Category Archives: Research America

Rocky journey through this local election

By Roger Straw, October 28, 2018

Almost five months ago, I received an invitation to take part in the great democratic tradition of promoting a neighbor for local city governance.  Along with others, I spent limited funds and as much time as I could to talk to folks, organize and campaign.  Some of my friends came to join me and others got behind other good neighbors, and the race was on.  Two of our neighbors would be elected to our Benicia City Council in November.

News broke in late September that a major worldwide corporate power had bullied its way into our local democratic process.  Valero Services Inc., based in Texas but with 115 subsidiaries in Delaware, Michigan, Canada and several wealthy Caribbean nations, decided it wanted to buy a seat on the Benicia City Council.

Their first strategy was to spend an unknown amount of money to employ two national firms, EMC Research and Research America, to conduct a nasty telephone “push poll,” blatantly mischaracterizing and demeaning one candidate for Council and painting rosy pictures of two others.  When our City Attorney challenged the polling firms, Valero Refinery executive Don Wilson admitted that Valero paid for the poll, but neither he nor the polling firms would comply with our demands for more information.

Valero went about scaring its workers – those employed by Valero and others who contract for work at the refinery – into believing that my candidate wants to close down the refinery and take away the workers’ livelihood, their jobs.  This is far from true, but the tactic resulted in the amassing of a small fortune by Benicia standards, $155,000 in an “Independent Expenditure” fund known as a political action committee (PAC).  Unfortunately, this PAC is free to use its massive resources to damage a candidate and to promote other candidates.  Under U.S. law, corporations are considered “people” and have been given rights like you and me, to participate with voice – but not with a vote – in our tiny local elections.

Fortunately, Benicia enacted a fair campaign ordinance in 2008, which requires everyone, real people like you and me, and these monstrous shadow “people” like Valero Services Inc., to detail their campaign contributions and expenditures.  So in September we were shocked to discover not only how much money the PAC had gathered up, but also detailed descriptions of their new telephone poll and negative digital ads.

  • Complying fully with Benicia’s law, the PAC submitted names of its contributors (Valero Services at $14,200 and various contracting trade unions at $30,000 each, now totaling $155,000).
  • Complying fully with Benicia’s law, the PAC submitted a telephone caller script that showed a blatant false attack on my candidate.
  • Complying fully with Benicia’s law, the PAC submitted a photocopy of a mean digital ad showing my candidate in an unflattering pose.
  • And as required by law, the City of Benicia posted all of this on its website, and the news went wild.

Incensed letters went to the newspapers and lengthy hot conversations blossomed on social media.  ALL of the candidates spoke out against the PAC’s tactics and two candidates returned contributions they’d received from parties to the fund.

In the ensuing month, more money was contributed to the PAC and more was spent.  Despite the public criticism, the misleading phone calls and attack ads continue.  Going into the final week before the election, the PAC has spent over $58,800 to attack and promote candidates.  They have an additional $96,000 which can be spent in the final push this week!

Benicia candidates are required by law to spend less than $30,000 on their campaign.  The PAC has five times that amount to buy a seat on Council.

So I’m back to sharing about my recent sojourn in local democracy.  I don’t mind competing with neighbors.  I’ve participated in local elections before.  I enjoy the behind-the-scenes organizing, the competition, the excitement at the end of the race to learn the public’s choices.  But it is simply not fair to have to go up against Valero Services Inc.  Our local absentee Texas/Caribbean giant has mobilized our unions into a sickening fight to openly tear down one candidate and to champion two others.

The only good news in all this, the only antidote to this illness, is that we, the people, the REAL people, still reserve the right to vote.  I don’t care if you are for my candidate, Kari Birdseye, or any of our other Benicia neighbors.  EVERYONE who is a real breathing human being needs to ignore the elephant in our room and send in their ballot or show up at the polls on Tuesday, November 6.  Everyone needs to vote!

Roger Straw
Benicia

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    Benicia will file “push poll” complaint with Fair Political Practices Commission

    Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald
    [Editor: See also Kari Birdseye responds to negative ads, and her Facebook ad: Kari Birdseye cannot be bullied or bought.  – R.S.]

    Benicia council directs staff to file complaint over “push poll”

    By JOHN GLIDDEN, October 17, 2018 at 6:08 pm

    BENICIA — City Attorney Heather Mc Laughlin has been directed by a unanimous vote of the council to send a formal complaint to the state about a recent polling survey in the city.

    The vote took place during the City Council’s closed session on Tuesday.

    Mc Laughlin will send the complaint to the California Fair Political Practices Commission after the polling firms, hired by Valero Benicia Refinery, refused to provide a copy of the questions.

