She Surprised Everybody

I don’t know that there has ever been a Georgia politician who has provided more surprises over the years than Angela Elizabeth Speir, who will soon be stepping down as a member of the Public Service Commission.

She came out of nowhere to defeat incumbent Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald, a familiar name in state politics, in the 2002 election. No one had ever heard of her, she didn’t raise any money in outside contributions and she ran a campaign so far under the radar as to be almost invisible. But she stunningly won by just over 7,000 votes.

That was the first surprise. The second one came after she took her seat on the regulatory agency that determines, among other things, the rates you pay for electricity and natural gas.

Speir was a deeply religious, devoutly conservative Republican when she won that statewide election. It was widely assumed that she would simply fall in lockstep with the pro-utility members of the PSC and rubberstamp any rate increase that Georgia Power and AGL requested.

To the surprise of the media – and the dismay of utility lobbyists – that did not happen. Speir became a diligent student of the complex issues that come before the PSC, reading through the thick stacks of documents and asking tough questions. She and another Reagan Republican, Commissioner Bobby Baker, consistently voted for the interests of working class families and small businesses rather than automatically granting whatever the utilities filed.

Speir took it a step further and spent several years trying to enact a rule that would end the practice of ex parte meetings – private meetings between commissioners and utility executives and lobbyists that frequently occurred during rate cases.

“The reason I proposed the ex parte rule is because the utility companies have a very strong presence here at the commission,” she said. “They have well-paid attorneys representing their interests. They contribute to their campaigns. They lobby the commissioners. The average citizen doesn’t have that presence here.”

Although Speir did not achieve everything she was shooting for, she finally succeeded in getting a watered-down version of her ex parte rule adopted in 2007.

Her pro-consumer stances earned her a lot of abuse from other PSC members. Commissioner Stan Wise, who’s tied so tightly to the utility lobbyists that you can almost see the rope marks on his wrists, was literally sputtering with rage when her ex parte rule was adopted and accused Speir and the media of being “leftists” who opposed free speech. Another commissioner filed open records demands for copies of Speir’s emails and phone calls, convinced that she was leaking embarrassing information to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

After a single term on the PSC, Speir announced she would not run again (ironically, McDonald is running to reclaim that seat on the commission). In a recent interview, she was vague about her future plans – she might work for a nonprofit organization, or maybe she’ll get involved with renewable energy causes.

Always well-dressed and immaculately groomed, Speir looked and sounded rather like a Sunday school teacher as she recounted the events of the last six years.

“I believed in myself, I believed that one person could make a difference,” Speir said. “I know my heavenly Father tells me in the Good Book, ‘with hard work all things are possible.’”

When Speir first considered running for the PSC in 2002, she met with a prominent GOP consultant who told her, “You cannot win a statewide campaign if you don’t have at least a quarter of a million dollars in the bank.”

“I thought it was important to have average Georgians run for office, not just those with a quarter million dollars,” she said. “I hope it encourages other people to look at running for public office and say, ‘Angela could do it without a war chest, maybe I can, too.’”

Pressed about her decision to leave the PSC rather than continue to speak up for the needs of middle-class Georgians, she said, “I prayed a lot about it. The Lord stirred my heart that it was not for me to stay here another six years. I feel like here in the narrow world of utility regulation, it’s like casting your net in a tidal pool rather than the ocean.

“I’m ready to move on to the ocean.”

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