Council: Let’s get creative so that we don’t have another dirty election in 2020

An email sent to Benicia City Council and staff by Roger Straw (also published in the Benicia Herald and Vallejo Times-Herald)

Massive intrusion of big money in our local election

By Roger Straw, November 12, 2018
Roger Straw, The Benicia Independent

In an online forum, Vice Mayor Steve Young congratulated City Council members-elect Strawbridge and Largaespada, and wrote, “While I was a strong supporter of Kari Birdseye, and joined all the candidates in decrying the over the top PAC spending and the false charges made against her, the voters have spoken….I pledge to work with both of the new Council members on issues of mutual agreement, and to disagree where I must. There are lots of issues to address in the City, and it’s time now to buckle down and get to work.”

Admirable of Steve, and necessary for all Council members going forward.  I’d like to write about one of those issues the Council needs to buckle down and get to work on.

There are lessons to be learned from this contentious election.  Many of Kari Birdseye’s supporters have, like Steve, expressed deep disappointment over the massive spending in our local election by a political action committee (PAC) organized by Valero Services Inc. and a coalition of labor groups.  The PAC spent more than 3 times the combined spending of the four candidates, over $200,000.  That’s about 10 times what each of the 3 major candidates spent.  Many in Benicia are concerned about this as a possible trend, given the “Citizens United” decision of our U.S. Supreme Court which allows corporations and PACS to spend without limit in our elections.

Online expression of these concerns and post-election analyses has been criticized.  One responder wrote, “Losers are right to be disappointed, but me thinks they give too much credit to Valero.”

I’m sure there are multiple factors for the Council race outcome, so I’ll agree that Valero – and labor – doesn’t get ALL of the “credit.”  But I’d prefer to term it “discredit.”  Valero/Labor money from Benicia, Texas, Sacramento and Los Angeles – paying for smears, misinformation, scare tactics and professional and pervasive print, digital, phone and canvassing support for chosen candidates (and AGAINST a singular candidate) – was surely one of the major factors.  And the message they will take away is that they won.  We can expect huge PAC influence again in 2020.

What, if anything, can our community do to prepare?  I’m not at all sure.  Maybe it falls to our newly elected Council – including Strawbridge and Largaespada who were publicly and highly critical of the Valero/Labor PAC’s tactics – to take a new look at our 2008 campaign finance ordinance.

Do Council members ONLY object to the negativity and false charges thrown around by the PAC?  Or do they ALSO object to the massive intrusion of big money into our local elections?  Given the legality of such outside meddling under current U.S law, how can our Council members get creative to prepare for another election in which big business and big labor outspend a candidate by a factor of 10?  How can we get creative on this… before 2020?

Roger Straw