Category Archives: Valero PAC

KQED News: Benicia considers strengthening campaign finance ordinance against lies and misinformation

Benicia Considers Proposal for City Hall to Fact-Check Political Ads During Elections

KQED News, by Ted Goldberg, October 18
Valero’s oil refinery in the Solano County city of Benicia. (Craig Miller/KQED)

Benicia lawmakers are considering a proposal that could eventually require the city to fact-check political campaign advertisements — a novel response to alleged election misinformation that could face legal scrutiny.

The ordinance comes after a political action committee funded by Valero, the oil giant that runs a refinery in town, tried to influence voters in the last two city council elections. The company’s involvement in city politics also came as the Valero plant experienced two of the region’s worst refinery accidents in the last four years.

The ordinance was co-authored by Mayor Steve Young, whom the Valero PAC opposed in the last election. He said the committee put out ads that manipulated photos of him and distorted his record.

Now, Young said, the city should consider whether its campaign regulations “can be amended to prohibit digital or voice manipulation of images and whether any lying can be prohibited.”

The PAC, dubbed Working Families for a Strong Benicia, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the 2018 and 2020 city council elections. Both votes revived debate between some city officials and environmentalists on one side, who want more regulations on the refinery, and oil executives and unionized refinery workers on the other, who say they fear the city’s real motivation is to shut the plant down.

In 2018, two candidates backed by the PAC, which is also funded by several labor organizations allied with the refinery, won seats on the Benicia City Council. Another candidate, an environmentalist who was opposed by the committee, lost.

Last year, Young won the mayor’s race despite the PAC’s opposition to his candidacy. The ads said that he was against affordable housing and that he didn’t need a job because he receives a pension from previous local government work.

The mayor said he does want cheaper housing and there’s nothing wrong with receiving a pension. He said Valero’s opposition to him began in 2016, when the Benicia Planning Commission, which Young was a member of, voted to reject the company’s crude-by-rail proposal.

“Steve Young wants to turn Benicia into a place where young families can’t afford to live and work,” one flier stated. “Who would vote against kids playing at the ballpark? Steve Young did,” another one said.

Young and the proposal’s co-author, Councilmember Tom Campbell, said the ads mean the city should do a better job of making sure future elections are fair and honest.

But turning the government into a fact-checking body would be ripe for a legal challenge, according to Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Marymount University professor specializing in election law.

“We know the First Amendment does in fact protect lies,” Levinson said in an interview. “I think this is absolutely open to a legal challenge the second they pass it, if they do.”

“Who decides what’s an embellishment, what’s misleading, what’s just an omission versus what’s actually a lie?” Levinson asked.

Since the 2016 election and the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, misinformation has become one of the biggest issues in American politics, said Levinson.

“We are tackling a situation where there are more lies and there’s more technology that allows us to lie than for sure the framers every dreamed of,” she added.

At the same time, the local news industry, which traditionally acts like a fact-checking body, has been decimated. Benicia gets some news coverage but is often overshadowed by larger Bay Area cities like San Francisco and Oakland.

“One of the things that keeps me up at night is not just misinformation and disinformation and the fact that people believe it, but the fact that we have a dwindling press corps and particularly in smaller jurisdictions,” Levinson said.

The details over how the city would fact-check political ads has yet to be worked out. The proposal, set to go before the city council on Tuesday, would forward the issue to Benicia’s Open Government Commission, a body that would consider changing the city’s election campaign regulations. The commission would work on new rules and forward them to the city council next April.

Valero fought with the city’s last mayor, Elizabeth Patterson, after she called for more regulations to be placed on the refinery following a May 2017 power outage that led to a major release of toxic sulfur dioxide and prompted emergency shelter-in-place orders. Less than two years later, the plant had a series of malfunctions that led to another significant pollution release.

Jason Kaune, the PAC’s treasurer and head of political law at Nielsen Merksamer, a Sacramento-based lobbying firm, declined to comment. Representatives for Valero and unions that supported the committee did not respond to requests for comment.

Valero PAC final 2020 campaign spending report: over $227,000 spent in failed bid

By Roger Straw, November 16, 2020

Valero PAC spends over $227,000 in failed bid to oppose Mayor-elect Steve Young, discloses $128,173 of that total in outstanding debt

The anti-Young Valero PAC submitted two more campaign financial reports as required by law on November 6, 2020.

