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illustration by Alex Eben Meyer OLITICAL INTELLIGENCE Power Failure 0 n the August day that Johnny Zamorran’s electricity was disconnected, the temperature in his Houston home climbed to 94 degrees. Zamorran, who suffers from liver failure and chronic pain stemming from a work-related injury, feared the heat would send him into cardiac arrest. Worse, his 10-year-old son has autism and asthma, which requires an electronic machine called a nebulizer to vaporize medication so he can breathe. “You’re playing Russian roulette with every chamber loaded,” Zamorran said of the heat. Zamorran, who lives on a fixed income, had pleaded with Direct Energy Texas, his electric provider, to give him more time to pay his past-due bill. The company was unyielding. “It’s sad because we’re begging people,” Zamorran says, “begging them, please don’t cut us off.” Zamorran isn’t alone. Record heat, combined with soaring electric rates in the deregulated portions of the state, has led to a huge increase in the number of families whose electricity has been disconnected this summer. The spike in disconnections has put untold thousands of Texans at risk, especially the elderly, children, and the ill, consumer advocates say. Exact figures are spotty, but American Electric Power Co., an electric utility whose subsidiaries serve most of South Texas, reports that it disconnected 15,708 customers in June, almost double the number in 2007. While consumers struggle, the state’s Public Utility Commission seems unmoved. Several Texas lawmakers, consumer groups, and the AARP have asked the PUC to declare a moratorium on disconnections for the remainder of the summer. But the PUC chairman, Barry Smitherman, made it clear in mid-August that the commission was unlikely to act on the petition. Smitherman argued in a memo that the three largest utilitiesReliant Energy Inc., Energy Future Holdings programs that sufficiently “protect the most vulnerable consumers from disconnections.” The three companies serve about 77 percent of Texas consumers. \(The remaining 23 Tim Morstad, AARP associate state director, says the PUC is in effect “deregulating customer protection,” allowing private companies to decide whether to protect their customers during extreme heat. “We don’t know if these programs are working or if they’re not at all because there are no reporting requirements and no verification,” he says. Zamorran sought help from the office of State Rep. Sylvester Turner, a leading critic of electric deregulation. With Turner’s intervention and the arrival of cameras from a local TV station, Zamorran quickly got his power restored and avoided a trip to the hospital. Alison Brock, an aide in Turner’s office, said the phones ring “all day, every day” with calls from Texans looking for help on their utility bill. Sometimes Brock and other staffers will even pool their money to get constituents out of a pinch. Zamorran’s reprieve was only temporary. He has no idea how he will pay the next bill. “Come the first of September, it starts all over again:’ he says. “It’s a nightmare we’ve been dealing with.” He says he’s run out of possessions to pawn and done everything he can to make his home more energy-efficient, but it’s not enough. “I don’t care about myself,” Zamorran says, crying over the phone. “I just worry about my kids.” Forrest Wilder Lost in the Tall Corn IN DENVER, DEMS WOO THE RURAL VOTE On the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, party officials convened a Rural Council Caucusan event aimed at winning rural voters back to the Democratic Party. The room looked as though it could easily hold the alleged 400 convention delegates here representing rural communities. We’ll never know because so few of them showed up. It wouldn’t have been a surprise to see tumbleweeds blow through the mostly empty Four Seasons Room at the Colorado Convention Center. About 40 people gathered around the 4 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 5, 2008