Here We Go Again – Benicia candidates and voters must reject Valero’s big money

Here We Go Again

On social media, by Steve Young, Benicia

Steve Young, Benicia resident (and Mayor)

I want to emphasize that I am writing today not as the Mayor, but rather an interested Benicia resident and voter. I also want to state that I understand the importance of Valero to our local economy as a major employer and taxpayer and an important contributor to local causes. Since the last election, I have initiated meetings with the Valero General Manager on a monthly basis, and feel that we have developed a respectful relationship. I have also told him directly that I will be writing this article.

Last week, it was revealed [here on the Benicia Independent] that Valero, through the oddly named Working Families for a Strong Benicia Political Action Committee (PAC), had deposited another $200,000 in anticipation of this year’s City Council elections. They are currently sitting on $235,000.

There is only one purpose in making such a huge expenditure nine months before the election: to scare off any potential City Council candidate who would consider running without first getting Valero’s stamp of approval. What candidate is willing to go up against that kind of war chest?

In 2018, Valero and their construction trade union allies, ran a big-dollar, negative campaign against Planning Commission Chair Kari Birdseye (“Birdseye Bad for Benicia”) and in favor of Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada. The PAC attack was successful, and Strawbridge and Largaespada were elected. The presumed reason for opposing Ms. Birdseye is that she (and I) had led the Planning Commission denial of Valero’s Crude by Rail proposal (a denial that ultimately was upheld by the City Council).

In 2020, the same Valero-funded PAC decided to run the same type of negative campaign against me in my race for Mayor. Over $250,000 was spent attacking me, and in favor of Ms. Strawbridge. Unlike in 2018, however, Benicia voters saw through this effort and I was elected by a 20 point margin.

The argument has been made that, as Benicia’s largest employer and a significant taxpayer, Valero should have a say in the selection of Council candidates and the Mayor. And I agree. They should have the same right as any other company or individual to support the candidate(s) of their choice.

But they should also play by the same rules that apply to everyone else under Benicia’s campaign finance regulations. They, and any of their employees, are able to donate $540 to the candidate of their choice. But, in Benicia, candidates are limited by our campaign finance ordinance to spending no more than $35,000 on a campaign (assuming they can raise that much). By contrast, the PAC spending more than $250,000 on our local campaigns shows how uneven (and undemocratic) their influence buying campaign has become.

[Editor – see Benicia Municipal Code…
Chapter 1.36: Voluntary Code of Fair Campaign Practices
Chapter 1.40:  Disclosure Of Contributions and Expenditures
Chapter 1.42: Contribution and Voluntary Spending Limits]

The disastrous “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision opened the door for this by declaring that “money is speech”, and allowing for unlimited spending by corporations and unions. Usually, this level of over the top spending is confined to national and statewide elections, not in small towns like Benicia. But Valero’s size and wealth gives them the belief that they can pick and choose who should be our elected representatives.

What they are doing is legal, but it is wrong-and extremely harmful to our community. This is what is truly “Bad for Benicia”.

The only way to stop it is if EVERY candidate for City Council publicly, vociferously, and repeatedly rejects support from the Valero PAC, and denounces this type of negative campaigning and excessive spending. In addition, voters should demand that any candidate take a public and ongoing stand that Valero should not support their campaign in any way. I call on all prospective candidates in the November election to make this pledge. If no candidate is willing to be supported by this PAC, where will they spend all of their money?

Leave Benicia elections to Benicia voters.