PSC Candidates 100217

Interim PSC Commissioner Damon Baldone, left, Dr. Craig Greene, middle, and former state Rep. Lenar Whitney, right, attended the Press of Baton Rouge on Monday, Oct. 2, 2017. They are running for a Public Service Commission seat in the Oct. 14 election

Advocate Photo by Mark Ballard

In the Baton Rouge area and down the bayous to Houma-Thibodaux, a sprawling district of the Public Service Commission will get a new member this fall — chosen by a sliver of the electorate.

If the public, with early voting halfway over, is engaged in this race, it's difficult to see any signs of it.

Three Republican candidates vie to replace Scott Angelle, who left the PSC to take an appointment in the Trump administration.

Interim PSC member Damon Baldone and one-term state representative Lenar Whitney, both of Houma, and Craig Greene, a Baton Rouge orthopedic surgeon making his first run for public office, all agreed at the Press Club of Baton Rouge forum on the essentials of being a commissioner. They stressed that they would put ratepayers first, although as Baldone noted, the job often does not pit business interests against a larger public, as businesses are ratepayers too.

They also pledged to work with the Legislature, where there has been tension lately between the constitutionally independent PSC and lawmakers raiding the commission's funds to help balance the budget.

In the largely Republican district, they disagreed over who is the better Republican, with Whitney tossing digs at Baldone, a former Democratic representative who changed parties to run, even though Angelle was himself a party-switcher before his election. Baldone responded that Whitney was complicit in the disastrous budget crisis at the State Capitol during former Gov. Bobby Jindal's two terms. Greene avoided that dispute, emphasizing his distance from politics, although his father was a Republican state senator.

It's an important job, but it's a special election. Other than metro New Orleans, where the city elections will help produce turnout, many voters are just not interested. There is a special election to fill a vacancy for state treasurer, another race that will have difficulty drawing interest.

The Oct. 14 primary election is on ballots in parts of Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Houma and Morgan City. Because of the federal Voting Rights Act, many of the largely black precincts of Baton Rouge are cut out of this PSC district; a political consequence is that the district skews Republican.

Early voting continues through Saturday at registrar of voters' offices.

As Baldone put it, this is an election for "super-chronic" voters, those who turn out for just about every election. But it is an office for which few voters have a great sense of personal involvement. Given the technical nature of many PSC decisions, the candidates did relevantly stress their business experience at the Press Club forum.

Happily for them, although perhaps not so much for the public, the complex decisions will be more likely driven by the numbers — that is, by the number of campaign contributions from the utility companies and others the PSC regulates.

Louisiana remains a populist state in theory, because it elects so many offices that in other states are filled by appointed and presumably qualified experts. But in practice, it's an anti-populist state, where the more obscure offices are funded by those with an interest in the decisions made by politicos, who then need campaign cash to preserve their positions, often in elections like this where turnout is quite low.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.