Monday, May 28, 2018

A Worse California Candidate Than Gil Cisneros-- Meet Mike Levin


A friend listened in on a phone call between Pelosi and a very well-paid-- and very sleazy-- Mike Levin consultant. The guy, who has rounded up a gaggle of really slimy members of Congress to endorse Levin against Doug Applegate, asked Pelosi to get the DCCC to do likewise. She assured him she would. She was unable to deliver, although she was able to prevent the DCCC from endorsing Applegate, very much inline with what the DCCC is doing in other California districts where the is a chance that 2 Republicans could emerge from the jungle primary in 2 weeks, leaving no Democrat in the general election competition. It was the same way the DCCC screwed over Applegate in 2016 when they stalled until the last minute to endorse him, giving him the most minimal help as he came close to defeating Republican super-villain Darrell Issa. There were so many counts and recounts that it was the last election finalize-- and the final score was:
Issa- 155,888 (50.3%
Applegate- 154,267 (49.7%)
Had the DCCC not waited 'til the end of the cycle to jump in against Issa-- and perhaps wasting so much time and resources fighting against progressives instead of fighting Republicans-- Applegate would be an incumbent now and not going into a crazy primary with a dozen candidates including 2 especially vile self-funders, Paul Kerr-- who just wants to get his name out there for his race for the campaign in a neighboring district when rich conservative Scott Peters retires to run for mayor-- and Qualcomm heiress Sara Jacobs who parachuted into the district from Brooklyn to spend a load of daddy's money yelling nothing but he's a woman and deserves the seat. By the May 16 FEC filing report Kerr has lavished $4,112,728 of his own on his campaign and Jacobs had spent $1,587,831 of her own (plus $1.7 million more from her family) on her campaign.

Aside from Applegate, none of the other candidate had shown the slightest interest in defeating Issa in the past. Mike Levin was the head Orange County fundraiser for Hillary's 2016 campaign but never contributed a nickel to Applegate's campaign. As soon as Issa announced his retirement, fearing he could never fend off another challenge from Applegate, The 2 other clowns sensed an opportunity to get a business card that said "Congressmember" and jumped right in. Levin already had his plans in the works before the final count between Doug and Issa was close to being done. Since then "the Janus-faced quality of the Levin campaign--  publicly unctuous and privately defamatory--  was not only repugnant, but also, more importantly, extremely effective. This was immediately obvious to me as Doug’s campaign manager, and I made efforts to force the surreptitious negativity of Levin’s campaign into open public conflict."

Keep in mind that 5 San Diego County Democratic clubs-- including the Democrats of MiraCosta College, Saddleback Young Democrats, Palomar College Democrats, San Diego Democrats for Equality, and Democratic Woman’s Club of San Diego County-- have all taken the unprecedented step of rating Levin "unacceptable" or "unqualified" because of the thuggish nature of his campaign.

A couple of weeks ago Cody Petterson, President of the San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action, spilled the beans on Levin with a long and powerful post at Medium, Square Deal. It hasn't had enough attention and with the primary coming up on June 5, I figured I'd give it a boost. Levin's character and campaign, he wrote "bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for the demoralizing toxicity that currently plagues the 49th. I believe that his brand of politics has no place in a revitalized, community-rooted Democratic Party, and that exposing it is essential to preventing it from thriving in the future." He couldn't be more correct and sees sees Levin's deceitfulness as nothing less than Trumpish and very much following "the Cohn/Stone dictum, 'Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack.'
It’s not a mystery what Levin’s plan was prior to 2016: 1) use his work in corporate government affairs to take home tidy paychecks while developing relationships with donors and government officials, 2) bundle campaign donations to secure an appointment in the HRC administration, 3) climb his diligent way to an undersecretary position, and then 4) run for the 49th in 2020 alongside an HRC re-election bid. It wasn’t a bad plan, as plans go, though a more pious man would have remembered that plans anger the gods. Doug’s wildcat run in 2016 must have been an unsettling disruption of his program, and it’s telling that in spite of multiple direct asks from Doug, Levin, by his own admission, didn’t give a dime or lift a finger to help him. Bear in mind, Doug was a Democratic challenger, neck-and-neck with an eight-term Republican incumbent, in Mike’s own district. It doesn’t take a priest to guess that Mike wasn’t just praying for Hillary’s victory when he knelt beside his bed, Fall 2016.

