Valero spokesperson refused to promise fair campaigns, Air District exposes Valero’s multi-year toxic emissions
At 2019 public presentation by Valero in Benicia, Paul Adler, Valero Benicia’s Director of Government Affairs and Community Relations, declined to respond to a question regarding the refinery’s interfering in local Benicia elections.
Benicia resident Andrés Soto was in the audience, and posed a question during Q&A. Recalling Valero’s malicious attacks in Benicia’s 2018 election, Mr. Soto posed a question: “You say you want to be a ‘good neighbor.’ Will you pledge not to conduct a similar negative campaign in the local elections in 2020, and let Benicians make their own decisions?” Mr. Adler’s refused to make the pledge.
This video shifts midway to a March, 2022 Benicia City Council presentation by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. At that meeting, air quality experts informed the city leaders and residents of serious huge multi-year toxic emissions violations heretofore unreported by the Valero Refinery.
The One Way in Which Our Wonderful Benicia’s Politics Are Worse Than Those of Big Cities
By Stephen Golub, Benicia Resident, October 31, 2020
When my wife and I moved to Benicia, one major reason we did so is the wonderful sense of community here. Even during these terrible Covid times, this town’s warmth has continued to shine through. And though my fantastic neighbors and I don’t always agree about politics, our chats about them have always been friendly and civil.
It’s against this backdrop that this year’s mayoral campaign, namely the negative attacks on Council Member Steve Young by the Valero-backed PAC, Working Families for a Strong Benicia, has been so appalling. The many lies and distortions have apparently included blasting him for his legitimately receiving a publicly funded pension. What’s next? Denigrating someone for getting social security?
To be clear, before for I go any further: I recognize that Valero and its local workers have legitimate interests and that it donates to Benicia’s well-being in many much-appreciated ways. But while individuals who work for Valero here may arrange such contributions with the best of intentions, the corporation’s Texas headquarters is not funding them out of the goodness of its heart. Rather, it’s to influence perceptions of the company and thus increase its influence on our city.
If Valero were simply out to help, think of how many meals for hungry families impacted by the Covid economy or services for school kids could have been purchased with the nearly $400,000 that Valero and its allies put into tainting our politics in 2018 and 2020.
Furthermore, I respect Vice Mayor Christina Strawbridge’s devotion to Benicia. But I’m nonetheless disappointed that her disavowal of the Valero PAC’s attacks on Mr. Young have been so weak and late, largely confined to a couple of recent online candidate forums, and that she has sought to equate its massive spending with negative but much less impactful social media insults against her.
I also give her kudos for responding quickly and thoughtfully when I emailed her campaign about the PAC’s attacks on Steve Young. But meek disavowals by her do not make for a convincing rejection of its attacks on Mr. Young. And in view of the PAC’s strenuous support for her, they do nothing to reassure us about how she will deal with Valero if she wins.
All this brings me to how the PAC’s actions have been even worse than what I’ve seen in some big cities – namely, what I witnessed years ago working in New York City politics and government and later living in Manila (in the Philippines) and, most recently, Oakland.
Here’s how: I’ve never seen so much money spent to try to sway the votes of so few people, particularly through the lies and distortions about Mr. Young that the PAC has circulated in support of Ms. Strawbridge. Between 2018 and 2020, Valero’s and its allies’ attacks on candidates it opposes have worked out to about $25 per voter here, based on the roughly 15,000 citizens who cast ballots in our elections.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Politics in those much bigger cities can get dirtier than here. But purely in terms of per person expenditure, my admittedly imperfect memory can’t recall such great levels of funding pouring into a campaign.
My concerns go beyond what’s being spent, however, to what’s being bought or at least influenced if Christina Strawbridge is elected. PACs exist to advance specific interests. This is particularly concerning in Benicia, which has seen very recent disputes, especially crude-by-rail, over Valero’s operations. Steve Young has been much stronger on such matters.
What’s more, our state is being ravaged by climate change-facilitated fires. Benicia itself is threatened by them – recall the Vallejo fire last year and the toxic skies in recent months. Other refineries are converting to biofuel processing. California’s and potentially federal policies (pending the presidential election results) are shifting away from petroleum. In light of all this, Valero should be exploring with Benicia a gradual transition that protects its interests and especially those of its workers, not adding fuel to the fire of this great town’s politics.
I’ll note that the one issue that I’ve discussed (online) with Mr. Young involved my challenging his proposal earlier this year for indirect city support for Covid-impacted Benicia businesses – an idea about which, in retrospect, he might have been right. He was civil, polite and thoughtful in his reply.
In contrast, Ms. Strawbridge could have done much better in backing away from Valero’s backing. So can we, come Election Day, by voting for Steve Young.
On October 28, The Valero PAC reported total income and expenditures for the period October 18-25.
According to the report, the PAC received no new income and made no new CASH payments, but took on new UNPAID bills amounting to $8,500 for ROBO calls and Live Calls [p. 3 and p. 8].
Note that the form seems to show much more than $8500 spent. Detailed expenditures show another $30,688 spent during this period for ROBO calls, Live Calls, & Mailers [p. 4], and another $6,500 spent during this period for Professional Services [p. 9]. This would seem to contradict the $8500 claim. To sort this out is beyond my expertise. For details, see the Form_460_Pre_Election_3.pdf.)
TOTAL EXPENDITURES in 2020: $209,399 to buy Benicia’s next Mayor.
