing in forest health at the same level as we’re investing in clean vehicles, solar power and other things that largely benefit urban environments, our rural spaces are the biggest place we can gain in climate resilience.

“It’s in farming, it’s in regenerative agriculture and healthy soils, it’s in forest management and bio-energy. We have a lot of ways that we can here in rural California positively address the state’s issues. We need to be recognized for that, number one, and invested in, number two. That level of accounting in carbon emissions has to be part of that, because that is part of the quantifiable benefit to the state of California.”

One primary goal? Develop new markets for forest slash and other woody waste to ameliorate the high cost of the massive amount of forest restoration that needs to be done in California.

“One of the things that is incredibly important moving forward is the state has invested some resources in fire health and safety, but it’s not enough,” she said. “It can’t come from our greenhouse gas reduction fund forever, right? It has to start paying for itself.”

That’s going to be a tall task. No doubt much of the work, which has already begun, will have to be state-subsidized until those new markets come online. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to experience megafires and three-day mass electrical blackouts, in large part because capitalism has never really been all that great at cleaning up its own messes, and politicians have failed to hold corporations accountable.

That means we’re going to have to do it, and that requires leadership with a grasp of the scope and scale required to adapt to the altered climate in the future. It requires a person that believes government can actually solve problems. There’s only one candidate running for AD-1 who fits that description and it’s Elizabeth Betancourt.

She knows she’s out-gunned by the Dahle political machine, which is already mass-mailing political fliers promising the moon to AD-1 constituents. I got one last week in which Megan Dahle says she has a plan to lower prescription drug prices, with no details of the plan provided. I wonder what her donors Ely Lilly, Mallinckrodt and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association ($2000 donation) will have to say about that?

Betancourt has no such allegiances, and as a member of the Democratic Party supermajority in Sacramento, she’ll be able to work on and actually pass meaningful legislation that benefits the 1st Assembly District, should she be elected Nov. 5.

Considering Dahle’s funding advantage, that may not be very likely, but it’s not impossible. Voter turn-out will be key. If all the registered Democrats and independents in the district voted for Betancourt, and all the registered Republicans voted for Dahle, the final tally would be Betancourt 127,000 votes, Dahle 116,000.

Betancourt says optimism is her finest quality. She’s going to need every last bit of it down the stretch.

“We here in California are part of a state, sometimes I think of it as a nation, that is so innovative,” she said. “We here in California are built on innovation. We are built on an expression of individuality that benefits the whole. As we move, again, into a climate-altered future, we have to start harnessing that innovation and incentivizing new ideas, to move to a future that’s beneficial for all of us.”

See? She is optimistic.

Let’s hope it’s infectious.

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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