Form_460_Pre_Election_4.pdf shows the following:

During the period Oct. 26 – Nov. 3
  • Income of $24,000 from the Int. Brotherhood of Boilermakers, etc. (previously reported here on the BenIndy on Nov. 3).
  • Accrued unpaid bills totaling $18,106
    • $5,000 for Live Calls (Winning Connections, Washington, D.C.)
    • $13,106 for professional services (law firm Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni LLP, Sacramento)
2020 Year to date
  • Total Income of $49,000
  • Cash payments of $99,333
  • Accrued unpaid bills of $128,173
  • Total Expenditures (cash & unpaid) $227,506
Current Cash Statement
  • Ending Cash Balance of $197,779

The PAC’s ending balance of $197,779 can pay its accrued unpaid bills of $128,173 leaving over $51,000 in Valero’s war chest for future projects.  Sigh….

Another form submitted, Form__465_3.pdf, did not disclose any new information.

Final accounting?

According to a Nov. 12 email from Benicia City Clerk Lisa Wolfe, no further campaign finance reports are anticipated until December 31, 2020.   Evidently, the Valero PAC will not need to report payment of its unpaid bills and any further income or outlays until then.

KQED: Candidate Targeted by Valero Wins Benicia Mayoral Race

[Significant quote: “The fact that Young withstood the Valero PAC’s campaign is hugely significant, according to Matto Mildenberger, an assistant professor of political science at UC Santa Barbara, who focuses on oil politics.  ‘It means that Benicia voters are willing to take their climate future into their own hands and are going to resist efforts by oil companies to control local politics.'”] [See also KQED’s Oct 28 report on Valero PAC spending.]

Benicia Election Update with candidate quotes

KQED Election Updates, By Ted Goldberg, November 4, 2020

Benicia Councilman Steve Young, a candidate attacked by a political action committee funded mainly by the Valero Energy company, will be the city’s new mayor.

The Working Families for a Strong Benicia PAC raised more than $250,000 to defeat Young and support Councilwoman Christina Strawbridge. The committee said Young would put blue collar jobs, like those at Valero’s Benicia refinery, at risk.

But city’s voters were not swayed.

With Young leading the race with close to 52% of the vote, Strawbridge, who garnered about 31%, conceded the election Wednesday morning.

“I believe the voters reacted strongly against the negative ads and mailers that the Valero-funded PAC tried to use against me,” Young said.

“Hopefully, Valero will learn the obvious lesson from this result: Interference in Benicia elections will be rejected in the future as well,” Young said.

Strawbridge called Young’s election a “decisive victory.”

“Congratulations to him,” Strawbridge said, adding that the two lawmakers exchanged text messages Wednesday morning. “Even though it was a tough election, we have and will work together for Benicia.”

Since 2019, Valero has donated $240,000 to the political action committee targeting Young. The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local 549 donated some $50,000 as well.

The same PAC spent thousands to help Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada win seats on the Benicia City Council, and to defeat Kari Birdseye, a former chair of the city’s Planning Commission that denied Valero’s crude-by-rail expansion project.

Young will take over from Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, a critic of Valero who has served in Benicia city government for two decades.

Patterson had become increasingly outspoken about efforts to place more regulations on the Valero plant, scene of the two worst refinery accidents in the Bay Area in the last three years.

The fact that Young withstood the Valero PAC’s campaign is hugely significant, according to Matto Mildenberger, an assistant professor of political science at UC Santa Barbara, who focuses on oil politics.

“It means that Benicia voters are willing to take their climate future into their own hands and are going to resist efforts by oil companies to control local politics,” Mildenberger said.

Valero’s pet labor union kicks in another $24,000 on Nov. 2 to help buy Benicia’s next Mayor

Total Independent Expenditure funding for 2020 now at $249,000

By Roger Straw, November 3, 2020

Reporting on forms required by Benicia ordinance, the Valero PAC that is attempting to buy the Benicia Mayor race detailed a new contribution of $24,000 on  November 2.

The new money comes from an independent expenditure committee (PAC) formed by the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, forgers & Helpers Local 549.  It is interesting that this ultra-conservative labor group has been convinced to jump in with Valero, which is a non-union corporation.  It’s not the first time – this PAC contributed heavily to Valero’s 2018 smear campaign against Kari Birdseye.

I wonder how many of the Sacramento-based Brotherhood PAC decision-makers live in Benicia or even work at Valero?  I’d guess the decision was made by a small group of highly-paid executives who have rarely if ever set foot in Benicia.  And one might wonder where and who their FUNDING comes from??

Cumulative Valero PAC contributions to date: over $249,000.  (COMPARE: All candidates running for Benicia mayor and Council who pledge to run fair campaigns may not spend over $34,200 on their own campaigns.)

Cumulative Valero PAC spending to date: over $214,000.  (AGAIN COMPARE: All candidates running for Benicia mayor and Council who pledge to run fair campaigns may not spend over $34,200 on their own campaigns.)

REFERENCE: Valero PAC Financial Disclosures – City of Benicia website

Source: from the City of Benicia website, 2020 Campaign Finance Reports