INCOME for the period October 18 to October 25
Year to date
Monetary Contributions (International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, forgers & Helpers Local 549)
A political action committee funded mainly by the Valero Energy company has raised more than a quarter million dollars to convince Benicia residents to vote for its preferred candidate in the city’s mayoral race.
The San Antonio-based oil giant runs the Benicia refinery, one of California’s largest, which is located in the small Solano County city.
Contributions to the Working Families for a Strong Benicia PAC represent four times the total combined amount raised from individual donations by the city’s three mayoral candidates.
In the mayor’s race, Valero and one of its allied unions are supporting Councilwoman and Vice Mayor Christina Strawbridge against Councilman Steve Young — both Democrats — funding phone polls, digital ads and mailers, and reigniting a debate over the city’s future.
Since 2019, Valero has donated $240,000 to the committee. The donations come two years after the Valero-funded PAC spent thousands to help Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada win seats on the Benicia City Council and defeat Kari Birdseye, an environmentalist candidate who was outspoken about efforts to increase regulations for the refinery.
The PAC also received a $25,000 contribution from the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Lodge 549, in what the union calls an effort to stop “coastal politicians” from killing manufacturing jobs.
“Steve Young wants Benicia to be a town where tech professionals buy a latte and telecommute. Christina Strawbridge wants it to be a place where our members who live in Benicia, who come home from work dirty and tired, can continue to raise their families too,” said Timothy Jefferies, the union’s business manager.
Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia’s current mayor, and one of Valero’s leading critics, is leaving office after serving in that position for 13 years and on the City Council for 17 years prior to that.
The election arrives as Valero and other oil companies that produce and process petroleum in California face a cutback in profits brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and increasing calls for the state to move away from fossil fuels as it battles climate change-driven wildfires.
With gasoline demand dropping, two of the Bay Area’s refineries, the Marathon plant in Martinez and Phillips 66 in Rodeo, are shifting to producing cleaner sources of energy.
The two worst refinery accidents in the Bay Area in the last three years took place at Valero’s Benicia refinery. A May 2017 power outage at the refinery led to a major release of toxic sulfur, prompting city leaders to call for an industrial safety ordinance. In March 2019, the plant had a series of malfunctions that led to another significant pollution release.
Patterson and Young have since pushed for the city to have more regulatory control over the refinery. Attacks from the Valero PAC followed.
“Steve Young doesn’t need a job because he is supported by the taxpayers of California. He has no reason to protect Benicia’s jobs and tax base,” states one of the recent mailers from the Valero PAC that was widely distributed to Benicia voters.
“Christina is a local business owner and knows how important it is to keep Benicia working. Now, more than ever, we need leaders like Christina Strawbridge,” it states.
Benicia residents have also received several rounds of calls paid for by the Valero-funded PAC, aimed at convincing voters to back Strawbridge.
Young: ‘Leave it to Benicia Voters’
Young says he’s not against the refinery, noting that it’s a major part of Benicia’s economy and that Valero frequently contributes to “worthy local causes.”
“Their ongoing attempts to influence the makeup of the City Council go far beyond normal corporate interest in local affairs,” Young said in an email. “Leave it to Benicia voters to elect their own representatives.”
Young says he wants the company to be more transparent about problems and accidents at the refinery and to send out immediate alerts to Benicia residents when accidents occur. He also says the city should have stronger air quality monitoring systems in place.
“The relationship between Valero and the community is strained,” Young said, adding that city officials and refinery executives can change that by holding monthly meetings.
Young says he’s a stronger candidate than Strawbridge because of his career working in local government and his better understanding of how to address problems facing the city.
Strawbridge: ‘Heal the Divide’
Strawbridge says that since she was elected to the City Council in 2018, relations between Benicia and the refinery have improved.
She notes that while the city did not put in place the more stringent regulations that Young and Patterson wanted, Benicia reached an agreement with Valero that includes the addition of portable air monitors, notifications during hazardous material incidents and increased disclosure on incident investigations.
But she also acknowledges that the campaign work by the company’s PAC is not helping the two sides get along.
“The relationship needs to improve and may have had a setback with this election cycle and Valero’s formation of a PAC,” Strawbridge said in an email.
“There is now a continued lack of trust within the community about the methods used during the election that were similar to 2018,” she added. “Once again, Valero has gone after my opponent with negative ads. That does not work in Benicia.”
Strawbridge believes the pushback from Valero’s critics has also gone too far.
“There has been a concerted effort to discredit me on social media and the local paper by supporters of my opponent,” Strawbridge said. “As mayor of Benicia, I plan to heal the divide our city has experienced for many years.”
Strawbridge touts her experience promoting nonprofits, preserving historic buildings and advocating for parks and local tourism. She says her background in small business will help guide the city through the pandemic.
A third mayoral candidate, Jason Diavatis, who has not been supported or opposed by the Valero PAC, did not respond to a request for comment.
Influence in California
Valero’s donations to the PAC represent just one place the oil company has poured campaign contributions to influence races in California.
The oil giant and its various political action committees have contributed at least $14.1 million to California groups and congressional candidates in the state since 2015, according to a review of state and federal campaign finance data by MapLight, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that follows money in politics.
Jason Kaune, the Benicia PAC’s treasurer and head of political law at Nielsen Merksamer, a Sacramento-based lobbying firm, declined to comment. A Valero spokeswoman also did not return a request for comment.
During that election, the city filed a complaint with state campaign finance regulators, alleging that Valero sponsored a so-called push poll intended to negatively characterize Birdseye, the environmental candidate. The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, though, declined to investigate the calls.
The dispute led the City Council to approve stronger disclosure rules for political committees involved in local elections.