PHOENIX — Democrats won’t get a free seat this year on the Arizona Corporation Commission.
Preliminary results show that Jim O’Connor has gotten enough write-in votes to qualify for a slot as a Republican in the November general election.
O’Connor needed 6,663 people to remember his name when they filled out their ballots, the number of signatures he would have needed to get nominated for the primary. Results from just Maricopa County, where early ballots already have been tallied, show he picked up more than 20,000.
Justin Olson, the lone Republican on the five-member panel who is not up for reelection this year, said this is about more than keeping the panel that regulates utilities firmly in GOP hands. Republicans already have a 4-1 edge, with Sandra Kennedy as the lone Democrat but three others vying for the three open seats.
What’s really at stake with having a full GOP slate, Olson told Capitol Media Services, is the chance to finally require electric companies to compete for business.
The unusual election situation of having to promote O’Connor’s name ID came about after a judge ruled that incumbent Boyd Dunn did not have sufficient valid signatures on his nominating papers. That came after a campaign worker admitted in court that she had forged some of the names.
Contenders Nick Myers and Kim Owens also had their names removed from the ballot; Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Mesa, who also was in the hunt, withdrew his name from consideration after a challenge was mounted to his petition signatures.
That left only Marquez Peterson and Sloan to run against three Democrats: Bill Mundell, who actually served for a decade on the commission as a Republican until 2009; Anna Tovar, a former lawmaker who currently is mayor of Tolleson; and Shea Stanfield.
Olson said that led to his efforts to get enough people to write in O’Connor’s name on Republican ballots to get him on the November ballot.
“Many thought it could not be done,’’ he said. Olson said it was a combination of going to Republican district meetings, social media posts and other grassroots efforts.
All that goes to his goal of deregulation.
To this point, only Olson and Chairman Bob Burns have been the chief proponents of electric competition. The two other Republicans, Dunn and Lea Marquez Peterson, have not made a commitment. Meanwhile, Burns is retiring; Marquez Peterson, appointed by Gov. Doug Ducey, is seeking a term of her own.
Olson said he believes that O’Connor, whom he helped recruit for the write-in campaign, will provide that crucial third vote.
“We are short one vote in order to move forward with enabling competition within our energy markets,’’ Olson said. “I think it’s entirely appropriate for ratepayers to choose who’s going to provide electric services to their home or their businesses.’’
Arizona regulators actually adopted rules in the 1990s designed to govern a deregulated market. It was abandoned in part amid questions of whether it really would lower bills across the board or only for customers whose use was large enough for them to be able to negotiate better rates.
Olson said since that time other states have moved forward. And he said their experience can provide a model for use in Arizona.
His poster child is Texas where he said rates between 2008 and 2018 fell by 20 percent. By comparison, Olson said, rates went up by that much in Arizona.
There also is more competition among generators, with less need to build utility-scale fossil-fueled power plants.
His plan, however, that Eric Sloan, the other Republican on the November ticket, goes along with deregulation.
“I would want to see the evidence that this would make the rates more affordable,’’ Sloan said.
But there’s also a constitutional issue.
In 2004 the state Court of Appeals struck down those commission rules.
The judges said the Arizona Constitution empowers the commission to set “just and reasonable rates.’’ They concluded that the commission’s rules were an abdication of that responsibility.
Olson has said he believes it is possible to craft competition rules that don’t run afoul of the constitution.