As Henry E. Howell accelerated his third campaign for governor of Virginia this year, he was gratified to learn from his polls that high utility bills and the cost of living generally stood out as the leading issue in the minds of voters.
It was proof to Howell that his eight years of campaigning for a statewide office on consumer issues could again pay a dividend in this race. And despite his muted consumer rhetoric in his primary campaign against Andrew P. Miller, utilities are still one of Howell's chief issues.
"Keep the big boys honest," a slogan borrowed from the consumer advocacy campaigns of U.S. Sen. WarrenG. Magnuson (D-Wash.), catapulted Howell in 1969 from a little known state senator from Norfolk to a widely recognized political figure who in that year almost took the Democratic gubernatorial nomination away from the state's political establishment.
It was only one of the verbally catchy assaults on utility and insurance interests that fueled Howell's political campaigns and helped indentify him with voters as "Howlin' Henry," a label he earned as a colorfull Assembly debater.
On radio, television and the campaign stump, these were some of the others that rolled off his phrasemaking tongue:
"Every year, like clockwork, the big utilities try to raise your rates, and every year, like police work, Henry fights for the consumer."
"You all know what Vepco (Virginia Electric and Power Co.) means, it means Very Expensive Power Co."
"The Utilities don't like my prying, and I dont' like their profits."
And, to point up his allegations that the state's utility regulatory agency. The State Corporation Commission denied fair hearings to consumers objecting to rate increases, Howell often said, "There is more going around in the dark in Virginia than Santa Claus."
In this campaign, Howell has muted his consumer barbs as part of a deliberate effort to minimize negative reactions to his image as a "radical" in the context of Virginia politics.
But he remains firmly rooted in many minds as an implacable foe of the big boys, especially Vepco, the state's largest utility.
When Howell, exercising his rights as joint owner of 37 shares of Vepco stock, spoke at the company's annual meeting in April, he ended by demanding to know why Vepco shares were still selling for less in the stock market than their theoretical liquidation value.
"One of the reasons is you," an angry stockholder shouted at Howell.
Howell's speech at the annual meeting accusing the company's officers of mismanagement brought a rare, formal response from Vepco president T. Justin Moore, who usually follows a policy of ignoring Howell's public statements.
"The time has come to end the attacks, unsupported by any credible evidence, that are being made on the electric utilities by certain politicians . . .," Moore's statement said.
However, Moore added that he did not expect the attacks to end before election day. "As we have seen in Mr. Howell's spectacle here today," he said, "the next few months undoubtedly will prove to be highly visible ones for utilities in Virginia."
Despite his muted style, Howell has done his best to fulfill Moore's prophecy with dozens of campaign speeches and press releases focusing on rising utility bills, the fuel adjustment clause that permits electric utilities to pass on higher fuel coast, sharply higher gas company profits last winter and the controvesy over the plans of Vepco to cancel its plans for its seventh and eighth nuclear power units as at a cost of $75 million to $140 million to its customers.
Andrew P. Miller, Howell's opponent in the June 14 Democratic primary, was the Virginia consumers' official lawyer when he was attorney general. He also talks about utility bills in his campaign, but most of his statements are devoted to defending his record of minimizing utility rate increases in a period of unprecedented fuel-price inflation.
Like others before him, Miller also has tried to turn Howell's emphasis on utility rates against him by labeling him a "one-issue candidate."
Howell denies the charge. In a long interview, the former lieuteuant governor characterized his emphasis on consumer issues and regulated industries as a natural outgrowth of his political combat with the conservative forces in Virginia politics and government.
"I found out early," he said, "that the old State Corporation Commission was just as appendage of the Byrd Organization, the political machine fashioned by the late Gov. and Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr.
BY "early," Howell meant the period of his first encounters with the SCC in the 1950s as a Norfolk lawyer representing labor unions opposed to job-reducing discontinuances of train routes.
Howell likes to recall his first appearance before the SCC in opposition to proposed elimination of steamship service between Norfolk and Newport News by the old Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, now a part of the Chessie System.
"when we came in the oppose the discontinuance, the members of the SCC treated us like were from Mars," he said. "It made an impression on me I will never forget. They just didn't realize they were there to regulate on behalf of both the consumer and the corporations."
Howell's side lost that case and others before the SCC, but he had some significant successes as a consumer advocate over the years and has several times embarrassed until into defensive actions.
Howell twice overturned adverse rulings of the SCC in the Virginia Supreme Court. In one case, the court ruled, as Howell contended, that insuracne companies must take into account earnings on certain customer paid funds in setting premiums.
In another, the court upheld Howell's contention that the SCC could not frant the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. a rate increase without giving opponents an opportunity to be heard and also should have allowed Howell, as an Assembly member, a continuance in the caseuntil after the Assembly adjourned.
"The SCC had give C&P $4.8 million in a 23-minute proceeding," Howell said. "They had the order written before it started."
It was not the first time Howell opposed C&P rates. As early as 1961, he and other Norfolk political figures made an issue of intrastate long distance charges that exceeded the cost of interstate calls over a greater distance.
Howell said C&P reacted by ending its practice of publishing sample intrastate and long distance rates side by side in Virginia phone books.
Howell and other Norfolk residents also mounted a campaign once that publicized the fact that Vepco's charges to industrial customers were higher thanthose paid by similar industries in nearby states.
Howell said that not long after that campaign he obtained a copy of a memo from Vepco officials to the SCC spelling out how a proposed, general rate reduction would reduce power costs of specific industrial customers in the Norfolk area.
Howell also was a principal figure in the successful fight to prohibit auto insurance compaines from using discriminatory standards that denied insurance to divorced persons, ministers and others.
However, Howell himself acknowledges that his resources as a utility gadfly have hardly been enough to have a significant impact on rising electric rates.
"Regulating electric utilites is so big a job, the SCC itself has almost said it can't have much effect, "Howell said.
Miller has criticized Howell for making opening day statemnts at Vepco rate cases and then leaving the tedious, day-by-day consumer representation to others.
"All I have had the resources to do is make a statement of principles to the commission in these cases," Howell said. "Andy was the state's lawyer and had the resources of the state."
The two Democratic candidates have traded charges of ineffective representation of the consumer. Howell accused Miller of intervening in less than half of the utility cases before the SCC while he was attorney general.
Miller has countered that limitations on funds provided by the Assembly forced his office to pass up routine cases. He argues that his offices consumer representation helped reduce proposed rate request by more than $300 million during his two terms as attorney general.
He also cites initiatives taken under him to solve rising costs through such experimental projects as an energy saving cooling and heating system being tested in a Richmond area house. The system provides heat in winter by pumping heat out of a tank of water in the basement in the home. The huge block of ice that is formed will be used to help cool the house in the summer.
Miller and Howell differ on one important utility issue, the fuel adjustment clause. Howell insists the automatic pass-through of fuel costs should be eliminated. Miller says that to do so now would deprive consumers of certain savings due from increased use of nuclear plants by Vepco in the near future.
There is no evidence that the primary campaign is going, to resolve the fuel adjustment issue, but it has already given life to another Howell battle cry.
"I call it the fool adjustment clause," he tells some crowds, "and I say it's time to end it."