Making Time for Government Service: Michael Kahn

WHEN CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR GRAY DAVIS ASKED MICHAEL KAHN IF HE’D LIKE TO CHAIR THE STATE’S ELECTRICITY OVERSIGHT BOARD, it sounded like an interesting volunteer opportunity—but not a particularly daunting one. “I took over in January 2000, and it was very sleepy,” recalls Kahn ’73 (MA ’73). “Everybody said there was a surplus of electricity. Everybody said we were going to be fine. Four months later, the roof fell in.”

• A senior partner at Folger Levin & Kahn in San Francisco, he has had an exceptionally successful career as an attorney handling high-profile cases involving federal and state court proceedings. But Kahn also makes time for public service, something he considers a professional and personal obligation. And, in his spare time, he is an avid collector of political cartoons and recently published his second book of key works from his collection.

• Kahn was hardly a stranger to the idea of public service. As a young lawyer, he worked pro bono for San Francisco’s Legal Aid Society and helped formulate the Northern California district court’s innovative alternative dispute resolution program. He has chaired state-level task forces on environmental insurance and unfair insurance business practices and just finished an eight-year term with the California Commission on Judicial Performance, which he also chaired.

• “Right from the beginning, it just struck me that public service was something that a lawyer ought to do,” he explains. “I never really thought about it. It was just second nature.”

• Working with the head of the state Public Utilities Commission, Kahn immediately prepared a report for Davis analyzing what had gone wrong with deregulation and offering possible solutions. Impressed by what he read, Davis tapped Kahn to head the newly minted California Green Energy Team, charged with streamlining state regulatory processes that had hindered power plant construction. Kahn went on to chair the California ISO (Independent System Operator) board of governors. “The more I learned, the more I became part of the governor’s apparatus to deal with this incredible crisis,” Kahn marvels. “I talked to people at the White House. I negotiated with the utilities. I spoke to the press when I had to. It was really an interesting process.”

•Democrats apparently weren’t the only people impressed with Kahn’s work. After Davis’s recall in 2003, Kahn went to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office and offered to step down as chair of the ISO board. To his surprise, he was asked to stay on another 15 months and finish his term.

Politics and Cartoons

Kahn also makes time to pursue another of his passions: collecting political cartoons.

He is the author of the recently published Political Cartoons and Caricatures from the Collection of Michael Alexander Kahn, which describes 80 historically significant political cartoons and caricatures. The book, which catalogs items that were exhibited at the Grolier Club in New York last spring, is Kahn’s second published collection. In 2005 he coauthored, with H.L. Polhman, May It Amuse the Court: Editorial Cartoons of the Supreme Court and Constitution, an assemblage of cartoons that appeared previously in Harper’s Weekly, Vanity Fair, and elsewhere.

Making Time for Government Service: Michael Kahn
Photo by Michelle Mccarron

But these various interests and activities are connected. Kahn believes that his cartoon collection helps him keep his political and public service activities in proper perspective. “The cartoons are a warning that people shouldn’t take themselves or the situations they’re dealing with too seriously,” he says. SL