Though Doug’s narrow loss was undoubtedly some consolation, one can only imagine Mike’s existential terror standing there in Javits Center watching his meticulous plan to jump from corporate government relations (i.e., lobbying) to appointed office implode. By his own account he decided to run on the flight home from New York --  weeks before, it should be noted, the outcome in the 49th was declared. Hillary’s loss dramatically disrupted Levin’s strategy and timeline. The narrowness of Doug’s loss meant that he would have to accelerate his timeline or risk Doug beating Issa and holding the seat for the foreseeable future. But Hillary’s loss meant that Mike would have to run on his corporate career, rather than as an appointed official, as he had planned, and he knew that eight years of directing corporate lobbying would not endear him to voters.

Levin’s strategy was thus born of necessity and haste. The vacuum left by the loss of those four planned years of appointed office is the defining factor in Levin’s campaign. Robbed of the centerpiece of his campaign, Levin settled upon the only strategy available to him: 1) avoid all mention of his career, 2) clone Doug’s 2016 platform in order both to align with the ascendant progressive base of the Party and to force the primary race to center around fundraising and tone, rather than clear differences of values and priorities, and 3) peddle Doug’s decade-old divorce and custody battle behind every closed door. However invidious and unscrupulous I may find the strategy, I can’t fault Levin’s SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis for leading him to it. The 49th has suffered immeasurably for it, and it has put Democrats at much greater likelihood of defeat in November, but it was rational for him personally... The misrepresentations and prevarications of Levin’s “Record on Clean Energy” provide a perfect illustration of the deceit upon which his campaign is predicated.

The first “myth” that Mike set out to ‘debunk’ was that he “is not a ‘real’ environmental attorney, because he didn’t litigate many cases, and there is no record of his advocacy prior to 2016.” Classic misdirection. Levin’s claim to the title of ‘environmental attorney’ isn’t weak because he hasn’t litigated ‘many’ cases. Mike Levin has a law degree and standing before the California State Bar. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to lay claim to being an attorney. It is his claim to being an environmental attorney that is weak and deceptive. The only litigation of which LexisNexis has record were three cases at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, Hernandez v. Countrywide, Gallegos v. Countrywide, and Arenas v. Countrywide. Unfortunately for Mike, he was not valiantly representing struggling Latinx victims of Countrywide’s predatory lending; on the contrary, he was defending Countrywide against them and, in the event, was able to help Countrywide successfully foreclose on their homes.

All three San Diego County homeowners had alleged predatory lending, unfair debt collection, and RICO violations. Levin pleaded these cases in the immediate aftermath of the financial collapse and three months after the announcement of Countrywide’s $8.68 billion settlement of predatory lending suits, the largest in history. For precisely the activities alleged in the suits. Levin defended Countrywide against San Diego County Latino foreclosure victims with contracts that were predatory on their face. The Arenas contract had a 2% teaser rate that ballooned after the first month. The first allowable Interest Rate Change Date was the first day of December, 2006--  a month after the contract was signed. The change was determined by adding 3.7% to the twelve-month average yield of US Treasury Securities, which was around 5% in late 2006. That’s potentially an 8.7% interest rate six weeks after signing a contract for a 2% interest rate. Classic predatory lending. The Hernandez contract featured a 6.5% rate-- to a man who had previously been foreclosed upon.

At least one of the plaintiffs, by their own report, was subsequently selected for inclusion in the $335 million settlement of claims against Countrywide of discriminatory lending to Latinos and African Americans. Whatever his private objections may have been, Levin remained at the firm until September 2010. Now, I don’t approve of holding youthful mistakes unduly against any individual, including candidates, if their subsequent conduct reflects contrition and maturation. Unfortunately, the expedient, mercenary quality that these cases demonstrate is the hallmark of Levin’s career, rather than an aberration or youthful error.

