SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A Southern California congressman is invoking the deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion in his bitter primary fight with another incumbent, saying it was wrong for his opponent to accept help from a political action committee that took money from Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
Rep. Brad Sherman's campaign sent a full-color mailer to voters this week attempting to tie fellow Democratic Rep. Howard Berman to the 2010 explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in a San Francisco Bay area suburb.
The flier claims Berman was wrong to accept help from Rebuilding America, a political action committee that worked on his behalf and received funds from PG&E, which operated the pipeline. It includes an ominous photograph of firefighters battling the gas-fueled fire and another shot showing burned-out vehicles and leveled homes, and it highlights that PG&E contributed $10,000 to a PAC that aims to elect Berman.
"In 2010, PG&E's failure to maintain their gas line resulted in a massive explosion and eight deaths in San Bruno," the two-sided mailer reads. "In 2012, PG&E is spending thousands to elect Congressman Howard Berman."
Allison Jaslow, a spokeswoman for Berman, said the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee does not coordinate with the super PAC, and Sherman showed poor taste in highlighting the blast for political purposes. Berman's camp also pointed out that Sherman accepted campaign donations from PG&E's PAC in 1998, and many other Democratic candidates received contributions from it this election cycle.
"This attack is not only false, but it's unfortunate that Mr. Sherman is exploiting the San Bruno tragedy for his own political gain," she said.
The two Democratic incumbents are running for the same seat in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley this year, since new political maps redrew their congressional districts.
Sherman, one of the more senior members of the House Financial Services Committee, said the changes to the district's boundaries have pitted them against one another and "adversely affected" their friendship.
"I do not think it is the obligation of our campaign to have boring brochures," Sherman said Friday. "It is entirely appropriate that a political brochure draw the connection between issues that are important and emotional on the one hand and pertinent to Congress on the other."
The Sept. 9, 2010, San Bruno blast left lasting scars in the bedroom community overlooking the San Francisco Bay.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board found that a litany of failures by PG&E led to the explosion, and the panel concluded the accident wasn't the result of a simple mechanical failure but was rather an "organizational accident."
The mailer also insinuates that instead of spending money to make pipelines safer, PG&E was donating money to the special political action committee set up to support Berman and other Democratic candidates. Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited campaign money, and attack or support individual candidates, as long as they don't coordinate directly with the campaigns themselves.
PG&E spokesman Brian Hertzog said the claims that the utility had failed to invest in pipeline safety following the explosion were wrong.
"We have spent hundreds of millions and have committed to spend well over a billion dollars in improving our pipelines," he said. "We're also active in the political process in supporting candidates who understand our business and the needs of the company and our customers."