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The power alert in California, for the time being, is off, but the state’s scary energy crisis burns on. It’s a Friday morning in late February, and Michael Kahn, the governor’s on-call adviser and chief negotiator with the power utilities, doesn’t have time to talk. He leaves a hurried but thorough voicemail message, his voice raspy with a cold. For the last five days, he says, he’s been negotiating around the clock with heads of the state’s largest utilities, Pacific Gas and Electric Company and Southern California Edison Company, a unit of Edison International. “We hope to make some deals quick,” says the 52-year-old lawyer, in order to keep those utilities out of bankruptcy. It’s often necessary to trade voicemails or e-mails with Kahn, since he’s spent most of January and February on the road, working at Gov. Gray Davis’ headquarters in Sacramento or in Washington, D.C. Kahn’s job is to work out the details of the governor’s hotly debated plan for a new state energy authority that would take over most of the transmission lines from the state’s utilities. A great way to keep the legal meter running, right? Well, not exactly. This isn’t Kahn’s regular gig. He isn’t even being paid for it. As head of the litigation department and name partner at San Francisco�based Folger Levin & Kahn, Kahn keeps up his case load, checking in regularly with clients and a small but loyal cadre of associates in the 60-lawyer firm who work on his matters while he’s away. Kahn, who has been with the firm since 1979, was the third partner to join, after founders Peter Folger and John Levin. The firm is made up mostly of litigators, with a smaller transactional practice based in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Kahn played a direct role in some of the firm’s biggest cases, like the 1983 Stringfellow Superfund suit, one of the largest environmental cleanup cases in the country. Relying heavily on other litigators at the firm to pick up the slack, Kahn often holds conference calls in the evening, phoning clients from his hotel room or while driving the now familiar hour-and-a-half route from his San Francisco home to Sacramento. With his private practice and public service combined, Kahn has averaged “way over 3,000 hours” a year since he was drafted to help the state avoid an energy calamity. Active in Democratic politics and public affairs since the early 1990s, Kahn was eager to say yes when the governor needed someone to head the state’s newly energized Electricity Oversight Board in December 1999. When California’s energy crisis heated up last summer, he headed an early task force to tackle the problem, and then moved straight to the epicenter recently when Davis named him chairman of the board of the California Independent System Operator, the state-controlled agency that basically keeps the lights on. The governor has needed him most in negotiations to get the utilities to accept the state’s controversial bailout plan. And fast. “We’re going to salvage this in the next 30 to 60 days,” Kahn said in February. And then, of course, Kahn’s day job still needs doing. “I don’t know how he does it,” says Karen Petrulakis, an associate at Folger Levin who works closely with Kahn. “He’ll check his voicemail and there’ll be 20 messages.” Being chummy with the governor can’t be bad for business, but the intense, hard-nosed negotiator says he keeps his legal career and his government connections separate. He juggles the work not for political notoriety, colleagues say, but because he believes he can get the job done. Says one lawyer who’s been up against Kahn in court: “He’s a straight shooter who’s down to business.” San Francisco litigator Barry Goode, who worked with Kahn on Stringfellow and recently became Davis’ legal affairs secretary, says, “Mike’s not one of these people who likes the horse race. He really cares.” Kahn says he doesn’t plan to run for office, nor does he have other political aspirations. But don’t expect the lights to go out on this insider’s political career anytime soon.

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