The second ‘myth’ that Levin attempted to debunk in his rejoinder was that he “supports a fossil fuel-based energy future.” This is a remarkably clumsy dodge. There is no Democrat, in the current political climate, who actively supports a fossil fuel-based energy future or opposes eventually transitioning to 100% renewable energy. The question is, and has been for the last decade, how aggressive that transition should be. Levin’s challenge here is that, his youth notwithstanding, he is himself a fossil. Levin’s career unfolded in the context of a protracted struggle within the Democratic community between climate hawks who demanded the immediate transition to renewables, and moderates who believed fracked natural gas could serve as an affordable, less carbon intensive alternative to coal.

Levin’s career choices put him firmly on the moderate side of the argument, along with Obama’s ‘all of the above’ energy strategy and HRC’s globetrotting fracked-gas junkets. In September 2010, Mike became Director of Government Affairs for FlexEnergy, which at the time was focused on developing a proprietary technology that oxidized rather than combusted natural or coal gas. Several months after Mike’s arrival, however, FlexEnergy acquired rights to Ingersoll-Rand’s MT250 microturbine, which could, ostensibly, be powered by their oxidizer, but which soon became the primary focus of their manufacturing and sales. At the end of 2012, FlexEnergy spun off their gradual oxidizer technology and focused exclusively on microturbine sales, buoyed by $400 million in projected sales to the Russian oil and gas industry, backed by the US Export-Import Bank, which, however, collapsed in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea and US Ex-Im’s moratorium on financing for sales to Russia (See Russia, Notes 12a and 12b). Levin’s participation and equity position in FlexEnergy post-spin-off is unclear, as it became a private corporation and ceased filing publicly available financial reports. Although he was listed as an officer and shareholder in their final Form D filing, V. John White Associates, which FlexEnergy retained as its outside lobbyist in California, lists him as ‘terminated’ as FlexEnergy’s Responsible Officer in their 2012 filing.

Levin continued on as Secretary and VP of Legal and Regulatory Affairs of the gradual oxidizer spin-off, Ener-Core, as it continued to hemorrhage venture capital: FlexPower had lost $7.6 million in 2011, $6.5 million from January to November 2012, and then, after the spin-off, Ener-Core lost $6,923,000 more from November 2012 to December 2013. Levin jumped ship abruptly in mid-March 2014--  three days after the Russian annexation of Crimea--  and it’s likely that he sold his 105,510 of vested shares before the 10-K for 2013 dropped on April 15th, which precipitated a steady decline in stock value. If so, he would’ve gotten out at around $36, a hundred times the value of the stock today.

Levin landed with premeditated ease at FuelCell the following month, where he served through September 2017 as Director of Government Affairs. FuelCell researches, designs, manufactures, and distributes large-stack fuel cell power plants, which run predominantly on natural gas, the majority of which, in the US, is fracked. All evidence suggests that Mike did for FuelCell what he had done for Ener-Core and Flex-Energy before that. When he avers that he “has never been a registered lobbyist,” it reinforces how deceptive the man habitually is. I want to be perfectly clear: Michael T. Levin has spent most of his career lobbying. Some of it was spent planning and directing the lobbying of others. FuelCell has hired a rogues’ gallery of lobbyists over the years. You can search the California or Connecticut registries, where they had legislative and regulatory interests, or the federal registry: Albertine Enterprises, Cassidy & Associates, Podesta Group, Foley & Lardner, White Associates, Evans & Associates, Global Strategy Group, and others. If you select “Financial Activity/Filing History” under “View:” you can see what his corporations were lobbying on: California Air Resources Board (CARB), California Energy Commission (CEC), California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), AB-327, AB-1228, AB-1466, AB-1478, AB-1624, AB-1935, AB-1953, AB-2229, AB-2649, SB-699, SB-874, the AB-32 Scoping Plan, etc). Almost exclusively energy legislation or regulation with the potential to impact FuelCell’s access to subsidies, exemptions, and other government benefits.

