Shootout at the PGE corral
- Kristina Brenneman
- Portland Tribune - News
Fred Miller, deftly sidestepping Enron's shadow, confronts takeover, PUD threats
Fred Miller, point man for Portland General Electric in its battle to head off a threatened public takeover and keep Oregon's biggest utility in private hands, has a thing about T-shirts.
Few other people could get away with poking fun at the serpentine twists in PGE's fortunes as it has sought Ñ with varying degrees of success Ñ to put some daylight between itself and Enron Corp., its bankrupt and disgraced parent.
But Miller, whose official title of executive vice president of public policy and consumer services doesn't fully capture the breadth of his influence, has reveled in broadcasting each new twist in the saga with an emblazoned T-shirt.
Miller's T-shirt collection now numbers sixÑ from a well-worn Enron Corp. T-shirt to a 'City of Portland' T-shirt to reflect the city's quest to buy the electric company.
'He's not what you'd call a stiff person,' said Portland developer John Russell, a former Portland Development Commission chairman and a friend. 'He's got a great sense of humor.'
The politically savvy Miller, who spent years as a top official in state government posts in Salem and is tightly plugged in to the state's power elite, is PGE's Mr. Outside, its face to the community.
He's the guy mapping a strategy aimed at outfoxing Ñ through advertising and public relations moves Ñ both those advocating that the city purchase the utility from Enron and consumer activists who want to establish a people's utility district to take PGE out of Enron's hands by fiat.
Miller's boss, Chief Executive Officer Peggy Fowler Ñ a PGE veteran who knows virtually every company employee's name Ñ is the inside operator and nuts-and-bolts manager.
'We balance things out pretty well,' Miller said.
It was Miller who orchestrated the July 15 kickoff of the Citizens Against Public Takeover campaign to fight a Multnomah County PUD.
And last week he began crisscrossing the state Ñ meeting with commissioners, mayors and newspaper editorial boards Ñ to make his case for a return to the old PGE without government, and public, intervention.
Relationships are tested
After 12 years at PGE, Miller is in the top tier of Portland executives. For a man used to moving things in the business community, the Enron taint and the city's attempt to buy PGE have put a strain on some relationships. Public power proponents see him as the villainous messenger of Enron control and higher electricity rates.
'It's a controversial area to navigate,' Russell said.
Still, Miller 'knows what the endgame is and how to move in that direction,' said George Passadore, Wells Fargo Oregon regional chairman.
Normally reserved and unruffled, Miller betrays frustration or anger by the intonation of his baritone voice. And, he can be blunt. He calls the PUD proposal, which would condemn PGE and take over operations, 'pretty dumb' and is quick to criticize the city's priorities in spending $800,000 to buy PGE.
City Commissioner Erik Sten has proposed a plan to establish a regional task force of public officials and business leaders to oversee any PGE sale.
'I don't think that private companies need that kind of oversight,' Miller said. 'I don't know that I'd want to invest more resources in oversight.'
If his tone seems strident, he allows, 'that's because I'm right.'
Although he and Miller disagree on goals, Sten said Miller has always kept in touch.
'Fred's his own person,' he said. 'I don't know how much he chooses his own role or if it is chosen for him. He's trying to defend PGE's integrity, and at the same time Enron is calling the shots. He's always been a person who is collaborative and works with other parties. It's hard for his style to be successful under Enron's approach.'
Influence crosses the board
Miller is one of those rare people who have achieved prominence in both the public and private sectors. He was executive director of the Oregon Department of Transportation under Gov. Vic Atiyeh, a Republican, and was on the executive staffs of former Govs. Neil Goldschmidt and Barbara Roberts, both Democrats.
'I'm the only one appointed by four different governors, and no one asked my party,' Miller said. 'It didn't even come up. In Oregon, people tend to follow people more than a party.'
He does stand firm on one politician Ñ his wife, Karla Wenzel, who stepped down from the Portland School Board last May after one term.
The two met 14 years ago when both were working at the state Capitol.
'We were both running, doing marathons,' Miller recalled. 'She was in state government; so was I.'
They married in 1990; it was Miller's second marriage. He has two daughters from his first marriage, Hilary, 29, and Laura, 24, both working in politics.
The partnership made it easy for Miller to work for the ballot initiative to fund schools, as well as transportation, library and business issues. The power couple attend political and community events five nights out of seven, usually meeting up at two or three of them. Sometimes he takes their two children, Madeline, 8, and Jackson, 5.
