Shame on Us! 

PGE Unplugs a Populist Movement

More than anywhere, Portland should have celebrated a power-to-the-people fairytale ending in the struggle for PGE ownership. Instead, the special election on Tuesday--a chance for citizens to own their electricity company--unfolded as expected, with a well-funded campaign crushing the hopes of a handful of ordinary residents.

Proponents of Measures 26-51 and 52 had hoped to form a People's Utility District (PUD) and to begin steps towards taking over PGE. As a corporate holding of Enron, PGE's future has been vague ever since Enron crashed into bankruptcy. PUD proponents had wanted to take advantage of this uncertainty and wrestle away ownership of the utility company. Los Angeles, Seattle and Eugene all have publicly-owned utility companies.

But in the end, PUD proponents ran up against a campaign than outspent them at a rate of $60 for every $1. That discrepancy seems to have made all the difference.

Even though the special election was only a limited, single-issue ballot, it gives a clear glimpse into the minds and actions of Portland's voters; namely, the outcome showed what function money plays in elections. Several recent studies have pointed out the troubling national trend that in the past five years, the better-funded candidate or concept almost invariably wins.

Portland was unable to buck that trend. Both the Mercury and the Willamette Week endorsed the measures. In addition, the Tribune and the Oregonian gave balanced reporting on the issues, showing the virtues for a publicly owned utility and denouncing the underhanded campaign by opponents.

Yet, in spite of favorable media coverage, PGE successfully blitzed voters with a record $2 million in TV ads and glossy mailings. Most of the ads used scare tactics, misleading voters to believe that property taxes as well as electricity bills would skyrocket--a claim roundly refuted.

The election also underscored widespread political apathy within Multnomah County. At press time, the county election division was reporting that less than 50 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.


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