Utility-Backed Republicans May Have Gerrymandered Against One Democrat

Patty Durand reached her tipping point in 2019, when Georgia’s Public Service Commission was considering a rate case that would have huge implications for energy bills for people in Georgia. Durand was president of an energy nonprofit in Atlanta, and the commission had invited her to present research on consumer support for various plans that would keep bills lower. Yet the PSC eventually approved a different rate plan, one supported by the state’s powerful investor-owned utility, Georgia Power, that raised power bills by an average of $6 per month.

“Georgia Power gets what Georgia Power wants,” Durand said. “I was outraged. I knew Georgia Power was gonzo for profit, but I didn’t know they’d harm vulnerable populations, and I didn’t know the PSC would allow it.”

Durand decided to run for office the next year, seeking to unseat PSC Commissioner Tim Echols, who had backed the Georgia Power-supported rate plan and was up for reelection in 2022. She launched her campaign in July 2021. Durand also moved into Gwinnett County, located in the district where she’d compete against Echols—a move she said she made for personal reasons, but one that allowed her to meet residency requirements for the election set by Georgia law.

But Durand seems to have underestimated the will of the PSC to keep utility critics out of the room where decisions are made—and the immense power of redistricting.

In late February of this year, regulators with the PSC released a new districting map, as part of Georgia’s larger redistricting effort following its census. Surprisingly, the map moved Gwinnett County, where Durand now lived, from District 2 to District 4, a significant change from the previous map that Durand and other critics say does not track with corresponding demographic changes. The change also meant that Durand no longer met the residency requirements.

While Republicans claimed that the changes were a necessary reflection of population shifts, Durand suspected that the map may have been manipulated to purposefully exclude her from the race. After a judge ruled her ineligible to run against Echols in District 2, she sued.

It seems that Durand may have been right. In text messages from January turned over to Durand’s lawyer, Echols and Commissioner Tricia Pridemore single out Durand’s new address as they discuss the new map. “Don’t forget to get her home address and send it to me please,” Pridemore texted Echols on January 26. Echols responded with Durand’s home address in Peachtree Corners.

“I believe I was targeted,” Durand said. “For a long time I was saying I believe I was targeted, but now I can prove it.”

While Echols denied to reporters in February that he looked at the district map before it was released, the text exchange from Pridemore also shows her sending him what looks to be an image of the newly redistricted map before it was made public.

“The only real reason to fiddle with the districts was to cut the candidate out of the race,” said Brionte McCorkle, executive director of the nonprofit Georgia Conservation Voters. “The population shift was not that pronounced. They did not have to go above and beyond to cut Patty out.”

Earther reached out to Echols and Pridemore for comment on the text messages but did not hear back.

For most voters, a public utilities commission election may be a race to hit the snooze button on. But the PSC has real power and includes some of the most influential policymakers for Georgia’s climate agenda. As in other states, officials like Echols and Pridemore are responsible for regulating investor-owned electric utilities that operate in Georgia—most notably, Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company that provides electric services for most of the state.

“These are the people who literally determine exactly how much every Georgia Power customer pays on their utility bill every month,” said Daniel Tait, a manager for the Energy and Policy Institute, a national utility watchdog group. “They have just as much if not more impact on the day-to-day lives of everyday Georgians than the vast majority of the races you see in national press.”

A screenshot of text messages between Tricia Pridemore and Tim Echols.

A screenshot of text messages between Tricia Pridemore and Tim Echols.
Image: Courtesy Patty Durand

Echols himself has gained a reputation among moderate progressives for his stance on net metering, or the process of utilities paying home solar users for the power they generate. In the years since first being elected to the PSC in 2010, Echols, who drives an electric vehicle, has been outspoken about the need for Georgia to have strong net metering policies that will help encourage the state’s solar industry and help consumers.

Critics like Durand and McCorkle, however, point out that in that 2019 power plan, Echols intervened to put a provision into a new net metering policy that capped the program at just 5,000 people—effectively hamstringing the policy for almost all of the state’s population of 10.5 million. The net metering program had already filled up to its cap by July of last year, effectively restricting the growth of new rooftop solar customers. (Echols did not respond to our request for comment on this policy and how it squares with his previous comments.)

“All the white moderates love him,” McCorkle said. “He’s literally like, I’m just going to talk about [net metering], and I’m not going to use any of my authority to create change.”

