MACLEOD PAPPIDAS | THE DAILY WORLD
Outgoing Grays Harbor PUD Commissioner Tom Casey in front of a wall displaying the photos of past commissioners. He has held the position for the past 30 years.
Tom Casey may be officially “retiring” as a 30-year Grays Harbor PUD commissioner at the end of the month, but he’s also looking for a job at the same time – seeking at the age of 61 the next challenge for a self-described “public power Jedi.”
In a wide-ranging interview a week before his final meeting at the PUD this Monday, Casey acknowledged he’d like to be considered for the upcoming vacant general manager’s post for the district he served since 1982.
“Sure, how could I not think about it,” the departing five-term commissioner said of the top PUD job that is open because of the coming retirement of current General Manager Rick Lovely.
Should he be asked to consider the job, Casey showed no hesitation in answering the question: “I’d do it.”
On Friday, the PUD will honor Casey with a reception from 2-6 p.m. at the district’s Nichols Building Meeting Room, 220 Myrtle St. in Hoquiam.
Casey came to the PUD largely through his initial activism with the group Crabshell Alliance in opposition to the nuclear power project once planned for what is now the Satsop Business Park by what was then known as the Washington Public Power Supply System.
At the time in the mid-1970s, Casey had been working in Olympia as a non-partisan policy analyst for the House of Representatives after leaving college at Western Washington University and Grays Harbor College before that.
“On June 2, 1973, I went on the on-ramp in Bellingham with my thumb stuck out and headed for Olympia,” Casey recalled of leaving Western two weeks short of graduation with a major in political science. “I was out of school and hated school.”
Growing up in East Grays Harbor County, Casey had been inspired by his Grays Harbor College political science teacher, Peter Dufour, a former Aberdeen City Councilman and lobbyist for the Washington Education Association.
“He didn’t actually teach political science, he taught politics,” Casey recalled. “He used simulations and really got us into understanding how decisions are made … and the importance of persuasion and argument and the dynamics of all that.”
“It was one of those game-changers for me,” Casey said.
He got involved in the unsuccessful Democratic campaign to elect George McGovern president in his losing effort against Richard Nixon in 1972. He also began to help campaign for congressional and state candidates as well.
Casey fondly recalls sitting around a table as a long-haired college kid with powerful U.S. Sen. Warren G. Magnuson on the other side.
“Someone was making a presentation and they all start talking back and forth, and Maggie in the middle of it all says, ‘Sixty percent of the kids in this nation have never seen a dentist’s chair. What the hell are we going to do about that?’
“I just went, wow, that’s what an elected official does.”
Such blunt outspokenness has defined Casey’s style in local politics or on the more complicated regional stage of public power policy. He says what’s on his mind and accepts the consequences.
“You’re not supposed to be everybody’s favorite uncle,” Casey said.
Casey traces his family to the Willis clan that largely settled in East Grays Harbor County and to Irish-American Caseys who originally came to America with the English to Jamestown on the first supply ship.
“The whole Brady bottom is full of my blood,” he said of the area around Brady. “And the Caseys came here over 100 years ago into McCleary.”
Most of the family members were Democrats, and Casey said the family tradition was based on Jeffersonian politics.
“We were orators and preachers and trial lawyers or politicians,” he said of his ancestors.
When Tom got out of high school, his father Carl and grandfather both told him they did not want the young man to go into military service.
“My father was a quiet man himself, but loved words,” Casey recalled. “I told him I was thinking of joining the service, and he just said, ‘The hell you are. You’re not going to go die for a bunch of political bull … You’ll go to Canada, you’ll go to prison, but you ain’t going to go over there.’”
Here was a decorated Navy combat veteran telling his son to essentially violate the law and refuse to accept compulsory military service because of the draft. Over Casey’s years of service as a PUD commissioner, he likewise has been known to wade through often paradoxical power issues in similar fashion.
“My style has never been to have an obligatory position,” he said. “It always pisses everybody off because I’m not in anyone’s camp.”