But Levin was also himself lobbying. FuelCell apparently decided that he was spending less than “one-third of his…compensated time in a calendar month engaging in direct communication with qualifying officials,” and that he therefore did not meet the FPPC’s threshold for qualification as an in-house lobbyist. Nonetheless, he was certainly lobbying, as can be easily verified by his submissions to various government agencies, primarily the California Public Utilities Commission, California Air Resources Board, and California Energy Commission. Now, lobbying isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I myself have lobbied (without compensation) at the city, county, and state level on affordable housing, smart growth, habitat conservation, and other progressive and environmental issues. Maybe Mike was just doing that?

Except he wasn’t. Mike was lobbying to slow California’s transition to renewables and to preserve taxpayer-funded ‘incentives’ for his company’s fossil fuel-based technology. If you think I’m distorting or exaggerating, get ready for some strong medicine. Mike had done some lobbying of California’s energy agencies at FlexEnergy. As mentioned previously, he is listed as the Responsible Officer for the lobbying firm V. John White & Associates, which had lobbied on FlexEnergy’s behalf before the CEC, CPUC, and CARB. FlexEnergy had been lobbying the CPUC to expand the Self-Generation Incentive Program (SGIP) to include their natural gas-fired combined heat and power (CHP) turbines. In the event, CPUC President and former president of Southern California Edison Mike Peevey--  notoriously favorable to investor-owned utilities--  issued a decision in 2011 that did, indeed, expand SGIP to include their turbines and FlexEnergy was quick to applaud him for it (note that Mike is listed as the company contact on this rapturous bit of corporate fluff).

...With California’s green pastures drying up, FuelCell struck upon a different strategy. In May of 2016, ExxonMobil invested an undisclosed sum in FuelCell, and the two entered into a cooperative agreement to develop carbon capture and ‘clean coal’ technology. Throughout 2016, Trump drew on initiatives like these to tout ‘clean coal’ as a way of bringing jobs back to places like Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Days before the general election, FuelCell and ExxonMobil announced their intention to develop a carbon capture pilot project at Alabama’s mixed-use coal/gas James Barry Generating Station, with support from the US Department of Energy.

In the year and a half following Trump’s election, the company’s enthusiasm for ‘clean coal’ has only grown. Anthony Leo, FuelCell’s Vice President of Advanced Applications and Technology Development, shared the podium with Trump’s Secretary of Energy, Rick Perry, at the National Coal Council’s 2017 Annual Spring Meeting (his presentation can be seen here). In 2017, FuelCell derived 9% of its revenue from ExxonMobil (up from 3% the previous year), and 9% from USDoE, in part from its work on the Barry carbon capture project. All told, the ExxonMobil joint venture probably accounted for around 15% of FuelCell’s revenue in 2017. Presumably Levin, as Director of Government Affairs, helped to secure some of the US Department of Energy funding for the FuelCell/ExxonMobil joint venture at the Barry Facility. Perhaps he was also involved in the international negotiations surrounding FuelCell’s joint venture with Alberta Innovates to develop carbon capture technologies for the Canadian tar sands, announced the week after the 2016 general election.

In spite of these injections, FuelCell fell from $31 to $1.50 during Levin’s tenure. The ongoing slide in FuelCell’s valuation undoubtedly reflects the fact that government subsidies are drying up and genuinely carbon-neutral solutions are advancing in capacity and declining in price so rapidly that carbon capture technologies will never be commercially viable at an industrial scale, even if they are one day technically feasible. Attempts like FuelCell’s to make hydrocarbon energy more sustainable are not only consistently failing at great expense to taxpayers, but also retarding our transition to 100% renewable energy by misdirecting government and private sector investment and providing cover to corporations and their Republican servants to prolong our dependency on fossil fuels.

