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    Utility executive contributions surge in Minnesota state senate race


    August 1, 2022 - Earth and Policy Institute

     

      Out-of-state utility interests with a history of obstructing climate and clean energy legislation joined with Xcel Energy executives to pump tens of thousands of dollars into a Minnesota state senate race on behalf of first-time Republican candidate Kathleen Fowke – the wife of former Xcel Chairman and CEO Ben Fowke.

      Of the $87,760 in individual and lobbyist contributions that Fowke has raised since announcing her run for Senate District 45 earlier this year, $63,100 came from donors with ties to the utility industry, most of whom live and work outside of Minnesota, according to an Energy and Policy Institute analysis of a campaign financereport made public last week. Only 27 of the 120 itemized individual and lobbyist contributions appear unrelated to the utility or energy industries. Forty-two utility-affiliated donors gave $1,000 apiece, the state-mandated maximum.

      Factoring in a $100,000 loan she made to her campaign and other contributions, Fowke, a realtor, has $135,747 on hand – the most money banked of any Minnesota senate candidate in a high-stakes election year when every state-level seat is up for grabs. The candidate with the second-most cash on hand is Fowke’s opponent, Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) candidate Kelly Morrison, with $115,838. Morrison, a physician, has served two terms in the Minnesota House, where she is a member of the House Climate Action Caucus and has led on environmental policy.

      The District 45 senate seat is open after redistricting shuffled the field and is considered a swing district that candidates from both parties have a shot at winning. Minnesota is the only state with a divided legislature, with Republicans controlling the Senate and DFLers controlling the House, sharpening the focus on tight races. The stakes are also high for utilities, since legislators set policies and determine the scope for regulations that guide utilities’ operations and bottom line.

      Money traces to large polluting utilities

      Fowke’s campaign finance reads like a who’s-who of executives from utility giants.

      The biggest benefactors include Xcel Energy, whose executives and their spouses along with the utility’s lobbyists have given a combined $24,500. Xcel is trailed by NextEra Energy, a Florida-based energy company whose executives have funneled $17,350 into Fowke’s coffers. NextEra is based in Florida but has developed wind projects in Minnesota. It also has a reputation for interfering in state politics to sink consumer-friendly clean energy policy, leading to a series of recent scandals.

      Last week, reporters revealed NextEra subsidiary Florida Power & Light (FPL) secretly took control of a Florida news site to promote the company’s narrative. FPL CEO Eric Silagywho gave Fowke $1,000personally instructed others to target a prominent state senator and FPL critic pushing for increased access to rooftop solar. “I want you to make his life a living hell … seriously,” Silagy wrote in an email made public last week.

      In perhaps an even more brazen attempt to interfere in state politics, FPL executives – including Silagy – were closely connected to a state election scandal that involved recruiting and funding sham candidates to siphon votes away from incumbent Democrats who fought the utility’s efforts to dismantle rooftop solar policy. Silagy personally communicated with consultants leading the effort, and appears to have personally directed money to the dark money groups funding the scheme.

      Also appearing on Fowke’s donor list are executives from a number of other utility giants: American Electric Power, Alliant Energy, Ameren, Dominion Energy, DTE Energy, Edison International, and more. All of these corporations are influential in state politics where they operate, and have significant fossil fuel portfolios – assets they have sought to protect and invest in, despite mounting calls from scientists, policymakers, and the public to increase investments in renewable energy and electrification.

      Though Fowke’s campaign platform includes some general language about energy issues – including calls to be “energy independent” and for a “cleaner future” – it is short on specifics. But Fowke has made clear her ties to Xcel, which is routinely among Minnesota’s biggest lobbying forces and a reliable donor to Minnesota Republicans who block clean energy and climate legislation. On her campaign Facebook page in June, Fowke touted a “great meeting with Xcel” and included a photo that appears to show her husband along with Xcel lobbyist John Marshall. It also features the daughter of another Xcel executive, Tony Gagliardo.

