Jan 22 2014

Stuck in Lodi, again

Published by at 10:50 am under Carlson

carlson CHRIS
CARLSON

 
Carlson
Chronicles

Somewhere I lost connections/
Ran out of songs to play. . . .
Oh, Lord, stuck in Lodi again.

–Creedence Clearwater

Despite many folks citing principles, values and service to their community as reasons for participating in politics, one of the more direct reasons is related to pure self-interest: a job derived from political connections.

It’s called political “patronage.” It is not nearly as pervasive as in the days that Boss Tweed dominated New York City or the Daley machine ruled Chicago, but it is still a major element in our system’s form of government.

Lawyers get involved in politics not always for altruistic reasons, but rather because governors and senators either outright make or exert influence on the selection of judges, for example. Or a governor and an attorney general will get together to decide who might represent the state in workman’s comp cases.

When presidential Administrations change, there’s always a bevy of lawyers who see the next U.S. Attorney when they look in the mirror in the morning. Or a county sheriff sees the next U.S. Marshall. Or a farmer sees the next state director for the Farm Services Administration.

One of the most powerful and influential but little known “patronage” positions in the pacific northwest is the Administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, the entity that manages and markets the enormous amounts of electricity generated by some 30 federally built and operated dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

The Administrator oversees the agency’s 3200 employees, and has a $3 billion annual budget paid from the revenues it receives for the power it markets, with a significant component of that budget being an annual payment to the Treasury to pay down the debt incurred in the building of the hydro system, the lines for transmission, and a mandated commitment to enhance the region’s threatened salmon and steel head runs.

Historically, there has been an unofficial practice regarding this post. The senior senator from the northwest’s senatorial delegation of the party in the White House “selects” the administration’s nominee who does have to go before the full Committee on Interior and Insular affairs for confirmation by the full Senate.

When an Administration changes, the administrator resigns. If the administrator leaves mid-term, then the lead rotates to that party’s next in seniority senator. This “patronage,” like all, has produced some fine executives as well as some turkeys.

Among the eagles that did well were folks like former famous Con Ed chairman Charles Luce (1961 to 1966), championed by both of Washington states’ “gold dust” twins, Senators Warren Magnuson and Scoop Jackson; Don Hodel (1972-1977) who went on to become a Secretary of Energy. Oregon Senator Mark Hatfield and Alaska Senator Ted Stevens were Hodel’s patrons.

Idaho Senator James McClure’s turn came in 1981 when Ronald Reagan was elected president. McClure sponsored Boise’s Trust Joist executive Peter Johnson who served until 1986. Johnson received mixed reviews because expectations of working with the newly formed Northwest Power Planning Council to get more things done on behalf of the fish, the river and the entire basin’s ecosystem were unrealistically high.

While many of the region’s power players may disagree with this assessment, one turkey has to be the second longest serving administrator, Steve Wright, who served from 2002 to 2013. Only BPA’s fourth administrator, Paul Raven, who served from 1939 to 1954, had a longer tenure. Wright’s senatorial sponsor was Washington State’s senior senator, Patty Murray.

As the expression goes, Wright got out while the getting was good, and landed the lucrative position of executive director of the Chelan PUD, with a salary rumored to be $250,000 a year.

Ironically, what Wright should be held accountable for, but for which his successor. Bill Drummond (a potential eagle) took the fall on, was an effort allegedly discriminating against veterans applying for a civil service post in the agency. In other words, despite 11 years in the saddle, he botched playing the patronage game.

Wright also has been implicated in a charge of trying to suppress a whistle-blower. Another member of Wright’s staff has taken the fall on that one. Both actions are reportedly being examined by the Energy Department’s Inspector General and the Oregonian has a reporting team continuing to dig.

Not to worry though, folks. Its Oregon Senator Ron Wyden’s turn. He is reportedly backing acting administrator Eliot Mainzer to replace Drummond. And just because Mainzer came to BPA in 2002 from Enron should not be cause for pause. Or should it?

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