Cheryl LaFleur will give up her gavel next month after a short, tumultuous run at the helm of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
In her 17 months as chairwoman, grass-roots grumbling over natural gas infrastructure erupted into protests with demonstrators disrupting commission meetings and blocking doors to the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters. U.S. EPA’s draft Clean Power Plan sparked a politically charged debate over whether FERC will safeguard the grid. A fight brewed over a capacity auction in LaFleur’s native New England with a loud call for her resignation.
And in the middle of it all there was Capitol Hill mud wrestling over how long she should lead the commission.
"My time as chair," the understated LaFleur said, "has not been really standard."
LaFleur’s not really standard either. The first utility executive ever to lead FERC grew up a blue-collar kid working odd jobs and excelling in the classroom to win scholarships as one of Princeton’s first female students and becoming her family’s first child to attend college. She’s a Harvard lawyer who raised two children while working her way up in the utility industry. Oh, yes, she also survived a brain tumor.
And she never lost her quick, dry sense of humor.
"She’s a stitch," said former Exelon CEO John Rowe, LaFleur’s former boss and mentor.
Rowe recalled LaFleur being forced to handle a difficult firing. "Another manager came in to see her, and said, ‘We all knew … you had the you-know-whats to do it’," Rowe said. Her response: "’Do you think he meant my ovaries?’"
LaFleur, 60, hams it up at speaking engagements and at FERC’s monthly meetings, wearing a New England Patriots jersey before a big football game and chiding her colleagues about their sports allegiances. Last month, she played along as EPA’s air chief highlighted the danger squirrels pose to the electric grid with a quip about line workers carrying "throwdown" critters in their trucks to place blame during outages.
But LaFleur acknowledged being taken aback by personal attacks on her after her appointment as FERC’s acting chairwoman after Chairman Jon Wellinghoff’s departure in November 2013.
One of the harshest was in an op-ed on the Al Jazeera website calling for her to step down for failing to regulate, an accusation stemming from her decision last year to keep New England’s annual capacity auction results intact despite a spike in prices.
"The suggestion in the article that somehow I am biased in some way or the other, I think [was] entirely uninformed and did not reflect my record of how I voted and what I’ve done since I’ve been on the commission," she said in a recent interview in her 11th-floor office at FERC’s D.C. headquarters.
"I’ve tried really hard to be independent."
Nobody ever questioned LaFleur’s work ethic.
At age 14, she received her first work permit and started on a string of teenage jobs in her hometown, Framingham, Mass.
She filled jelly doughnuts at Tastee Donut. She cut out newspaper stories for the New England News Clip Agency. She worked the produce counter at Star Market. She waited tables at Howard Johnson’s.
Framingham — a city of about 68,000 people — was then a blue-collar manufacturing hub where General Motors produced Buicks. Today, the city is better known for hosting white-collar technology and the corporate headquarters of Staples, TJX and Bose Audio.
Irene Bertozzi Bartenstein, who’s known LaFleur since seventh grade, remembered her as outgoing and extremely intelligent. She was voted most likely to succeed and valedictorian of her 1972 graduating class at Framingham North High School. She recalled LaFleur being a loyal friend as the two waited tables on the night shift at Howard Johnson’s on the "Pike," Interstate 90.
"A couple of times I got overwhelmed, and in her usual, efficient manner … ran over and helped me," Bartenstein said. "She’d go to bat for anyone."
LaFleur said she put in long hours because her parents were helping pay her way to an out-of-state school, and her brother Mark, five years younger, was soon to follow.
Her mother, Linda, now 85 and living in Massachusetts, was a homemaker who had a series of part-time jobs. Her father, Roland, was a World War II veteran who went to trade school on the GI Bill. He later worked as an instructor at a school for aircraft mechanics by day and fixed cars at Sears Roebuck by night. He died at age 59.
LaFleur started thinking about becoming a lawyer while she was a high school student volunteering for an organization that helped mentally handicapped children. People at the time were suing to stop efforts to close schools for de-institutionalized and "mainstream" handicapped children, and LaFleur said she saw how the law could spur change and improve lives.
At the age 17, she left Framingham to become the first in her family to attend college, graduating in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in politics from Princeton after three years. Her class was the third with females. She later graduated from Harvard Law School to practice civil and criminal litigation before entering the legal field and later the energy sector.
During her first year at Princeton, LaFleur would meet a fellow student, Bill Kuncik, who she would marry years later at a church on campus surrounded by college friends. They would later move to Boston to start their legal careers.
"Our roommates were set up on a blind date, and we were sort of swept along," she said. "I was a working-class Catholic kid from New England, and he was also a working-class Catholic kid from New England. We had chemistry."
Looking back, LaFleur said her string of part-time gigs lends perspective to a hard day in D.C.
"From when I worked in the doughnut shop to now, every job has the parts you really like that get you out of bed and the parts you just put up with," LaFleur said. "I don’t think anyone likes getting nasty tweets or being criticized, but it’s part of being in public life and making decisions."
