Category Archives: Valero Services Inc.

My thoughts on possible District Voting in Benicia

By Roger Straw, January 17, 2020
Roger Straw, The Benicia Independent

On Tuesday January 21, Benicia’s City Council will consider a proposal to change our electoral process from At-Large voting for Council candidates to four newly-defined small geographical districts.  Benicia citizens need to pay attention to this – it may sound ok, but consider…

I think our ability to join forces against the massive and mean-spirited outside corporate influences we saw in our 2018 election would be immeasurably weakened by adoption of district voting.

In 2018, a PAC funded by Valero Services and organized labor spent over $200,000 to smear and defeat Council candidate Kari Birdseye.  (See below for background.)  A similar campaign was waged against candidate Elizabeth Patterson in 2007.

A Council campaign funded and run in a small Benicia district would not be capable of standing up to limitless corporate PAC money.  And Benicia is way too small to be divided into four districts capable of finding and supporting multiple competitive candidates across the political spectrum.

In many cities, district voting makes sense as a measure to strengthen and empower concentrated minority groups.  Note that I am decidedly in FAVOR of empowering minority voting strength, especially when it comes to racial and ethnic minorities.  Most of us would agree.  But Benicia’s racial and ethnic mix is not concentrated in any linear district – so district voting would do absolutely nothing to advance minority voting strength.

What about other sub-groups in geographically defined parts of Benicia?

Our Southampton hills 1) is already represented by Mr. Largaespada, 2) could have elected Kari Birdseye as a Southampton neighbor if she hadn’t been targeted and smeared, and 3) had Mark Hughes as a resident Council member for years.  I’m guessing Southampton probably had a few more Council members going back before my time.

A case CAN probably be made that Benicia’s East Side has been underrepresented over the years – but district voting would create more problems than it would fix for Eastsiders.  IMPORTANT: How could an underfunded campaign in a smaller population on the East side possibly put up a fight against Valero and organized labor?!

CORRECTION: A kind reader has pointed out that current Council member Tom Campbell lives on Benicia’s East side.  Campbell and former Council member Jan Cox-Golovich live in a section of town north of Military and just EAST of an imaginary First Street dividing line.

MY CONCLUSION: District voting would only give outside big money greater strength to stack our City Council.


Your voice is important!


BACKGROUND ON BENICIA’S 2018 CORPORATE SMEAR CAMPAIGN

    • My background article on Jan 6, 2020 with quote from SF Chronicle, stating over $200,000 was spent by the Valero PAC.  My comment: “Kari ran for City Council in 2018 in a field of 4, competing for 2 seats on Council.  Only she didn’t just run against her opponents.  She ran against a $200,000-plus smear campaign orchestrated by Benicia Valero Refinery and its friends in organized labor.  The three major candidates’ campaigns spent less than $30,000 each, while Valero saturated our phone lines, mailboxes, newspapers and social media with misinformation and ugly photos.”
    • My post-election call on Nov 12 2018 for Council action to reform campaign spending – including comparison of the $200,000 with candidate spending of under $30,000 each.
    • My Oct 28 2018 article just before the Nov election which reported a smear campaign total of $155,000 as of that time. My  comment in that article: “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.”
    • Weekly and daily reporting of details as the smear campaign unfolded: beniciaindependent.com/?s=birdseye
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    I remember the Benicia smear campaign of 2018

    Benicia electoral campaign reform – 2018 is the reason for fundamental reform

    By Roger Straw, January 6, 2020
    Kari Birdseye, Chair, Benicia Planning Commission

    For a quick review of the nasty campaign against my friend Kari Birdseye, just search the Benicia Independent for “birdseye.”

    Kari ran for City Council in 2018 in a field of 4, competing for 2 seats on Council.  Only she didn’t just run against her opponents.  She ran against a $200,000-plus smear campaign orchestrated by Benicia Valero Refinery and its friends in organized labor.

    The three major candidates’ campaigns spent less than $30,000 each, while Valero saturated our phone lines, mailboxes, newspapers and social media with misinformation and ugly photos.

    All four candidates came out in opposition to Valero’s big-money dirty tactics.

    Shortly after the election, almost exactly a year ago, the Benicia City Council decided – unanimously – to do something about dirty campaigns like the 2018 election.  As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle on January 14, 2019:

    “Valero spent $200,000 in last year’s Benicia city council election to help elect two candidates who were less critical of the company than others. That’s created tension between the oil refiner and the city, leading people to question how much influence Valero should have in local politics. On Tuesday Benicia will discuss the possibility of new campaign finance laws that could limit corporate influence in its small town.”

