Benicia City Council race too close to call as incumbents surge in Election Day results
The Vallejo Sun, by Scott Morris, Nov 08, 2022
BENICIA – Early results for the Benicia City Council election show a tight race with two challengers leading in early vote by mail results, but the two incumbents led in Election Day results.
Challengers Terry Scott and Kari Birdseye took the lead early in the evening, with Scott and Birdseye in first and second place. But incumbents Lionel Largaespada and Christina Strawbridge gained in Election Day results and Largaespada surged into second place late Tuesday.
By 10:28 p.m., the last results released by the Solano County Registrar of Voters on Tuesday, Scott still led with 25% of the vote, followed by Largaespada with 23.4%, Birdseye with 23%, and Strawbridge with 21%. Retired teacher William Innes — who said during a candidate forum he intended to vote for Scott and Birdseye — had 7% of the vote. The county said it will release further results late Wednesday.
Benicia’s council members are elected by the entire city and the top two vote-getters will be on the council for the next four years.
The race was hotly contested, particularly because of the influence of oil manufacturer Valero, the city’s largest employer that spent tens of thousands of dollars campaigning for the incumbents in the last days leading up to Election Day.
Valero previously campaigned for Largaespada and Strawbridge and against Birdseye in 2018. Birdseye narrowly lost that race. When Strawbridge ran for mayor two years later, Valero again supported her, but she lost badly to now-Mayor Steve Young.
This year, it appeared that Valero might sit out the race following a scandal when it was revealed that the refinery had allowed toxic gas to be released from a hydrogen vent for years. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District obtained an abatement order for Valero, but what penalties the refinery may face have yet to be determined.
Valero’s political meddling was a major issue at a candidates forum in October, where Scott and Birdseye called for greater oversight of the refinery in the wake of the emissions scandal.
But Valero did not take any action during the campaign until its final weeks, when a political action committee (PAC) receiving funding from Valero sent mailers on behalf of Largaespada and Strawbridge and spent $10,000 on Facebook ads. According to filings available by Tuesday’s election deadline, Valero had spent $89,507.71 supporting Largaespada and Strawbridge.
Largaespada and Strawbridge have both denounced Valero’s attempts to influence the city’s politics. By law, their campaigns cannot coordinate with the activities of Valero’s PAC.
Tax measure also falls behind
Measure R – which seeks to raise Benicia’s sales tax – also had an early lead in Tuesday night’s returns but fell behind in Election Day results. If passed, the measure would raise Bencia’s sales tax by three-quarters of a cent, to 9.125%.
As of 10:28 p.m., the measure was failing 48-52%.
The Benicia City Council voted 4-0 to place the tax measure on the ballot during its July 5 meeting. City manager Erik Upson argued the city needed the extra revenue as its infrastructure was aging and it lacked the funds to replace, repair or maintain it. Largaespada opposed it.
The council had originally considered making the ballot measure for a special tax that would only be for road repair, which would have required a two-thirds majority to pass. Measure R is a general tax that can be spent for any purpose and requires only a simple majority of voters.
Urban Growth Boundary measure passes by huge margin
Benicia also appeared to have voted to extend its Urban Growth Boundary — a historical decision that prevents the city from expanding into the hills north of the city. It’s a renewal of a 20-year stay that voters originally set in 2003.
It only needs a simple majority (50% and one more vote) to pass.
As of 10 p.m., Measure K was leading 82-18%.