There is his determination to stand up against efforts by investor utilities to take away the cheaper preference power supplied by the Bonneville Power Administration to public utilities, or his advocacy for public power rights on the boards of Energy Northwest, the Washington PUD Association (WPUDA), the national American Public Power Association or in lobbying other PUD’s to band together over common issues. He recently was an advocate for the failed effort to create a new PUD in Thurston County.
As longtime member of the Satsop Public Development Authority board, he also cast the lone vote against the upcoming merger of the business park with the Port of Grays Harbor.
Last week, he was honored as the 2012 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award for WPUDA.
The award recognized Casey for “exceptional leadership and dedication to the ideals and principles of the association and the philosophy and purpose of public power.”
Fellow PUD Commissioner Russ Skolrood paid personal tribute to Casey at the last regular commissioner meeting, where Casey was presiding as president.
“After four years (as a commissioner), I don’t understand how you made it 30,” Skolrood said. “That’s quite an achievement and I don’t think your passion has changed. It doesn’t matter if people agree with you or disagree with you, you have always been true to your word. That’s something I won’t forget.”
Casey acknowledged it’s nice to get the recognition: “I don’t take compliments well and I’m a good clown, but I don’t like to be falsely modest. I’m really happy to get it and I’m not going to pretend it’s not a big deal. It’s a big deal to me.”
Commissioner Dave Timmons told Casey he could not think of another person “who has spoken as often and as loud as you about our rights in public power.”
“I hope you’re still in the field somewhere,” Timmons said.
As a member of the Crabshell Alliance, Casey worked doggedly to stop the WPPSS project at Satsop, which ultimately ended as the lagrest municipal bond default ($2.25 billion) in U.S. history.
As a policy analyst, he specialized in agricultural issues, but he always was interested in grass roots politics.
“My job was to help politicians understand what their vote meant or what their idea meant in terms of policy and the affect on people,” Casey explained.
Mostly, Casey grew up in the Matlock area and never strayed too far.
“I wanted to go home. I really wanted to live on my ranch and do something with it,” Casey said, acknowledging the “place is a mess.”
So he headed home and got involved with Grays Harbor Crabshell, which took local control over the battle against the WPPSS projects already under construction.
Looking out over the Fuller Hill site of the now-abandoned twin nuclear towers, Casey points out the very clearing where he and 140 other anti-nuke protesters were arrested back in the 1970s.
“I was an organizer, a kind of shadowy figure, you might say,” he acknowledges.
The plan after their arrest for criminal trespassing was to put the nuclear power industry on trial.
“We were bringing in the big guns,” he said. The intent was to admit to breaking the law as part of a necessity defense “to prevent a greater harm.”
“The idea was to have a big publicity trial and just create bad publicity for nuclear power in general,” Casey said.
Though he now supports nuclear power as an alternative to fossil-fuel power production, Casey argues he hasn’t had a change of positions. He said he was against WPSSS plants 1, 3, 4 and 5 because of the impact on the ratepayer not on safety or other issues. Plant No. 3, he contends, likely would have been needed and could have lessened the reliance on gas-powered plants to supplement hydro power.
“Throughout that process, I learned right away that we cannot win on the public safety or environmental issues. These guys have a good argument here, and they were pretty persuasive for me,” Casey said of how he framed his opposition to WPPSS.
“The much more salient argument was, these things aren’t going to pay for themselves,” he said.
In the early 80s, Casey began to see “the baby in the bathwater” with the PUD. He said it was his idea to take the WPPSS activism and move it to a new arena, first by sponsoring Lois Powell for a successful run for PUD Commissioner in 1980, and then when Casey himself was elected in 1982. He ran for an open seat and beat a candidate from the Irate Ratepayers group, then won re-election four consecutive times to the six-year terms.
“Grays Harbor has always had a very strong populist bent,” Casey said to explain his success at the polls. “We don’t trust centralized power, whether it’s government or the corporate world.”
Casey’s pre-PUD battles had been with a feisty foe in Jack Welch, a PUD commissioner from 1970-80. Although they were on opposite sides of the WPPSS issue, the two shared rides in Welch’s El Camino to and from Olympia.