‘It toughened me up’
LaFleur made the move to the utility sector in 1986.
She was working then for the Bank of Boston and met one of the bank directors, Samuel Huntington, president and CEO of the New England Electric System (NEES).
The meeting was serendipitous. LaFleur was looking for a job that would give her enough flexibility to keep tabs on her children (Daniel, now 29, and Allison, now 27), and Huntington’s company offered it, allowing her to work at home at night after putting her kids to bed.
Her career would change course in 1988 after Huntington was killed by a lightning strike while hiking in Aspen, Colo.
NEES chose Rowe as Huntington’s successor. He hired LaFleur to be his assistant and speech writer. In 2000, National Grid Group acquired New England Electric System, one step in the company’s slow march to becoming the largest combined electricity transmission and distribution network in the New England and New York.
Rowe, who served as the utility’s president and CEO of from 1989 to 1998, said he quickly saw LaFleur was bright, intuitive and easy to work with. She excelled.
She went on to serve as National Grid’s executive vice president and acting CEO, a process through which Rowe said LaFleur grew into a leader in the sector, earning the respect of those around her.
"May be family stuff, but she felt very awkward as a young lawyer," Rowe said. "It took a while for her very superior work ethic and abilities to become obvious to others who might have otherwise been off put by what some would say was naivete."
On her first day running New England’s distribution business, an explosion at an electrical substation in Everett, Mass., killed one worker and injured two others. LaFleur spent the next few years helping the victims’ families, rebuilding the company’s safety program and ultimately cutting accidents at the company by two-thirds within two years.
Another seminal moment would arrive in 2002, when she was diagnosed with a benign tumor on the nerve connecting the inner ear to the brain, an acoustic neuroma.
She took seven weeks off for surgery, a decision she shared with her colleagues at the time.
"It’s something you don’t expect to happen," LaFleur said.
Although her hearing is better in the left ear and her balance is slightly off — she doesn’t ride bikes or horses — LaFleur said she’s fully recovered.
"I did feel," she said, "like it toughened me up."
Time runs out
LaFleur gaveled her last public FERC meeting to a close last week following outbursts by a dozen protestors wearing matching red T-shirts, shouting, "Stop Construction at Cove Point," a reference to a liquefied natural gas shipping terminal project in Lusby, Md.
Security guards stepped in to empty the room.
LaFleur later told reporters that the agency’s mood is positive despite the protests, and the commission is listening to activists concerned about climate change and the spread of gas infrastructure. She also outlined her points of pride, including navigating the agency through uncertain times, including a federal investigation about leaked data that would emerge.
But with less than a month left to lead FERC, some say LaFleur was given an impossibly short time — nine months as chairwoman and eight as acting chairwoman — to make change as the agency’s head.
"A nine-month period is almost impossible to make a significant policy footprint on FERC because it’s an insufficient amount of time," said Wellinghoff, LaFleur’s predecessor and the agency’s longest-serving chairman. Wellinghoff had a hand in spearheading ambitious rules, such as Order 1000, which encouraged more renewable energy deployment and pushed the evolution of the electric grid.
Wellinghoff said the chairman has authority to direct FERC’s 1,500 staffers while commissioners have three advisers and a support staff but cannot direct rulemakings or rule changes.
Pushing through any major initiative, he said, involves working with staff, asking questions and writing white papers that can take a long time — a luxury LaFleur didn’t have.
"You can kind of keep things in place and make sure they don’t get radically changed or reversed, but it’s very difficult," he added.
‘I love being chairman’
Was LaFleur expecting a stormy time at FERC?
She first received the call from the White House to serve at FERC in 2010. She recalled that the timing was good for her to make the move to D.C. Her kids were grown, and her husband was nearing retirement and focusing on his hobbies.
For Kuncik, a Civil War buff, the move would bring him closer to the battlefields. He now devotes time to collecting model trains and studying for a master’s at Georgetown University.
"I work at FERC, and he has all the hobbies," LaFleur joked.
LaFleur sidesteps questions about politics that led to her shortened term, saying she’s learned from the experience.
It’s unlikely LaFleur could have anticipated the fireworks. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last year told The Wall Street Journal he would block her nomination to lead the commission over concerns about consumer protections.
Her nine-month run was then hammered out by senators, who agreed to approve FERC Commissioner Norman Bay — the agency’s former enforcement guru — to lead the agency only after the White House agreed he would remain a member for at least nine months.
LaFleur said she had no hand in crafting the deal. "Honestly, I did not negotiate it for myself," she said.
Still, Wellinghoff and other FERC watchers say LaFleur has done well with her shortened time at the top. She’s ramped up communication with EPA as the Clean Power Plan takes shape. She moved to protect the grid from solar storms and physical attacks. Now she’s deep in discussions about how regulators can best help utilities navigate new markets and environmental regulations.
LaFleur has made clear she intends to stay on as commissioner after she hands over the gavel on April 15.
"It’ll definitely be an adjustment … because I love being chairman," she said. "I feel lucky to have had that time."