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Suskie rides loss to PSC chairmanship

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For a losing candidate, Paul Suskie did all right. After failing to win an office with a four-year term and a $67,000 salary, he was appointed to an office with a six-year term and a $100,000 salary. Furthermore, an attorney general, which is the office Suskie ran for, can serve only two four-year terms. If the man who appointed Suskie to the state Public Service Commission, Gov. Mike Beebe, serves two full four-year terms as governor, there’s a good chance — not a certainty — that Suskie could be appointed to another six-year term as PSC chairman.

If he wants the reappointment, that is. After a strong effort last year, in his first major race, Suskie may still have his eye on elective office. He declines to speculate about that sort of thing, says that he’s concentrating on the job at hand, and notes that the PSC has not historically been a springboard to elective office. Or higher appointive office either, in most cases, although a former PSC chairman, Lavenski Smith, is now a member of the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

Suskie says he didn’t seek the PSC appointment, and it was “somewhat of a surprise” when the governor’s office asked if he’d be interested. He’d known Beebe for years through Beebe’s service in the state Senate and through a mutual friend, former state Sen. Cliff Hoofman of North Little Rock. Suskie said that when the Arkansas Times blog reported that he might be the next public service commissioner, he called Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, who’d defeated him in the Democratic primary last year. “He said he’d told the governor he thought it was a good appointment,” Suskie said, and McDaniel’s office confirmed.

McDaniel was a state representative from Jonesboro at the time of the election; Suskie was North Little Rock city attorney. (City attorney is an elective office in North Little Rock.) McDaniel carried most counties, but Suskie stayed close by rolling up 73 percent of the vote in Pulaski County.

The PSC regulates the intrastate rates and services of public utilities in Arkansas — electricity, natural gas, water, telephone. Suskie wants the commission to do more in the way of promoting conservation of energy too. If everybody used the new energy-saving light bulbs now available, it would make a difference, he said.

A proposed $150 million increase in Entergy’s electricity rates will be the first great issue Suskie will confront. “People tell me I’m facing baptism by electrocution,” he said.

He learned something of the way utilities operate as city attorney for North Little Rock, which owns its own electric utility. But, since municipally owned utilities aren’t regulated by the PSC, Suskie never appeared before the commission, nor was he ever employed by the commission. “I think I bring a new perspective,” he said.

That new perspective may not be exactly what some people want, though. There’s speculation that Suskie, as a Democratic appointee, might be harder on the utilities and friendlier to consumers than a Republican appointee. The other two commissioners, Daryl E. Bassett and Sandra L. Hochstetter, are Republican appointees. Hochstetter was chairman before Suskie’s appointment. Suskie said he’d talked with both, and politics was not discussed. He didn’t expect politics would ever be a factor, considering the nature of the commission’s work. “It’s like at the municipal level,” he said. “There’s only one way to pick up trash.”

Besides, he said, commissioners are charged with being fair to both sides, utilities and consumers. The attorney general’s office, McDaniel’s office, represents consumers in PSC proceedings.

Despite the current era of good feeling between the two, one wonders if McDaniel and Suskie mightn’t be rivals again. They’re the same age, 35. Both are drawn to politics and have shown talent for it. The offices they hold will give both an opportunity to please and/or offend potential voters.

And Suskie has a role model who was among the most popular politicians in Arkansas history. When he was in college, he worked for U.S. Sen. David Pryor. “If there’s a politician I’d like to emulate, it’s him.” After Suskie lost to McDaniel, he found a consoling message from Pryor on his voice mail. The former senator talked about his own first political loss. “It made my wife cry,” Suskie said.


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