This is Mike Levin’s career. In lieu of a legislative record, this is all we have to go on. Robbed by Donald Trump of three glorious years of kissing up and kicking down in our nation’s capital, Mike had to run on a decade at the trough with predatory lenders, ‘clean tech’ hucksters, and ExxonMobil. From the time he left Bryan Cave in 2010, to his departure from FuelCell in September 2017, Mike has never held a job that was not intimately tied to fracked natural gas. In a world without natural gas--  in a world of 100% renewable energy--  Mike could not have worked a day at any of his jobs. Period. It takes a certain kind of audacity to run on a platform of 100% renewables on the proceeds of a career in fossil fuel ‘bridge’ technologies. A lesser man would have folded under the weight of the irony.

Well, that’s my say. I don’t intend to sway the election with these words. Levin’s done. He needed the California Democratic Party endorsement, which is why he was willing to stoop to attempting to strip the 11 hardest working Democratic activists in the 49th of their delegate status in order to cheat his way across the finish line. Failing that, he’s now just a guy who lost his investors a million bucks, which is chump change compared to the six or seven million he’s helped lose investors every year of his ‘clean energy’ career. No, the couple hundred folks who read this--  only a third of them in the 49th--  won’t change much. But it’s important to send a message to candidates who believe they can deceive their way to power.

I don’t blame his staff, supporters, donors, or endorsers. He surely didn’t come clean to any of them about his career. He didn’t take them into his office and slide his Countrywide defense, or his CPUC comments, or FuelCell’s 10-K across the table, as he did with Doug’s divorce documents to one of the Colonel’s earliest and most faithful supporters. Maybe they should have done a little more due diligence, particularly Sierra Club and other environmental organizations who endorsed a man who has dedicated his career to lobbying against their efforts to remove fossil fuels from California’s energy grid.

Some have pointed the finger at Levin’s General Consultant, Parke Skelton, who by all accounts is among the best in the business. While general consultants are not famed for their strict adherence to principle, they also aren’t paid to offer spiritual counsel. If Mike wanted help distinguishing right from wrong, he could have headed down to lovely Mission San Juan Capistrano and talked to a priest. There’s no political trick, dirty or clean, that Parke Skelton hasn’t learned in the course of a storied career, and he undoubtedly presented to Levin all those strategies and potential activities that he thought advantageous. Mike alone, however, bore the responsibility for maintaining the campaign’s adherence to principle, and failed to do so.

Levin, to me, is cut from the cloth of an old world courtier (in this regard, read de Tocqueville on the “courtier spirit” in American democracy): ambitious, calculating, unscrupulous, sycophantic. A flatterer of donors and doyens. An exploiter of asymmetries of information. Fundraising and endorsement favor those who are willing and able to adapt their self-presentation to the audience in front of them. People of goodwill are often so busy with their own lives and struggles that they must largely rely on candidates’ self-representations. It must be acknowledged, in this regard, that Levin is exceptionally well-equipped. He is diligent in his research, hard-working, ingratiating, and adept at massaging his message to make it palatable to various--  predominantly white, affluent, liberal--  audiences.

The problem, however, is that this is precisely the kind of candidate that undermines faith in our political process. Precisely the kind of candidate that is ill-equipped to provide the authenticity and genuine depth of feeling that citizens crave in this populist turn. And a Democratic Party that continues not only to tolerate, but to aggrandize these candidates is a significant contributor to the calamity in which we now find ourselves. A Democratic Party that slips a velvet glove of social and cultural liberalism over the hand of corporations and their servants. Voters are tired of these Janus-faced parties and their bland, Janus-faced candidates. Of the bundlers, and bagmen, and backroom dealers.

Dishonesty and deceit are commonly considered hallmarks of politics. Over the last year and half, however, I’ve had the opportunity to develop personal relationships with most of the elected officials, candidates, and activists in the San Diego County Democratic Party and have found the vast majority to be principled and sincere. Calculating, cagey, carefully composed--  as is appropriate to the calling--  but not unscrupulous or deceitful. Some of them will present difficulties for me and other progressives when they win. Most will have to be lobbied from time to time to ensure they vote in a manner consistent with our vision and values. But I can’t think of any but Mike Levin to whom I have deep moral objections.

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