Clashes Erupt Over ‘California Forever’ Billionaires’ Shady Petition Tactics

Residents of Solano County are blasting misleading tactics to get plans for a utopian city on the ballot.

The Daily Beast, by Michael Daly, Mar. 21, 2024

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

A young man was standing by a folding table with a pen and a stack of paper when Claudia Wilde emerged from the Target store in Fairfield, California, last week.

“He says, ‘I have a petition… I need you to sign for better roads,’” she told The Daily Beast. “And I said, ‘That’s the name of the petition?’ He goes, ‘Yeah.’”

Although the county’s roads do need work, Wilde had not heard any clamoring for improvement. She was aware, however, that a group of Silicon Valley billionaires who bought up more than $800 million of farmland in surrounding Solano County to build a new city were seeking to get a zoning initiative on the ballot in November.

The billionaires, who call their venture California Forever, hope to get 17,500 acres rezoned from “Agriculture” to “New Community Special Purpose Area” so they can develop 40,000 to 160,000 residential units for 100,000 to 400,000 residents.

But to get on the ballot, they need to collect 13,062 verified signatures by registered county voters such as Wilde. She, like many Solano residents, had been put off by the billionaires’ initial tactic of remaining anonymous while purchasing huge tracts of land and pressuring farmers who were reluctant to sell even at above market prices.

“I said, ‘This isn’t a California Forever thing?”’ the 70-year-old retired school teacher asked the man with the petition. “And he goes, ‘No, no, it’s for better roads.’ I said, ‘Let me see.’”

She took a look.

“I said, ‘This is California Forever,’” she recalled. “And he goes, ‘Well, you don’t have to sign it.’ I said, ‘This is a scam! You should be ashamed of yourself!’ And he says, ‘Well, I still love you.’”

Her outrage was compounded by what she took to be a condescending tone.

“I’m pissed,” she recalled.

She remained incensed when she arrived home and posted about the encounter on the Solano County Community Awareness Facebook page.

“I was furious that he lied about the real initiative,” she wrote.

Her post in the early afternoon of March 13 quickly received more than 140 comments. A half dozen people reported a similar experience at other locations, involving different pitches.

“Yes! They lied to me, too!” a resident named Lisa Talivaa wrote in her comment.

By Talivaa’s account, a person at a table outside the same Target had said he was soliciting signatures for a petition against “defunding benefits.” She presumed he meant Medicare, which she definitely does not want cut.

“I walked up to the table and he started pushing paperwork in front of me and said, ‘Sign here,’ and I was like wtf? I don’t sign anything unless I read it first,” she wrote.

She later told The Daily Beast that when she did read it, she saw nothing about defunding benefits, but something at the bottom of the petition caught her eye.

“It says, ‘Paid for by California Forever,’” she recalled.

The man had a number of other petitions on the table, but the one he was pressing her to sign was in support of the ballot initiative.

“And I said, ‘I can’t believe that you’re telling me that I’m signing something about defunding Medicare and you’re pushing that on me,’” she remembered. “I’m like, ‘Do you realize what this is?’ He goes, ‘Yes, I know exactly what it is.’ I said, ‘Well, then why? Why would you push that on me after I came here under the understanding that I was signing a petition for defunding Medicare? Not this shit.’”

The man said she should sign the California Forever petition so she would have the ability to vote on the rezoning.

“I said, ‘Do you hear what you’re saying to me? You’re telling me to put something on a ballot that I don’t want to begin with?’’ she said. “And so he’s just like, ‘That’s not the point… Everybody’s got a right to vote.‘ I said, ‘Well, everybody’s got a right to say no to something.’”

One of the parcels of land purchased by the California Forever backers. | Justin Sullivan/Getty

Others who responded to Wilde’s post included Gina Vasquez, who said she encountered a table with several petitions outside the Walmart in Suisun City. She said a man handed her one and told her it was to say no to the California Forever proposal.

