Arizona Corporation Commission candidate Sandra Kennedy: More work to do as 'voice for the people'

Commissioner Sandra Kennedy makes a statement after the swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 7 at Arizona Corporation Commission offices in Phoenix.
Commissioner Sandra Kennedy makes a statement after the swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 7 at Arizona Corporation Commission offices in Phoenix.

Democrat Sandra Kennedy is having fun regulating Arizona utilities and said she has more work to do in another four-year term that she hopes will bring a Democratic majority to the Arizona Corporation Commission for the first time in decades.

“I know how to do it and I truly have enjoyed the last three-and-a-half years at the commission just being a voice for the people who can’t speak for themselves,” she said. “I am truly having fun. I don’t think there is a day that goes by that I’m not in the office and asking questions.”

Kennedy is one of two Democrats running for two seats on the five-member commission that will be determined by this year's elections. The Corporation Commission is an office created by the Arizona Constitution that oversees utility rates, securities regulation, pipeline safety and railroad crossings.

Kennedy, who was born in Oklahoma City, moved in 1971 to Phoenix, where she graduated from South Mountain High School. She formerly ran a restaurant. She is married with three adult children and two grandchildren.

In 1986 she was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives, where she served six years followed by six in the Arizona Senate. In 2008 she became the first African American elected to statewide office in Arizona when she won a seat on the Corporation Commission.

She did not win a second term in 2012, when Arizona Public Service and Southwest Gas, two entities regulated by the commission, contributed to a political fund that sent mailers supporting Republicans who ran that year. The utilities at the time had policies against participating in commission elections and blamed the spending on the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Kennedy won another term in 2018, though, and immediately upon taking office joined Republican Commissioner Robert Burns in seeking financial disclosures from APS to determine the extent of its election spending.

That resulted in the utility confirming that it and its parent company spent millions on political activity to help its preferred candidates win office at the commission, including $10.7 million spent on the 2014 elections. That spending also helped defeat Kennedy that year.

With a new CEO since that time, APS has pledged to stay out of commission elections.

Four years ago, the political controversies at the commission played a bigger role in the elections, but Kennedy said she still feels that the staff at the commission can be “too cozy” with utilities.

“When I talk about the coziness of our staff and the utilities, some staff get offended,” she said. “I try to say that it’s not really them that I am concerned with ... . What we should be doing is regulating and not allowing the utilities to control the commission.”

Pushing for more renewable energy

Much like her campaign for the commission in 2008, Kennedy continues to push for more renewable energy in Arizona.

Kennedy said criticism that she and fellow Democrat Lauren Kuby are pushing the “Green New Deal” is “hogwash.”

“We would love to see the renewable energy industry just take over this state. We know it’s not going to be easy. We know it’s not going to happen overnight. We’ve got to bring everyone together,” she said. “It’s going to be a give and take. It’s not our way or the highway.”

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She said there is wide support for increasing the state's renewable-energy standard.

“I talk to Republicans and say, 'What is so bad about renewable energy' They say, 'We like solar. We think it’s the best thing since sliced bread,'” she said. “So we think that the people are on our side.”

Kennedy voted for increasing the state’s renewable-energy standard, but the majority of the commission went the other way earlier this year, voting against an increase.

“It was a huge disappointment for me,” she said. “I had sleepless nights wondering what could I do as an alternative. That’s why we need a Democratic majority. With a Democratic majority we could do a lot more than this present administration is doing.”

Proud to rein in APS revenue

Kennedy participated in a vote late last year that cut about $119 million from APS revenue and resulted in a slight rate decrease for most customers. APS has sued to reverse the decision.

The decision came after a 2017 rate hike granted by the previous commission that included the two Republicans who benefited from APS political spending to get elected. That hike resulted in widespread confusion among the company’s customers, a new rate structure the company was at times unable to explain and a $24 million penalty for not communicating the rates to customers properly.

Kennedy said she was happy with the more recent decision to cut APS revenue.

“When the meeting was over, I got up from my desk and I was jumping up and down,” she said. “I was so elated that I got more than I thought I was going to get.”

When asked about the utility’s complaints that the decision harmed its financial standing, Kennedy shrugged her shoulders emphatically.

“Of course they are going to say that. It showed that the commission had strength to do its job that day,” she said. “We showed APS that times have changed.”

Even though she handily won four years ago and has far more political experience than anyone else in the race, she said she is campaigning hard.

“You never take anything for granted. I’m running this time as if it were my first time ever,” she said.

Kennedy said she laments that partisan politics drive most discussions around the state Capitol now, compared to her time in the Legislature. She said it was common during her years in the Legislature for members from the opposing party to have lunch together and discuss families, which she doesn’t see much of today.

“I see more bullying going on than I see camaraderie,” she said.

She said Republican Commissioner Jim O’Connor, elected two years ago, is a “pleasant surprise.”

“He’s turned out to be someone that has really been an ally,” she said.

Reach reporter Ryan Randazzo at ryan.randazzo@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4331. Follow him on Twitter @UtilityReporter.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona Corporation Commission 2022 Democrat candidate: Sandra Kennedy