Category Archives: Corporate influence

Benicia’s mayor calls out Valero’s big war chest ahead of election

The Vallejo Sun, By John Glidden, Feb 15, 2022

The Valero Benicia refinery

BENICIA – Mayor Steve Young says he’s displeased that Valero Benicia Refinery is poised once again to spend a large sum of money during the upcoming city council election.

The refinery dumped $200,000 into its Working Families for a Strong Benicia PAC last December, giving the PAC more than $232,000 ahead of the November 2022 election, according to campaign forms submitted to the Benicia City Clerk’s Office.

Benicia Mayor Steve Young.
Benicia Mayor Steve Young

Typically, a Benicia council candidate can expect to receive more than $20,000 in contributions over the span of an election or about 10% of what Valero has available.

The move has revitalized conversation in town between environmentalists seeking more regulations, the company, and local unions that are concerned that city officials want to shut down the plant.

Valero couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

Young — who said he issued his statement over the weekend only as a Benicia resident and not as mayor — admitted that what Valero was doing was legal but argued “it is wrong-and extremely harmful to our community.”

“There is only one purpose in making such a huge expenditure nine months before the election: to scare off any potential City Council candidate who would consider running without first getting Valero’s stamp of approval,” Young’s statement read. “What candidate is willing to go up against that kind of war chest?”

Valero opened its PAC ahead of the 2018 city council elections, ultimately backing Lionel Largaespada and Christina Strawbridge. Both were elected. The PAC publicly opposed Benicia Planning Commissioner Kari Birdseye. Two years later, the PAC once again backed Strawbridge, this time as she made a mayoral bid, while opposing Young. Despite the PAC spending $250,000 during that election, Young was elected.

Young and Birdseye served on the planning commission together when the body rejected the company’s crude-by-rail proposal in early 2016. The Benicia City Council went on to reject the project later that year.

Young wrote that Valero should have a say in the election but “they should also play by the same rules that apply to everyone else under our campaign finance regulations.”

Young said the city’s campaign laws allow a candidate to spend no more than $35,000 on a campaign. He argued Valero should be held to the same rule.

“But Valero’s size and wealth gives them the belief that they can pick and choose who should be our elected representatives,” Young added.

Young said that to stop Valero every council candidate should reject support it receives from the company.

“In addition, voters should demand that any candidate take a public and ongoing stand that Valero should not support their campaign in any way,” Young added. “I call on all prospective candidates in the November election to make this pledge. If no candidate is willing to be supported by this PAC, where will they spend all of their money?”

Young’s statement comes as the Valero refinery has been receiving some negative attention.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District announced in January that it was seeking a legally binding order against the refinery to correct “significant excess emissions violations.” The district alleges that Valero didn’t report that more than 8,000 tons of excess emissions came from the plant over a 16-year period.

Last November, a contractor was found dead hanging from a scaffolding ladder by his safety harness over a piece of refinery equipment.

Valero is the largest employer in Benicia, employing more than 400 people. The plant processed 165,000 barrels of oil each day, according to its website.

Campaign records show that from July 1 through Dec. 31, 2021, the PAC spent more than $5,000 with Sacramento-based Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leonli LLP for campaign services.

Young, who has opened a 2024 re-election campaign, reported raising no contributions and only spending $29 during the second half of 2021. The campaign reported having about $900.

Meanwhile, both Largaespada and Strawbridge, who are up for re-election this November, reported no activity during the same period.

Here We Go Again – Benicia candidates and voters must reject Valero’s big money

Here We Go Again

On social media, by Steve Young, Benicia

Steve Young, Benicia resident (and Mayor)

I want to emphasize that I am writing today not as the Mayor, but rather an interested Benicia resident and voter. I also want to state that I understand the importance of Valero to our local economy as a major employer and taxpayer and an important contributor to local causes. Since the last election, I have initiated meetings with the Valero General Manager on a monthly basis, and feel that we have developed a respectful relationship. I have also told him directly that I will be writing this article.

Last week, it was revealed [here on the Benicia Independent] that Valero, through the oddly named Working Families for a Strong Benicia Political Action Committee (PAC), had deposited another $200,000 in anticipation of this year’s City Council elections. They are currently sitting on $235,000.

