The outcome of several key races on next week’s ballot could turn on how Arizonans feel about their utility company — especially if its Arizona Public Service.
Officially, the only race in which APS is directly involved, at least to date, is its high-dollar effort to quash an initiative that would force it and other utilities to generate half of their power from renewable sources by 2030. At last count the utility had spent more than $30 million against Proposition 127.
Recent polls suggest all that spending may be paying off, even with Prop. 127 proponents pretty much matching the utility dollar for dollar.
But the fact that Arizonans aren’t willing to back a proposal by a California billionaire to amend the state constitution does not mean people are happy with APS. And that has implications in both the race for Arizona Corporation Commission and the attorney general.
Political consultant Chuck Coughlin of HighGround said he saw that firsthand recently at a meeting of East Valley women who are active in politics when the subject of Prop. 127 came up.
“The vitriol about APS in the room was more than palpable,” he said.
Coughlin said many of the women agreed that the initiative was a bad idea.
“ ‘But APS has been screwing us for a long time, they’re bad people,’ ” he recalled of the comments. “It was pretty remarkable to watch this.”
Coughlin said the differentiation that the people were making there is reflected in data his firm has collected statewide that show Prop. 127 is going to be defeated.
But that anti-APS feeling is spilling into other races, including the bid by Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Republican, for another four-year term.
“Brnovich was taking some heat,” Coughlin said. And he said anyone perceived to be a friend of the utility “is vulnerable.”
Brnovich, for his part, has sought to distance himself from the money that APS parent Pinnacle West Capital Corp. has given to the Republican Attorneys General Association which, in turn, spent big four years ago and again this year to get him elected. Brnovich said he does not control what RAGA solicits nor how it spends its cash.
But ads taken out by the Prop. 127 organizers have sought to tie Brnovich to the utility after his office reworded the description of the measure that voters will see on the ballot with words that could arguably be considered designed to sway sentiment against it. It did not help Brnovich that, within days, the APS-financed anti-127 campaign was using his added language in its commercials.
So intent are Prop. 127 organizers to taint Brnovich with APS that one of its commercials even overlays NASCAR-style APS logos all over the attorney general’s suit.
The other key campaign where feelings about APS could have some impact is in the race for two seats on the Arizona Corporation Commission.
It already played a role in the defeat of incumbent Tom Forese in the Republican primary.
Part of that is public anger over rate hikes approved last year by the commission and complaints by customers, forced into new rate plans, that they were lied to about the extent of the increases. Those complaints have forced the commission to reopen the issue.
Forese also had the taint of APS from his 2014 election when the utility would neither confirm nor deny it was the source of $3.2 million spent by “dark money” organizations to elect him and fellow Republican Doug Little.
Little has since quit, with Gov. Doug Ducey appointing Justin Olson to the post.
Olson now is making it a point to tell voters that he was not on the commission when the rate hike was approved. And he has taken an active role in the current hearings about whether to alter the controversial rate structure.
He and fellow Republican Rodney Glassman, who defeated Forese in the GOP primary, also have vowed to do something else: support a bid by Commissioner Bob Burns to force APS to open up its books to divulge all of the company’s political spending.
But Olson has taken heat for using talking points prepared by APS in his conversation with Wall Street investors. And that creates an opportunity for at least one of the two Democrats — Sandra Kennedy and Kiana Sears — to get elected to the utility regulatory panel.
Glassman also has taken pains to insulate himself against anti-APS sentiment.
He has promised not to take money from any regulated utility. And Glassman wants the commission to adopt the same code of conduct that applies to judges, a code that would keep regulators from deciding on issues involving those who have contributed to their campaigns.
Glassman said he, too, has seen the anger at APS on the campaign trail.
“The No. 1 question I get is, ‘Are you taking money from APS?’ ” he said. In fact Glassman, running as a team with Olson, said he is considering putting disclaimers on his campaign signs saying it is not funded by any utility — or “any out-of-state billionaire,” a reference to the money that Tom Steyer, the financier of Prop. 127, has put into electing Kennedy and Sears.
Pollster Mike Noble of OH Predictive Insights said his company did some market research about five months ago about Salt River Project, the other electric utility in the Phoenix area, surveying Maricopa County residents on their attitudes toward their electric companies — both SRP and APS.
In both cases, Noble said, he found the positive support for the utilities in the 80-plus percent range.
He acknowledged the questions, asked before the political campaigns got into full swing, were not about politics but instead more “brand awareness.” But Noble said it’s not surprising that customers generally have good feelings for the people who supply their electrons.
“It’s power,” he said. “They like it unless it’s not on.”
Noble acknowledged that the results may not reflect the views of the “politically active” who tend to show up at meetings like the one Coughlin attended. But he said the survey got a broad enough cross section to reflect the views of people who will be going to the polls.