“And I was like, ‘Really?… Are you telling me the truth? Because I’ve been seeing that you guys are lying,’” she told The Daily Beast. “He kind of just looked at me and looked away and started asking other people for their signatures. I said, ‘Well, I’m gonna read this.’”

She said the verbiage was “like word puzzles” and it was hard to decipher what the goal of the petition was. But she had no difficulty understanding the words at the end saying who had paid for it.

“It said, ‘ California Forever,” she recalled. “And I was like, ‘You’re kidding me.’”

She told the man she was not signing.

“If they pay for it, it’s not to say no against it,” she reasoned.

In another response to Wilde’s post, Anita Montalbano of Vacaville said that she was leaving a Walmart there when a man asked if she was a California voter and presented her with a petition for legal measures against smash-and-grab robberies.

“I quickly scanned the information and was able to read that it was regarding smash and grab and changing the laws,” she wrote. “So I signed it and just as I finished signing and was handing him the pen, he quickly slipped another clipboard in front of that and asked me, can you sign here, please? I asked him what is this for? He said we need signatures to help with housing.”

She examined this second petition.

“I could clearly see that it said California forever,” she recalled. ”I told him I don’t know and have enough information about California forever so I’m not going to sign it. In a very forceful and stern voice he looked at me and said, you don’t have to worry about asking any questions, just sign and leave the asking to us.”

She continued, “I said, again I don’t have enough information or knowledge about California forever and the planning so I’m not gonna sign and he got closer to me and then a real forceful voice said to me ‘and I said you don’t have to worry about asking questions we will ask all the questions.’”

She told the man that he was not going to pressure her into signing .

“He looked at me like I had done something to really upset him, he quickly took the clipboards out of my hands and gave me the dirtiest look.”

Gail Zick posted that she had encountered “petition gatherers” outside a Lucky’s supermarket in Vacaville for what they called “an affordable housing initiative.”

A barn stands on a parcel of land that was recently purchased near Travis Air Force Base on Aug. 29, 2023 near Rio Vista, California | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“I read the first paragraph & it’s clearly the CA forever!” she wrote. “I told them it’s NOT an affordable housing petition & explained it to them while about a dozen other people were listening. Sadly many voters are signing this petition without knowing what it really is!”

The affordable housing pretext is particularly outrageous when you consider something that California Forever chief executive Jan Sramek said at an “American Dynamism Summit” put on by Andreessen Horowitz, the venture capital firm.

According to a transcript of a conversation with one of the firm’s general partners, Sramek talked about the residences that will be available in California Forever’s new city.

“And then imagine that instead of paying 4 or 5 million dollars for a mediocre home in Palo Alto or San Francisco, your employees would be able to buy a nice house for a million dollars,” he said.

When The Daily Beast told her of Sramek’s estimation, Zick replied, “Hilarious if accurate.”

The Daily Beast was not able to contact Montalbano or several other Solano residents who reported shady encounters with people collecting signatures for the California Forever petitions. California Forever did not respond to a request for comment or to a query regarding how it fields petitions.

John Gardner, the Solano County assistant registrar of voters, whose office oversees ballot initiatives there, told The Daily Beast he was unaware of problems with the California Forever petitions, but would refer any complaints to the California secretary of state for investigation.

A spokesman for the secretary of state told The Daily Beast that it had not received complaints regarding the California Forever petition. The spokesman noted, “It is a crime to misrepresent the contents or impact of an initiative measure,” adding, “Any person may file a complaint with local law enforcement authorities or our office.”

Solano Together, a coalition formed to oppose California Forever, posted online how to rescind a petition signature. Gardner confirmed that it can be done though the Voting Registrar’s office by post or email.

“It’s pretty straightforward,” Gardner said.

Voters who believe they signed a petition in error can withdraw their signature by filling out this form, then submitting it to the Solano County Registrar of Voters. Citizens can also contact the Registrar of Voters by calling (888) 993-8683. The phone line is staffed weekdays between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

>> More stories on California Forever here on the BenIndy