Shocking documentation of outside money plans to influence Benicia election
By Roger Straw, October 13, 2018
If you think the Benicia City Council race has been nasty so far, with negative campaigning through secretive push polls and negative phone calls, just wait… Valero and others in a new Political Action Committee (PAC) have joined together to raise over $100,000 to influence our election with additional hard-hitting negative campaign tactics. $100,000 – over 3 times the limit each individual candidate is allowed to spend on their campaign!
So… you can expect to see negative ads making outrageous claims against Kari Birdseye on TV and Facebook. Expect nasty signs around town, more negative telephone campaign calls, glossy mailers delivered to your door, and who knows what else? To understand the dark nature of their plans, you really do need to check out the phone script and photocopies of ads in the City reports at right. They want to buy a seat on Council.
According to official City of Benicia documents (see at right), Valero wrote a $14,200 check to help fund a Political Action Committee that goes by the nearly endless name, “Working Families for a Strong Benicia, a Coalition of Labor, Industrial Services Companies, Public Safety and Local Leaders Supporting Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada and Opposing Kari Birdseye for Benicia City Council in 2018.”
Besides Valero’s $14,200, the other interested parties are throwing in another $90,000 to fund the WFSB anti-Birdseye campaign.
My opinion? They better hope this works. Can you imagine campaigning this viciously against someone and then losing? Not the smartest way to try and “mend fences” after a near disastrous chemical release in 2017 and a pledge to be a “good neighbor.” Is this how good neighbors act?
We’re not all that far away from the election – you can expect the PAC to spend this huge amount in the next three weeks. Benicia will be inundated with their anti-Kari messaging.
Remember: this tactic was tried by Big Oil previously when Chevron spent $3 million to try and buy four city council seats in Richmond in 2014. It failed spectacularly. San Francisco State political science Professor Robert Smith wrote of the Richmond outcome, “This means that big money doesn’t always win, that ordinary people can defeat huge corporate power.” sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Chevron-s-3-million-backfires-in-Richmond-5873779
Let’s hope that Benicia voters see past the slick mailers and negative hit pieces that will soon be flooding our mailboxes and FaceBook feeds. Kari Birdseye for Benicia City Council!
I pointed out that candidate Christina Strawbridge made a huge difference in 2016, voting to stop Valero’s dangerous and dirty Crude by Rail proposal, but I went on to give a critical review of a few of Strawbridge’s votes on environmental issues.
Christina wrote a friendly and detailed response to my criticism, and she deserves to be heard on the issues. Here are her comments, along with my responses:
BENINDY NEWSLETTER: “…she voted in favor of Seeno development…”
CHRISTINA: I did not vote for development of the Seeno Property. It never came before me while I served on the Council. This fabrication was used extensively against me in the last election. The closest I came was to ask Council in a 2 step process to put the use of the property on the Agenda to discuss. Even though a majority agreed to that request it never happened.
ROGER: I apologize for misstating the facts in my newsletter, however there is more to the story. Seeno was back with a proposal, the Northern Gateway Project in 2015-2016, when Christina was on Council. She is right to point out that the project never came before Council – for approval. The project proponent, suspected Seeno surrogate Schwartz Land Development, approached the Council to be placed on the agenda for “guidance.” Christina voted approval with a majority and so Council convened a workshop. Ultimately the developer withdrew their plans when public opposition arose. Opponents of the project were strongly objecting to the housing element in the proposal, and skeptical of the developer’s claim of no relation to the Seeno family. When a proposal comes before Council in a 2-step process, it is often fair to vote for an airing of pros and cons and discussion regardless of one’s opinion on the merits of the proposal. But when Council convened the “guidance” workshop on Feb 23, 2016 Christina offered the following accommodating remarks as shown in the minutes: “Council Member Strawbridge discussed the need to figure out economic development within the City. The issue is what would be a viable project in the area. She would like to move forward with the project so we can see what can be done creatively out there (affordable housing, etc.).” [Emphasis added.]
VALERO GETS GOOD NEIGHBOR SETTLEMENT MONEY
BENINDY NEWSLETTER: “[she voted] in favor of a nearly million-dollar give back to Valero…”
CHRISTINA: The million $$$ give back to Valero. I believe you are referring to the grant recommendations through the Sustainability Commission for remaining money in the Good Neighbor Settlement. This was at the height of the historic drought and the project that Valero wanted to use the money for was a large water conservation project.
ROGER: Valero’s boiler construction project was a good idea at the height of our historic drought. But the Sustainability Commission’s settlement funds were no substitute for the deep pockets of Valero Energy Corporation to fund the project. Christina voted with Hughes and Schwartzman on June 17, 2014 to flip $829,000 of the Valero / Good Neighbor settlement money back to Valero to fund the project. The Community Sustainability Commission recommended against distribution of grant funds to corporate giant Valero, pointing out that Valero could easily afford the outlay itself and recoup costs in about a year. The CSC preferred to spread the money over a longer period of time to fund local climate solutions that would otherwise be unlikely to move forward. By flipping the recommendation, most of the remaining funds were spent, decimating the ability of the Sustainability Commission to make further significant investments in smaller projects that would benefit Benicia.