    City officials believe the survey may have violated the city’s municipal code when the callers failed to state that the survey was a political call. Research America and EMC Research, which were contacted to conduct the survey, said, through their attorney, that the calls were not political and thus didn’t require a disclaimer or “paid for” notice.

    Vice Mayor Steve Young spoke during the open session portion of Tuesday night’s meeting and said the issue could be resolved if Valero simply provided a copy of the questions asked to about 250 residents.

    “It’s easy to put to rest,” Young said about Valero providing the questions.

    The council earlier this month directed Mc Laughlin to obtain the questions and other items related to the survey after Young and other residents reported receiving one of the survey calls in late September.

    Young called the survey a “push poll,” which is a survey used to influence the respondent instead of collecting factual information.

    The polling companies, through their lawyer, further said 256 randomly selected likely voters from within Benicia were contacted from Sept. 6 to Sept. 20 to participate.

    During her investigation, Valero admitted to paying for the survey.

    The Times-Herald has asked Valero repeatedly for a copy of the questions but the company has ignored those requests.

    “It’s their property,” Young further said Tuesday night about the survey questions.

    He said Valero’s failure to provide information about the survey forces the City Council to act.

    “We’re put into the position of having to take the next step to protect our own ordinance,” he added.

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      Polling companies decline to provide Benicia with survey questions

      Repost from the Vallejo Times-Herald
      [Editor – Thanks to Times-Herald reporter John Glidden for requesting poll questions and call data from Valero. The polling companies refuse to comply with City Attorney McLaughlin’s request, but Valero paid for the poll and thus owns the poll information. So far, not a word from Valero. BUT… guess what. There’s a NEW campaign phone poll going around, openly promoting 2 of Kari Birdseye’s opponents and smearing her.  My guess is that the wording for this new poll is based squarely on the results of Valero’s incendiary push poll.  Sponsors of the new poll and the candidates they endorse are benefiting from Valero’s shady research.  – R.S.]

      Polling companies decline to provide survey questions

      By JOHN GLIDDEN , October 11, 2018 at 4:17 pm

      BENICIA — The City Council will strategize in closed session once again about an alleged “push poll” incident after two polling firms have refused to provide a copy of the survey questions that were asked to residents in September.

      Gary Winuk, with the Los Angles-based Kaufman Legal Group, which represents Research America and EMC Research, sent a three-page letter to City Attorney Heather Mc Laughlin on Wednesday arguing that the council’s request for the questions was improper.

      “This requested disclosure of information is particularly inappropriate where the city is making the request and the poll explored subject responses to statements regarding City Council candidates whose campaigns are being personally supported by current members of the council,” Winuk wrote. “The city should not place itself in the position of immersing itself in the back and forth of electoral politics by attempting to force the public disclosure of confidential poll information.”

      Vice Mayor Steve Young reported in a Sept. 20 letter first published by the Benicia Independent that he received such a survey call, with the questions allegedly smearing Benicia council candidate Kari Birdseye while championing fellow council candidate Lionel Largaespada.

      Asked for comment about Wednesday’s letter and Winuk’s assertion of impropriety by the council, Young said all the councilors have endorsed candidates in the council race.

      “However,  I imagine they may be targeting me since I was one of the Benicia voters who actually received and took the poll, and then reported on the nature of the questions. Fortunately, there are many more people who reported not only receiving the poll, but also confirming the biased nature of the questions,” Young wrote in an email to the Times-Herald. “The attorneys claim it is not a push poll, but by simply complying with the City’s request to provide a complete list of the questions, that question could be put to rest. Now, all we have is their word.”

      Young has called the survey a “push poll,” which is a type of survey meant to influence voters instead of gathering objective survey information from those called.

      Representatives from the Valero Benicia Refinery have already admitted to Benicia City Attorney Heather Mc Laughlin that the refinery paid for the polling that was carried out by the polling firms Research America, and EMC Research.

      Young said he doesn’t know if Winuk represents Valero as well.

      “We have not heard anything directly from Valero; only a conversation between the City Attorney and Valero General Manager Don Wilson in which Wilson admitted Valero paid for the poll,” Young added. “And since they did pay for the poll, the requested information should be their property, and be made available to the city.”

      Wilson has not returned requests by this newspaper for comment on the poll and a copy of the survey questions.

      Winuk further reiterated in his Wednesday letter that the poll was done to gather feedback from Benicia voters “on issues relevant to the upcoming election.”

      The Benicia City Council met in closed session on Oct. 2 to talk about the survey and whether it may have violated the city’s municipal code when the pollsters failed to state who paid for the polling. Winuk has maintained that the poll was not a campaign communication and thus didn’t need a “paid-for” disclaimer.

      Councilors at that time directed Mc Laughlin to investigate and find out who paid for the polling and receive a copy of the questions asked.

      The Council is scheduled to meet in closed session on Tuesday.

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