Elizabeth Echols, director of the state Office of Ratepayer Advocates, defends consumers against rate increases by utilities. (Christina House / Christina House)
The gig: Elizabeth Echols, 56, is director of the state Office of Ratepayer Advocates, the agency that represents consumers before the California Public Utilities Commission. She oversees 147 engineers, economists and financial experts who work for low utility rates for consumers. The Virginia native who grew up in Berkeley was confirmed to the post March 13.
Heroes: Echols is nothing if not passionate about the causes she pursues. Her mother, Jean Echols, an artist and educator in Berkeley, was her first inspiration. Observing her mother’s enduring focus on helping children served as an example. Then she found heroes in Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. “The reason for that is just their commitment and sacrifice for the goal of equality and equal opportunity. Both of them were prepared to die for the cause.”
Elite education: After graduating from Berkeley High School, Echols attended Yale University, from which she graduated in 1982 with a degree in economics and political science. “I had decided at a very young age that I wanted to go back East,” Echols said. But she eventually returned to the West Coast to earn her law degree from Stanford University in 1989.
Down under: For many years, Echols was never one to stay put too long. She loves to travel. That love carried her to Australia for a year on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship to study economics after Yale. She once took a train for three days from city to city. “Taking the train across Australia sounds boring, but it was fascinating. Crossing the desert for three days, it was beautiful because you just see the different times of day … all the little tiny towns.”
Internet regulation: Echols joined the Clinton administration about four years after working for a private sector law firm in Washington, D.C. She first served in the Commerce Department and later at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which developed Internet policies under the direction of Vice President Al Gore, who popularized the term “information superhighway.”
“We were working on what types of laws and regulations were needed for this new thing,” Echols said of the period. She said Gore, an early critic of the digital divide, told them: “Let’s not overregulate it. Let’s encourage it to grow.” She eventually joined Gore in the White House.
Bridging the divide: After working in the Clinton administration on digital issues, Echols moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area for nonprofit work that focused on teaching low-income consumers, women and people of color about Web design and programming. She described it as some of her most rewarding work.
As Google talked of organizing the world’s information and making it accessible to everyone, she decided to join the Silicon Valley giant. She again connected with Gore, who at the time was talking about renewable energy and energy efficiency. That became her new focus. “I was there listening to him in the audience, and I said, ‘I really need to turn my time and talent to that,’” she said.
A new day: With the hope and change touted by the Obama administration, Echols returned to work for the federal government, this time as the U.S. Small Business Administration administrator for Western states. “That was all about creating economic opportunity,” Echols said. Eventually, the politics bug bit her and she made an unsuccessful run for the California Assembly to represent Berkeley, Oakland and other East Bay cities.
What’s next: As it has been through much of her career, Echols’ goal now is to ensure all people have equal access to services. “Now it’s access to essential services, whether water or electricity,” she said. “The thread that runs through all of these different pieces of my career — for me it’s about creating opportunity and access for people, and particularly our underserved communities.”
Echols knows the challenges of making ends meet first hand. She was one of four children raised by a mother who earned only a modest income as an artist. It’s something she keeps in the forefront of her mind as she works to defend consumers against rate increases by utilities. “I learned growing up the value of a dollar,” Echols said. “It’s a dollar. It’s important.”
Personal: Echols lives in Oakland with her husband of 12 years, Parviz Boozarpour. They have a 3-year-old daughter, Theresa. “She’s a riot,” Echols said. “I like to hike. I like to camp. I actually met my husband on a Sierra Club hike.” Though they don’t travel as much with a young child, it remains one of her passions. “There’s so much to see and learn about other cultures,” she said.
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