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The New Populism 

There's a certain asymptotic axiom in politics: the higher up your career takes you, the more you need friends like Bill Gates, and the less likely you are to hold such plutocrats accountable for, say, bilking their competitors and consumers out of billions of dollars. That's why we're happy to identify California Attorney General -- and former Hayward schoolteacher -- Bill Lockyer as an exception to this rule. Consider a short list of the giants that have fallen behind Lockyer's crosshairs in recent years: Microsoft; Sutter Health; Pacific Gas & Electric; Calpine; Oracle. He's defied John Ashcroft and the Department of Justice, put the fear of reprisal in the hearts of powerful men all over the state, and recently saved California more than $8 million in public funds.

What's this? A statewide officeholder with conviction? Some of us, so used to weak sisters or outright crooks like former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, may find ourselves searching for an appropriately cynical explanation for Lockyer's track record. But for this one moment, put aside your sneers and tip your hat to a politician who makes the Big Boys lose sleep at night.

Take the 1999 absorption of Oakland's Summit Hospital into the Sutter Health chain. When Sutter officials announced the impending merger, hospital workers and health-care advocates claimed that it would lead to mass layoffs and sharp cuts in services, but who could fight such behemoths? Enter Bill Lockyer, who filed an antitrust action against Sutter and fought the chain in court for a year. In the end, a federal judge allowed the merger to go through, and the bloodbath began eighteen months later, as the new Alta Bates-Summit conglomeration announced 300 layoffs. But at least Lockyer fought the good fight and put other health-care giants on notice that patients had at least one friend in Sacramento.

Soon officials with PG&E would feel Lockyer's lash on their backs. PG&E did pretty well for itself in the early days of energy deregulation, amassing billions in extra profit. But in 2000, the utility's fortunes began to worsen, and the company filed for bankruptcy and secured a court ruling that those billions in profit, having been funneled out of state to PG&E's parent corporation, were now untouchable. Lockyer took a dim view of such tactics, and in January filed a lawsuit accusing the utility of defrauding the state and seeking up to $4 billion. Three months later, Lockyer sued four major power companies that had a hand in the energy crisis, accusing them of a wide array of offenses, including selling the same electrical generating capacity twice. His lawsuit is still pending, but two defendants have already cried uncle and agreed to pay the state $8.5 million.

But our favorite example of Lockyer's resolve has to be the Microsoft antitrust lawsuit. Clinton Justice Department attorney Joel Klein fought Bill Gates to a standstill over the course of several years, establishing Microsoft's array of anticompetitive practices in a court of law and finally debunking Gates' air of invincibility. But just as everyone began to discuss a decent regime of punishment and recompense, the new Justice Department of John Ashcroft and George W. Bush abandoned the previous administration's aggressive stance and cut a sweetheart deal, letting the company off the hook without a paying single penny in fines or creating rigorous protections against future anticompetitive practices. Of the eighteen attorneys general who signed onto the suit as coplaintiffs, nine -- including those from the states of Illinois, Michigan, and New York -- agreed to the Bush administration's deal. But Bill Lockyer said no, and vowed to continue to push for tougher penalties.

You gotta love a guy who will take on John Ashcroft, that psalm-singin', habeas corpus-trashin', will-abandon-my-lifelong-stance-on-federalism-just-to-prolong-the-suffering-of-terminally-ill-Oregonians schmuck of an attorney general. Hey, Bill: give him a right cross for us.

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