By SARA CLINE
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Newcomer Davante Lewis won Saturday’s runoff for a seat on Louisiana’s Public Service Commission, an obscure regulatory body that typically receives little attention locally but this year caught the eye of national media, celebrities, political action committees and public utility companies.
The 30-year-old Democrat and progressive policy advocate unseated Lambert Boissiere, who has held the position on the five-member commission — which regulates public utility companies and the energy sector in the state and sets electric rates, among other things — for nearly 18 years.
The multiparish election, covering an area stretching from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, saw hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into the race by major utility companies and outside political action committees.
Environmentalists have become increasingly focused on the commission in a state that has a front-row seat for the effects of climate change and where tens of thousands of jobs are tied to the oil and gas industry. Even Hollywood paid attention to the runoff between the two Democrats, with “Avengers” star Mark Ruffalo chiming in on social media with his support for Lewis.
Lewis noted multiple priorities of his, including expanding renewable energy, strengthening Louisiana’s vulnerable power grid and tackling the state’s ballooning electricity bills — which are largely a result of high prices for natural gas, a key fuel for utilities in Louisiana.
Fundraising became a key issue in this year’s race. Keep the Lights On, an affiliate of the Environmental Defense Fund, released attack ads against Boissiere for accepting campaign contributions from utility companies that the commission regulates, including Entergy — Louisiana’s largest power company. While these types of contributions are legal in Louisiana, they have been scrutinized over the years.
The commission currently consists of three Republicans and two Democrats, including Lewis, in a reliably red state.
Louisiana has been riddled by destructive hurricanes making landfall more frequently, coastal areas have been eaten away by erosion, subsidence and rising sea levels and, most recently, the Mississippi River reaching record low water levels.
Additionally, the state abuts the Gulf of Mexico and has tens of thousands of jobs tied to the oil and gas industry. In 2021, Louisiana ranked third among the top natural gas-producing states — accounting for nearly 10% of the United States’ natural gas production that year, behind only Texas and Pennsylvania.
For years, the commission has resisted calls to mandate that power companies get a certain share of their power from renewables, The Advocate reported. But activists are hopeful their stance will change.
Boissiere, 57, was first elected in 2005 and had hoped to to secure a fourth term.
Instead Lewis, who has said it is time for a “new generation of leaders,” will serve a six-year term on the five-member commission.
Republicans will still represent a majority on the commission, 3-2.
Despite Lewis and Boissiere prioritizing similar views such as expanding renewable energy, lots of outside money poured into the race.
Keep the Lights On, an affiliate of the Environmental Defense Fund, has spent money in the hopes of unseating Boissiere. In addition, the incumbent received campaign contributions from utility companies that the commission regulates, including Entergy, Louisiana’s largest power company. While these types of contributions are legal in Louisiana, it has been heavily scrutinized.
In November’s primary, when there were five candidates, Boissiere received 43% of the vote — falling short of topping the 50% threshold needed to win outright. Lewis recieved 18%.
Louisiana’s election polls are open Saturday from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m.
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