There is only one purpose in making such a huge expenditure nine months before the election: to scare off any potential City Council candidate who would consider running without first getting Valero’s stamp of approval. What candidate is willing to go up against that kind of war chest?

In 2018, Valero and their construction trade union allies, ran a big-dollar, negative campaign against Planning Commission Chair Kari Birdseye (“Birdseye Bad for Benicia”) and in favor of Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada. The PAC attack was successful, and Strawbridge and Largaespada were elected. The presumed reason for opposing Ms. Birdseye is that she (and I) had led the Planning Commission denial of Valero’s Crude by Rail proposal (a denial that ultimately was upheld by the City Council).

In 2020, the same Valero-funded PAC decided to run the same type of negative campaign against me in my race for Mayor. Over $250,000 was spent attacking me, and in favor of Ms. Strawbridge. Unlike in 2018, however, Benicia voters saw through this effort and I was elected by a 20 point margin.

The argument has been made that, as Benicia’s largest employer and a significant taxpayer, Valero should have a say in the selection of Council candidates and the Mayor. And I agree. They should have the same right as any other company or individual to support the candidate(s) of their choice.

But they should also play by the same rules that apply to everyone else under Benicia’s campaign finance regulations. They, and any of their employees, are able to donate $540 to the candidate of their choice. But, in Benicia, candidates are limited by our campaign finance ordinance to spending no more than $35,000 on a campaign (assuming they can raise that much). By contrast, the PAC spending more than $250,000 on our local campaigns shows how uneven (and undemocratic) their influence buying campaign has become.

[Editor – see Benicia Municipal Code…
Chapter 1.36: Voluntary Code of Fair Campaign Practices
Chapter 1.40:  Disclosure Of Contributions and Expenditures
Chapter 1.42: Contribution and Voluntary Spending Limits]

The disastrous “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision opened the door for this by declaring that “money is speech”, and allowing for unlimited spending by corporations and unions. Usually, this level of over the top spending is confined to national and statewide elections, not in small towns like Benicia. But Valero’s size and wealth gives them the belief that they can pick and choose who should be our elected representatives.

What they are doing is legal, but it is wrong-and extremely harmful to our community. This is what is truly “Bad for Benicia”.

The only way to stop it is if EVERY candidate for City Council publicly, vociferously, and repeatedly rejects support from the Valero PAC, and denounces this type of negative campaigning and excessive spending. In addition, voters should demand that any candidate take a public and ongoing stand that Valero should not support their campaign in any way. I call on all prospective candidates in the November election to make this pledge. If no candidate is willing to be supported by this PAC, where will they spend all of their money?

Leave Benicia elections to Benicia voters.

Valero sitting on $232,000 in readiness to influence 2022 Benicia elections

Valero Political Action Committee files financial statement with City of Benicia on Jan 31, 2022

Source: City of Benicia website, 2022 Campaign Finance Reports
Document:
“Working Families…” CA Form 460, covering 7/1/2021 – 12/31/2021
Summary:

FULL COMMITTEE NAME: Working Families for a Strong Benicia, a Coalition of Labor and Industrial Services Companies, Committee Major Funding by Top Contributors Valero and International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers Local 549 PAC

Total Contributions:

This period: $200,000
Year Total to Date: $200,000
Detail: Received $200,000 on 12/23/21 from Valero Services, Inc. and Affiliated Entities, 3400 East Second St., Benicia [See CA Secty of State listing for Valero Services Inc & Affiliated Entities.  See also Valero Services’ year-end report showing this contribution.]

Total Expenditures:

This period: $6,366.34
Year Total to Date: $13,373.39
Detail: 6 payments to Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni, all for Professional Services (legal, accounting)

Current Cash Statement: $232,386.88

Outstanding Debts: $1,651.63

Detail: 2 expenses accrued but unpaid to Nielsen Merksamer etc. for Professional Services (legal, accounting)

Benicia – PAC influence here worse than in Big Cities

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
Stephen Golub, Benicia

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.