While the Bush administration was drafting its national energy policy, a leading lobbyist for Enron Corp. was plotting strategy to turn the plan into a political weapon against Democrats, according to a newly obtained memo.
Edward Gillespie, who parlayed his close ties to the Bush White House into a lucrative contract representing the energy giant, warned that the administration faced "a classic liberal-conservative ... dynamic," which cast Republicans as the party of big business and enemies of the environment.
"Instead of picking the fight that has been picked for us, we should pick a new fight," said the confidential April 2001 memo, presented to energy companies and industry groups. The memo suggested the industry "change the dynamic by 'Carterizing' the Democrats" -- an allusion to the dour ex-president. "We need to make them the 'eat your peas' party." Gillespie's simultaneous lobbying and campaign strategizing underscore Enron's influence
in Washington before its collapse last year, as well as the way politics and policy often blur under the loophole-filled laws governing their combination.
Gillespie said he never shared his memo with the White House, and his thoughts on political strategy, offered in informal conversations with administration officials, were never taken.
But within weeks, Gillespie's recommendations surfaced in advertising promoting Bush's energy plan. One newspaper ad read, "Remember the 70s? Gas lines were long, rationing was in, Jimmy Carter was president and he told us to wear a sweater."
The ad was sponsored by a collection of conservative groups, operating as the 21st Century Energy Project. Gillespie was the group's director. Under the murky federal laws governing such "independent expenditure" campaigns, its funding source remains secret.
Last year, the energy industry gave well over $1 million in campaign contributions to members of the two major political parties. At the same time, hundreds of thousands more were spent on such independent expenditure campaigns, targeting environmentalists and Democratic foes of the administration, including California Gov. Gray Davis.
Republican Party officials, from the Bush administration down, have denied involvement. But two of the groups, the 21st Century Energy Project and the American Taxpayers Alliance, had ties to prominent GOP strategists.
Alex Castellanos, who produced ads for the American Taxpayer Alliance, created TV spots the Republican Party ran in 2000 against then-Vice President Al Gore.
Gillespie, of the 21st Century group, has more direct ties to the White House. He served as a top communications aide to Bush's presidential campaign, assisted in his inauguration and helped Commerce Secretary Don Evans set up his agency during the transition from the Clinton administration.
In January 2001, Gillespie's lobbying firm, Quinn Gillespie & Associates, was hired by Enron to press the company's case on tax and energy issues. The firm was paid $700,000 for a year's work.
"At the time my firm signed Enron as a client, they were on the cover of national magazines as one of the best-run companies in America," Gillespie said in an interview. "We had no idea about their financial arrangements or their business model."
Gillespie, a longtime GOP activist who was a key strategist in the party's 1994 takeover of Congress, was frustrated last spring at the political debate shaping up around Bush's national energy policy, then being drafted behind closed doors by Vice President Dick Cheney.
On April 10, Gillespie produced his four-page strategy memo. It was intended, he said, for energy companies and industry trade groups. He did not share the memo with Bush's political team or Cheney's energy task force, Gillespie said, but his sentiments were known from earlier conversations with White House officials.
"I didn't seek their approval or disapproval," he said. In fact, he added, the White House chose not to follow his strategy suggestions.
But Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), a leading foe of the
administration's energy plan, criticized Gillespie's behind-the-scenes activities. "Our nation's energy security is too important to be used as a political weapon," Waxman said. "It's unfortunate that one of the Bush administration's closest advisors urged that it be used exactly that way."
Waxman and other Democrats have pushed for details of Cheney's meetings last year with representatives of Enron and other companies as the vice president developed his energy policy. The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is preparing to file suit to obtain the documents. The Bush administration maintains that releasing the papers would
impede its ability to get candid advice.
In the memo, Gillespie anticipated the "roll-out" of Bush's energy plan and offered his ideas for ways to frame the debate in hopes of taking "the fight to Davis and the Washington Democrats."
"We can not underestimate the extent to which Democrats and liberal groups will respond to the administration's energy policy initiative," Gillespie wrote, forecasting a ferocity and intensity not yet seen by the administration. "The proposal could promise to meet future energy demands by harnessing wind and gerbils on treadmills and it would make no difference -- the gloves are coming off."
The memo suggested creating "a narrative about the liberals" to counter the notion that "Republicans are in the pocket of big business." To that end, Gillespie said, "We must make sure ... voters understand their use of their SUVs, microwave ovens and televisions are threatened."
Gillespie said in an interview that the energy companies and trade associations balked at his aggressive strategy. So instead, he turned to conservative groups, which adopted his suggestions and agreed to push the message under the banner of the 21st Century Energy Project. The group sought to recast the energy debate as a choice between abundance and austerity, just as Gillespie urged.
"If some on the left have their way," one newspaper advertisement read, "'soccer moms' will be forced to sell their minivans. They'll be a luxury only the elite can afford."
Last May, at a Washington news conference announcing the group's formation, one member said the 21st Century group planned to spend $500,000 on ads to counter "enviro-leftist propaganda." But Gillespie indicated the group never reached that financial goal.
"I struck out," he said, citing the energy companies' unwillingness "to engage in this debate and take on the environmental groups head-on."
Nine months after its unveiling, Bush's energy plan is still languishing in Congress.
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