Across the country, state public service commissions have historically had close relationships with the utilities they regulate, and Georgia is no exception. During Pridemore’s last election cycle in 2018, her campaign received tens of thousands of dollars from entities connected to Georgia Power and its owner, Southern Company.

Patty Durand.

Patty Durand.
Photo: Greg Scott

Georgia Power has come under increasing fire in recent years for its mishandling of the Vogtle nuclear plant project, which is currently billions of dollars over its original budget and severely behind schedule. Critics, including Durand, have accused the PSC of being far too lax on the utility, allowing it to reap profits on the backs of ratepayers for the troubled project while ignoring their own staff’s recommendations.

In 2018, the Energy and Policy Institute published emails it had obtained via a public records request showing a close relationship between Echols and the utility. “Paul, not to get ahead of ourselves, but when we cut the ribbon for [Vogtle] Unit 3, I want to see the President of the United States holding the scissors, and you and me on each side of him,” Echols wrote to Georgia Power CEO Paul Bowers in December 2017.

“There’s a difference between having a cozy relationship with a company and people who work there, and being captured by the company and those interests,” Tait said. “The regulators are there to be a middle voice between the company and the ratepayers. What you see in states like Georgia is that the regulators do not see themselves as the arbiter of the two sides—they see themselves as the protector of the monopoly. There’s decision after decision that saddles the costs on the backs of ratepayers—but no decision, no burden is given to the Fortune 500 company.”

The PSC election rules are frustratingly opaque. The candidates themselves need to live in the specific district for at least a year before running in order to be eligible for candidacy in that district. However, any Georgian can vote for all commission candidates, regardless of where they live.

“It’s confusing to everybody,” said McCorkle. “It’s terrible—voters get to the polls, they say, I live in District 3, and they only vote in District 3, and it’s like, no, you can vote in all races.”

Making matters even more insulting to Durand, hers was not the only PSC residency challenge mounted this election cycle—and the outcome of the other challenge was quite different. The same judge who ruled Durand ineligible for her race allowed a separate candidate, Shelia Edwards, to proceed with her candidacy for District 3, despite Edwards not living that district either before or after the redistricting process.

As shocking as the text messages between Echols and Pridemore are, experts told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that this type of manipulation was likely not illegal. Meanwhile, Durand’s first trial has been set for late July. If Durand loses her lawsuit and is deemed ineligible for the general election, the state’s Democratic party will choose a nominee to run against Echols in the general—a move that would almost certainly guarantee him a win, since the challenger would have little time to mount a campaign against a deep-seated incumbent. Durand, who won the primary in May despite voter confusion over whether she was still on the ballot and continues to raise funds, would have a much better shot at besting Echols.

Tim Echols attends a campaign event for then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler in 2020.

Tim Echols attends a campaign event for then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler in 2020.
Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call (AP)

But Georgia Power “[doesn’t] want a critic that knows energy on the commission, and my opponent is their billion-dollar boy, as I call him,” Durand said of Echols. “He delivers for them, bigtime.”

Durand’s isn’t the only challenge to the way the PSC runs its elections. In 2020, McCorkle and a group of other plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that allowing all Georgians to vote for every PSC candidate dilutes votes in historically Black districts and violates the Voting Rights Act. The PSC’s voting process, McCorkle said, has effectively stifled Black representation: Only two Black commissioners have ever served on the PSC (both appointed by the governor, rather than voted into office), despite the fact that more than 30% of the state’s population is Black.

If she’s elected to the PSC, the types of issues Durand will be dealing with could make even energy reporters’ eyes glaze over: rate case petitions, concerns over buried utility facility infrastructure, reviewing residential electric rate surveys. But these decisions are incredibly important. Allowing the PSC to remain controlled by utility interests—and excluding the interests of people of color—has real ramifications for the bills Georgians see, as well as the future of how the state will handle clean energy.

“This is exhibit A of what has been happening for a long time,” Tait said. “It may not be illegal, but it definitely stinks to high heaven. In a state like Georgia that just flipped from red to blue, it’s all the more egregious that the second someone feels the threat of losing office, that they may not have felt decades past because it’s been a reliably red state, that they would go to this level of gerrymandering to make sure they don’t have a credible opponent.”