      Image via Kathleen Fowke for Minnesota Senate District 45 on Facebook

      Some of the donors listed in Fowke’s campaign finance documents are former utility executives who are now retired. The list also includes some executives’ spouses. In certain cases, donors – including current Xcel Chairman and CEO Bob Frenzel – erroneously listed themselves as “self-employed” in the campaign finance documents.

      In addition to utility executives, Fowke’s campaign finance report lists more than a dozen contributions from staff at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the trade association for investor-owned utilities where Ben Fowke formerly served as chairman. EEI is known for leading anti-clean energy, anti-consumer campaigns on behalf of its utility members. This includes a sophisticated lobbying operation and a litigation campaign against the EPA to stop it from regulating air pollution.

      Two years ago, EEI hosted a “campaign institute” for dozens of utility lobbyists and executives, including from companies that appear on Fowke’s campaign finance report, to learn how to run winning political campaigns. The weeklong event used case studies highlighting controversial tactics that utilities have used to defeat clean energy policies, and reinforced an adversarial dynamic with those who want utilities to decarbonize amid a worsening climate crisis.

      Since then, EEI has opposed utility shutoff moratoriums designed to prevent utilities from disconnecting customers who couldn’t afford their bills during the pandemic.

      Fowke’s campaign finance report indicates her campaign paid $1,235 to hold a fundraiser at the Ritz Carlton Grande Lakes in Orlando, FL in June – during the same period when EEI held a meeting for its member utilities at another hotel in the same complex, a two-minute walk away. That day, Fowke posted on her campaign Facebook page that she was “talking with energy leaders around the country” with a photo that shows her speaking to several people wearing EEI conference badges, including EEI President Tom Kuhn and Brian Wolff, EEI’s chief strategy officer and executive vice president for policy and external affairs. DTE Energy Chairman Gerard Anderson is also pictured. Each of the three gave Fowke $1,000.

      Image via Kathleen Fowke for Minnesota Senate District 45 on Facebook

      In response to a series of questions from the Energy and Policy Institute, Fowke emailed the following statement:

      I am proud to be supported by the U.S. electric utility industry. The sector has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by over 40% since 2005 and has remarkable plans to do even more over the next decade all while keeping our energy affordable and reliable. As Senator, I will advocate for common sense energy policies that advance environmental goals while keeping energy affordable and reliable for Minnesotans.

      That statement hewed closely to EEI’s talking points. Fowke did not address the campaign fundraiser in Orlando.

      Climate leadership hangs in the balance

      For several years, Minnesota’s Senate Republicans have held up progress on a range of issues – this year ending the legislative session with little movement on anything, leaving the state’s multibillion-dollar record surplus unspent. Among the bills senators refused to pass was a bipartisan energy bill that included tens of millions of dollars for weatherization and clean energy. The dynamic is familiar; the DFL-controlled House has consistently put forward climate and clean energy measures that stall out in the Republican-controlled Senate.

      Morrison – whom Fowke is running against – has served two terms in the House. In that time, she has been chief author of legislation that would have set a higher renewable energy standard for electric utilities and authored omnibus bills that include millions of dollars in funding for clean energy projects. Morrison has championed environmental causes throughout her political career, earning endorsements from environmental groups including the Sierra Club’s Minnesota chapter, Clean Water Action, Conservation Minnesota, and the Boundary Waters Action Fund.

      Fowke’s social media accounts indicate she has been involved in Republican politics for several years, and was an alternate delegate at the party’s convention in Cleveland. Her personal Twitter account, which was deleted soon after the Energy and Policy Institute asked Fowke about its contents, was filled with praise for Donald Trump. The Republican Party of Minnesota previously posted a picture of Fowke dining with Donald Trump Jr., Trump advisor Kimberly Guilfoyle, ousted Minnesota GOP leader Jennifer Carnahan, and pro-Trump Republican activist Sheri Auclair.

      Image via the Minnesota Republican Party on Twitter


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