World travelers, Miller and Wenzel dream of one day taking a year off to live in Spain. They've also been to Portugal, South Africa, New Zealand and Oaxaca, Mexico.
'We couldn't do it while she was on the school board,' he said. Now that Wenzel has left that post, 'My job is the determining factor,' he said. 'I enjoy it. It'd be hard to leave. At some stage I could leave.'
It's easy to believe that Miller would take off for an international destination without a second thought.
He once joked that if PGE were sold again, he'd go live in Guatemala, a country he's visited three times. With his $200,000 salary and twice-yearly $200,000 retention bonuses, he certainly has the financial wherewithal.
When asked if he ever considered running for office, Miller replied: 'Not seriously. It comes up periodically, but it hasn't been in my game plan. I can do more on policy issues in this job than I could if I were elected.'
Early starts in travel, teaching
Miller grew up in Southwest Portland, lettering in basketball and baseball at Wilson High School.
He attended Willamette University in Salem for a year and then went on to graduate with a degree in economics from Portland State University. With a fellowship in hand, he earned a master's degree and doctorate in economics from Michigan State University in 1967.
'For me, life got easier at every step,' he said. 'I always wanted to be the best, get all A's.'
Though always an overachiever, Miller did have one 'James Dean moment,' as he calls it, at the age of 22.
'I left a car in a tree once,' he recalled of his night spent partying. 'I was just tired. The car didn't make the corner as fast as I wanted it to, and I kind of parked up in a tree. I had to hop down five or six feet. I just went home and went to sleep.'
It was as adviser on an American Heritage trip to Europe in 1964 that Miller got interested in international economic development and living in Latin America. He wrote his dissertation while living in Argentina a year later.
'I thought I'd either get drafted or get a teaching job,' said Miller, who at 24 was of draft age for the Vietnam War. At the time, teaching earned a deferral from the draft.
Hired by Oregon State University in 1967 to teach economics, Miller spent much of his five-year tenure at the school traveling the world.
In 1968 he moved to Peru on a Fulbright scholarship and lived three semesters on a ship that sailed around the world.
'I've probably been to most countries that have a deep-water port,' he said.
In 1972 he left OSU for an economic consulting job at the state Highway Division. Gov. Robert Straub's office called Miller in 1976 to see if he wanted to serve as director of the Oregon Department of Energy. There, he took charge of regulating the Trojan Nuclear Power plant at the same time PGE was trying to site the Pebble Springs nuclear power plant in Arlington. The PGE proposal for that never passed.
When Goldschmidt became governor in 1986, Miller came aboard as director of the state Executive Department with responsibility for state agencies. Tom Imeson, later head of Gov. Ted Kulongoski's transition team, was Goldschmidt's executive assistant.
When Dick Reiten, head of the economic development department in Salem at the same time that Miller was there, joined PGE as its president, he hired his friend.
'He (Reiten) wanted someone who knew people and issues on the outside,' said Miller, who added that he never expected to succeed Reiten when the latter left PGE to take over as CEO of NW Natural.
Though Miller and Fowler are rumored to have had a fallout with Reiten over the aborted merger of PGE and NW Natural, Miller says they are still friends.
Miller continues to see many of the ex-pols he worked with. Atiyeh's granddaughter attends the same elementary school as Miller's children. Goldschmidt spoke on PGE's behalf at last week's kickoff of the Citizens Against the Government Takeover Committee, which is working to oppose government takeover proposals and people's utility district campaigns. Also attending were Russell, Passadore and real estate executive Clayton Hering.
PGE's own polling finds that 70 percent of those surveyed favor returning PGE to its former status as an independent company, 12 percent favor a government takeover, 10 percent have no preference, 5 percent don't know or have another idea, and 3 percent don't know.
Miller said he has nothing against PUDs, but the one proposed by the Utility Reform Project, he said, 'happens to be a pretty dumb idea. There's no geographic sense, no employees.'
Still, the PUD campaign is building momentum. It's close to having enough signatures to get the question on the March 2004 ballot in Clackamas and Yamhill counties, according to reform project officials. Multnomah County voters will get a crack at it this November.
Miller said he wouldn't feel any differently about the public takeover proposals even if he were still serving in the public sector, something he says he doesn't plan to do again.
If he changes his mind, though, his friends who see his T-shirts will be the first to know.