“He was trying to do the right thing. He believed the people who supported the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam had done the right thing, and the people who supported the unique partnership in the construction of the Centralia coal plant had done the right thing,” Casey said of Welch.
Welch thought the nuclear plants would have had “social value over the very long term, and I think he was right,” Casey now says.
The idea back then was that if the PUD didn’t grow the power supply system beyond BPA’s hydro production, the investor utilities would eventually erode the PUDs’ historic right of preference to the cheaper federally produced electricity.
“My dying message to everyone is choose to fight,” Casey said of what he learned from those battles. “You cannot compromise with these bastards.”
Casey calls it “the secret war that has always gone on” to chip away at the rights of public utilities. Added up over the years, he estimates more than $10 million has been lost in the fight to preserve preference power.
In 2007, the PUD and other consumer-owned utilities won a victory when the Ninth Circuit Court ruled BPA had violated the law by entering into agreements with investor-owned utilities that increased annual payments from $48 million to more than $400 million. The court ordered BPA to go back and recalculate the payments following the law, resulting in a determination that consumer-owned utilities were owed in excess of $760 million for past overcharges, a portion of which were refunded in 2008. Grays Harbor PUD received $5 million cash, which was returned to ratepayers in December of 2008 as a credit on energy charges.
“When we fight, we protect ourselves and we keep our money,” he contends. “When we don’t fight, they take our money. That is the pattern before I was around, while I was around, and after I am gone.”
Casey would like other PUD commissioners around the state to stand up for the cause of maintaining cheap public power.
“Washington state public utility district commissioners are the avant garde. They are the Jedi knights of public power,” Casey declared. “If those Jedis were to re-arise, if those PUD commissioners were to wake up and understand what their role is and that they are a sleeping lion, how easy they could simply win these battles.”
The retirements of Casey and Lovely will certainly leave some holes to fill in PUD leadership. While Lovely and Casey would appear to approach public power issues from opposite points of view — Lovely the engineer and Casey the populist advocate — they have come to have a great deal of respect and admiration for each other.
“Tom is extremely passionate about the value of PUDs to their communities,” Lovely said. “Tom strongly believes that public power must become more aggressive. He believes that we often ‘bring a knife to a gun fight.’”
Lovely has spent his past 13 years as a general manager under Casey, and three years before that as a PUD engineer.
“I highly respect and admire Tom for his steadfast resolve to struggle and fight for what is in the best interest of Grays Harbor PUD, even when this sets him at odds with others,” Lovely said.
Casey advocated recently for a higher capital budget than what PUD commissioners ultimately accepted in the $7.5 million spending plan for 2013. “That’s reliability and safety, and that’s our core mission,” he said of a capital plan he felt should have been significantly higher, even if it meant higher rates in the short term.
Casey also defends the commission’s decision to raise rates by 8 percent: “We simply have to raise more money to maintain the system. It ain’t rocket science.”
As for his job prospects, Casey says he “is available professionally and I would like to spend full time designing and managing a well-thought-out, effective level of activity that would be far more successful than what we have had in the past.” That could involve a method of pooling together resources of consumer-owned utilities throughout the Northwest to “win these battles and keep money in ratepayers’ pockets,” he suggests as one likely job scenario. He’s also looking at possibly doing work again for the state House or Senate.
“Building a team, that’s a dream of mine,” he said. A more uncertain dream job would be the one that Lovely is leaving.
“I’m not going to make a run at it,” he cautions. “My default isn’t all that bad. My default is to just stay home at the ranch (on Boundary Road along the Grays Harbor-Mason County line) and open up more ground, smooth things out, make the place look nice and make it produce nice. How many people get to do that in their life?”
Should he not be considered for the position, Casey’s legacy at the PUD still is secure.
“I think I’m really good at breaking down barriers,” he said. “That’s something I just have a natural ability to do. I’m a Harbor native. There’s just something about our chemistry that makes us different.”