During a recent campaign stop in San Francisco, Andrew Yang asked his rally audience who was responsible for the wildfires and blackouts in California.
“PG&E!” they yelled back.
“This is an emblem of what’s gone wrong in the United States,” said the entrepreneur and Democratic presidential candidate. “Our government has failed, capitalism is failing us, and it’s up to us to do better.”
Several candidates for the Democratic nomination are making their opinions known in California’s wildfire and blackout crisis. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has proposed a public takeover of investor-owned Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California said the federal government needs to improve its disaster response.
Yang thinks beefing up the U.S. Forest Service is part of the answer.
Typically, presidential candidates tread cautiously into local issues. But in this case, the political calendar is hyping their interest. California is home to roughly 1 in 5 delegates needed to capture the nomination, and early voting here begins the same day as the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses.
As Yang’s rally audience showed, Californians are pointing candidates at a villain. A Change Research survey this month showed that 61 percent of respondents viewed PG&E unfavorably — a level of antipathy that is shared across party lines.
Here are some ideas the top Democratic candidates are proposing:
Public takeover of PG&E: Sanders suggested the most fundamental change. He wants to replace the investor-owned utility — which is going through bankruptcy proceedings — with municipally and cooperatively owned utilities.
“It is time to begin thinking about public ownership of major utilities,” Sanders said. “The people of California are suffering because of the greed and corruption of utility corporations and their executives.”
Sanders said the impact of the company’s actions resonated with him after he visited Paradise, the Butte County city destroyed last year by a fire that PG&E’s equipment ignited. Sanders pointed to how a federal judge railed at the utility for not spending enough to trim trees and perform maintenance work while distributing billions to its shareholders.
“PG&E pumped out $4.5 billion in dividends and let the tree budget wither,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup said in April at a probation hearing related to PG&E’s deadly 2010 gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is allied with Sanders on many progressive causes, has largely steered clear of this one. She did tweet that shutting off power “will be enormously costly to local economies and dangerous for vulnerable populations.”
The takeover idea hasn’t caught on with the public yet. Only 30 percent of Californians backed a public takeover of PG&E, while 40 percent supported breaking up the utility into smaller, regional entities, according to the Change Research survey of 2,605 likely general election voters. The margin of error was 1.9 percentage points.
Improve the state’s electrical grid: Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar proposed improving California’s antiquated electrical grid as part of a national $1 trillion infrastructure upgrade. Former Vice President Joe Biden also includes California grid improvements as part of his $1.7 trillion infrastructure plan.
Harris, too, puts grid modernization in a climate plan that aims to raise $10 trillion through a public-private partnership. She said this week that she will introduce Senate legislation soon to mitigate wildfire damage. She also pointed a finger at PG&E, saying that “years of poor planning and misplaced priorities” by the company and other utilities were making wildfire danger worse.
More money for the U.S. Forest Service: “This might not sound very sexy,” Yang said Sunday in San Francisco as he proposed quintupling the agency’s budget so it can better maintain forests that have become tinderboxes. “We are only maintaining less than 10 percent of the national forests in the way that experts say we should be,” Yang said. “As the Earth has gotten warmer, it has turned our national forests and trees around the country into, essentially, tinderboxes. Essentially, wildfires waiting to happen.”
Part of that budget increase, Yang said, would pay for upgrading the Forest Service’s technology with “heat sensors and drones with fire retardant materials.”
“We need to sic technology on our forests in a way that would keep us safer and make it so you can live your lives without having to worry about wildfires or rolling blackouts or PG&E and this nonsense,” Yang said.
Improve the federal disaster response: As the lone California officeholder in the race, Harris has been working on trying to improve the response to wildfires from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She pointed to a report this month by the Government Accountability Office that said FEMA had “onerous documentation requirements” for people who have lost their homes in disasters and are seeking disaster relief.
This year, she helped to persuade FEMA to fund micro electrical grids and other clean-energy resources that communities could use during mass blackouts.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., also is focusing on the federal disaster response, promising to form a disaster commission within his first 100 days in office. Its goal, he said, would be to “streamline aid and recovery processes so that people who lose their houses and belongings will not have to navigate a bureaucratic maze in order to pick up their lives again.”
Addressing climate change: Several Democrats have proposed far-reaching, expensive plans to address climate change. Sanders has proposed the biggest spend — a $16.3 trillion climate plan aimed at achieving “complete decarbonization” by 2050. It would include a $40 billion fund to help “under-resourced groups” deal with climate change.
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