DEFUNDING OF BENICIA’S CLIMATE ACTION COORDINATOR
BENINDY NEWSLETTER: [she voted] “in favor of a budget that discontinued employment of Benicia’s Climate Action Coordinator”
CHRISTINA: Funding the Climate Action Coordinator. As you might recall the contract ended for the CAP coordinator Alex Porteshawver when she left Sonoma State University’s Center for Sustainable Communities to work for a for a company that wanted to provide less service for more money. There was thought that the solar project savings would pay for the coordinator. That was not the case. During deliberation, I asked the Community Development Director if there had been an attempt to negotiate with the company to allow some continued presence of Alex. Staff’s response was the company was not interested. I believe the CAP coordinator was an important asset to our community and Alex was really well thought of in the industry. Perhaps with a different staff and more creative thinking she would still be here.
ROGER: Christina gives a fair defense here. Budget decisions are complex and difficult, and often must include compromises. Public support for the Climate Action Coordinator was huge, and the numbers showed that she more than paid for her salary through city savings. Disappointment lingers. If Christina is elected, I hope she will work with our new City Staff and Council to revisit funding for a Climate Action Coordinator. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
CHRISTINA’S OTHER ENVIRONMENTAL VOTES & ENDORSEMENTS
CHRISTINA: Some things you left out about being environmentally insensitive with my voting record:
voted for MCE Marin Clean Energy
supported the completion of the solar project pump 3
voted to move forward for obtaining grants for the water reuse project
served/serve on the Solano County State Parks Committee to coordinate efforts to keep the 2 State Parks open and get the State to do work on deferred maintenance, (Currently on the board of the Benicia State Parks Association)
voted to fund the BRIP Business Resource Incentive Program whose goal was to assist businesses in improving productivity and viability through energy and resource savings. BRIP won multiple awards in combining economic development and sustainability for Benicia businesses
voted for a comprehensive water conservation program to save water and find funding for lawn replacement, gray water use, etc.
I have also been endorsed by the Sierra Club and the Solano County Orderly Growth Committee.
ROGER: Christina’s record on environmental issues definitely has some pluses, but it also has some poor marks. Suffice to say, every vote on Council is nuanced, and there are often times when a compromise is called for. In the end, however, the alliances we strike are in fact important, and outcomes matter. In her 2016 campaign for Council, Christina aligned herself with Mark Hughes for Mayor. Hughes’ comments and votes on Council have been uniformly insensitive to needs of the environment – he even waffles on the significance of human causes of climate change. Hughes strongly supported Valero Crude by Rail and has fallen short on many other important issues. Christina is currently supported in her run for Council by Hughes.
MY LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE – THE CLIMATE AND OUR LOCAL ELECTION
For the first 35 years of my adult life, my priority was on peace and freedom, justice and equality under the law. That and helping folks in need. Sometime in 2007, a friend and colleague spoke convincingly to me about the planetary threat of climate change, global warming. I was skeptical, but I didn’t argue with her. I listened, and somehow, I came to understand that everything – EVERYTHING – is at stake, that creation itself is in the balance. The science is indisputable. My life since then has revolved around environmental causes, and I’ve taken seriously the mantra, “Think globally, act locally.” I’ve helped elect Benicia leaders who share my views; I’ve campaigned against bulldozing development on Seeno land; I’ve helped organize Benicians to successfully deny giant Valero’s dangerous and dirty crude by rail proposal; I’ve helped awaken Benicia to the serious need of better air monitors in and beyond the refinery. These concerns are front and center as I consider my vote for City Council this fall.
One candidate spoke out repeatedly in favor of toxic and potentially explosive oil trains: Lionel Largaespada. He’s a nice guy but he doesn’t belong in a position of power at the heart of our city.
Another candidate was a deciding vote in 2016 to stop Valero’s oil train proposal in its tracks. Christina Strawbridge will get a lot of votes for that, and she should. I hope Christina wins, but it’s hard to overlook many of her votes. She frequently voted with business-friendly and environmentally insensitive colleagues. For instance, she voted in favor of Seeno development, in favor of a nearly million-dollar give back to Valero, and in favor of a budget that discontinued employment of Benicia’s Climate Action Coordinator. The one candidate who stands out as a shepherd of the planet’s future is Kari Birdseye. Thoughtfully independent and caring, she now presides collaboratively over Benicia’s Planning Commission, where she voted in 2016 to send Valero’s oil train proposal down the tubes. Her professional work is for an award-winning environmental non-profit. She’s also a mom, with a long history of involvement in Benicia’s schools, where she has raised funds for good causes and led everyday moms and dads to unite for constructive outcomes. Those abilities will be needed in our future as we work together to build economic diversity and sustainabilityin our beautiful, family-friendly art town by the Strait. I have come to know Kari personally. She’s a straight shooter, tough and yet nurturing, open to conversation and compromise, but with eyes always peeled for the good of mother earth, the air, land and water. Kari Birdseye is my number one priority in this election. And I hope she will be yours as well. Check her out, order a yard sign, volunteer and donate at BirdsyeForBenicia.com.