    The Council directed its Open Government Commission (OGC) to consider updates and amendments to the City’s three campaign ordinances.  The OGC appointed a subcommittee which took nearly a year to review a zillion suggestions gathered from you and me – and from Valero (!) and other local businesses and organizations.

    This Tuesday, the Benicia City Council will discuss the report and recommendations of the Open Government Commission.  The City Attorney recommended against some of the recommendations, perhaps with good reason: some are covered by California law, and some could be challenged in court as indefensible.  Others that are not supported should be addressed by Council.

    But note that the heart of the OGC recommendations are recommended by City staff, including the City Attorney, for passage.  [AGENDA & Staff Reports here]

    Council should not forget its unanimous desire for reform following the ugly campaign of 2018.  COUNCIL SHOULD VOTE YES on Tuesday, January 7.

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      KQED: Big Oil, Small Town: Valero’s Election Influence in Benicia’s Politics

      Repost from KQED NEWS Public Radio
      [Editor: This  is a GREAT audio report.  Only 12 minutes – well worth the time!  – R.S.]

      Big Oil, Small Town: Valero’s Election Influence in Benicia’s Politics

      12 min – Ted Goldberg & Devin Katayama, Jan 14, 2019
      The Valero refinery in Benicia. (Craig Miller/KQED)

      Valero spent $200,000 in last year’s Benicia city council election to help elect two candidates who were less critical of the company than others. That’s created tension between the oil refiner and the city, leading people to question how much influence Valero should have in local politics. On Tuesday Benicia will discuss the possibility of new campaign finance laws that could limit corporate influence in its small town.

      For the audio interview, go to kqed.org/news/11717774/big-oil-small-town-valeros-election-influence-in-benicias-politics

      Guest: Ted Goldberg, KQED News Editor

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        KQED: Texas refinery candidates win in Benicia City Council race

        Repost from KQED News

        Valero-Backed Candidates Win Benicia City Council Election

        By Ted Goldberg, November 7, 2018
        The Valero refinery in Benicia. (Craig Miller/KQED)

        Two candidates backed by Texas-based Valero Energy Corp. won seats on the Benicia City Council in Tuesday’s election, while another candidate attacked by the large oil company lost.

        Valero — which operates a refinery that’s one of Benicia’s largest employers — along with five state and local labor groups donated more than $165,000 to a political action committee that backed Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada and opposed Kari Birdseye, an environmentalist.

        That amount is more than three times as much as what the candidates raised combined.

        By Wednesday morning, Strawbridge got more than 33 percent of the vote, Largaespada garnered close to 30 percent and Birdseye received 26 percent, according to the Solano County Registrar of Voters. Those numbers don’t yet include all mail-in and provisional ballots.

        Birdseye has conceded the election, but she expressed displeasure with the PAC’s actions.

        “We ran a smart, clean campaign and played by the rules. These election results will only embolden special interests to throw in money to local races to buy candidates to do their dirty work,” Birdseye said in an emailed statement.

        The Valero PAC’s ads called Birdseye “a yes man” for Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, and “another job killer” that was “bad for Benicia.”

        Its work deepened a divide at City Hall and the rest of Benicia over the city’s relationship with its refinery neighbor, 18 months after the facility experienced a full power outage that led to a major release of pollution.

        The Valero PAC’s work led to a failed attempt by Benicia city officials to get the state’s political watchdog to investigate some of Valero’s communication with voters weeks before the vote.

        And it reminded critics of an effort by Chevron to sway voters in Richmond in 2014 when the company spent millions on an attempt to elect a slate of its allies to the City Council.

        Strawbridge, who was previously on the council, emphasized that she did not support what she called the committee’s “smear campaign,” and said it’s time for the city to come together and improve its dealings with Valero.

        “It’s been a tough election,” Strawbridge said in an interview Wednesday. “I ran on my own credentials, my own experience and I feel like that resonated with the residents.”

        A Valero spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

        Last month the company wrote a letter to the editor at the Vallejo Times-Herald, emphasizing the refinery’s strong safety record and criticizing Mayor Patterson.

        Union officials have said that Patterson’s criticism of Valero puts the city’s economic health at risk. And, since Birdseye was her ally and a spokeswoman for the National Resources Defense Council, she became the target of the PAC.

        “Last night the voters of Benicia made it clear the path they want our city to take,” said Don Zampa, president of the District Council of Ironworkers, in an emailed statement. Zampa’s group is one of the those that donated to the PAC.

        “Benicia is home to a blue-collar workforce. We’ve been here for generations and we are not going anywhere,” Zampa said.

        Patterson, for her part, has said Valero tried to bully and buy its way into politics in Benicia. [Editor: see Mayor Patterson’s email comment to KQED.]

        Largaespada did not respond to a request for comment.

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