"Even though they are closer to constituents than a gubernatorial or Senate race, voters tend to know less about them. A little bit of spending ... can make a difference," Levinson said.
Valero's actions are reminiscent of an effort several years ago by Chevron to sway voters in Richmond, where it operates a massive refinery. In 2014 the company spent millions in an unsuccessful attempt to elect a slate of its allies to the City Council.
Some of the PAC's activities have led Benicia officials to call on the state's political watchdog to investigate claims that the committee has violated some of California's laws regulating campaign contributions.
The company's political activities, first reported by the Vallejo Times-Herald and Roger Straw, an activist and blogger with the Benicia Independent, come 18 months after a major release of toxic sulfur dioxide caused by a power outage at the Valero refinery.
The incident prompted calls for city regulation of the refinery and deepened a divide between the city's mayor and the company.
The election involves four candidates vying for two open spots on the council.
The 34-word name of the independent expenditure Valero is helping to fund explains clearly who it wants to win. It's called "Working Families for a Strong Benicia, A Coalition of Labor, Industrial Services Companies, Public Safety and Local Leaders Supporting Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada and Opposing Kari Birdseye for Benicia City Council 2018."
The Valero-backed committee calls Birdseye "a yes man" for Mayor Patterson.
"Birdseye is bad for Benicia," one of its ads says. "We don't need another job killer."
Birdseye is a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy organization.
She refers to the company's executives as "the suits from San Antonio" who "sully our election" and are engaged in a "smear campaign" involving "dirty ads with lies."
"Benicia deserves better than to be bullied and bamboozled by big money like this," she said in an interview.
As a member of the city's Planning Commission in 2016, Birdseye was among those who helped defeat a company plan to expand refinery operations to include crude oil shipped by rail. Birdseye is also a supporter of Mayor Elizabeth Patterson's failed 2017 proposal to create new local regulations for the refinery.
She said with the Trump administration pulling back from regulating the oil industry and California's goal of sharply reducing its dependence on carbon-based energy sources in the coming decades, local governments need to take action.
"It's up to the counties, cities and towns to plan for a clean energy future," Birdseye said.
"I don't want Valero to shut down tomorrow," she said. "I drive a gas-powered car, and our economy still needs Valero in our community, but I do see the need for more transparency with our largest industrial neighbor."
Birdseye has raised about $20,000 for her campaign, nearly all from individual donors in Benicia and other Solano County communities, and none from businesses.
Pair Supported by Valero-Backed Group
Strawbridge and Largaespada, the two candidates supported by the Valero-backed coalition, emphasize that they have no ties to the independent expenditure group and have worked hard to keep their campaigns positive.
Largaespada chairs the city's economic development board and works as director of marketing and business development at F3 and Associates, a firm providing advanced surveying and visualization services to a wide variety of customers -- including some in the oil and gas industry. Among its clients is Valero.
Largaespada said Valero's involvement in the election has more to do with the company's frustration and its deteriorating relationship with Mayor Patterson.
"But that doesn't give Valero and its various associates permission to launch a negative campaign," Largaespada said.
"When this all started to come out I went on record, rejecting all of it," he said. "It's not the kind of campaign I support at all."
Largaespada said Valero has a responsibility to keep Benicia safe and that the city and the refinery need to improve communication.
He said he opposed the mayor's proposal for city oversight of the company, noting that the ordinance was similar to regulations the state has already adopted.
Largaespada has raised close to $21,000, mostly from individuals. He said he returned more than $1,000 he had received from a local labor PAC.
Candidate Christina Strawbridge served on the council from 2011 to 2016, owns a clothing boutique in downtown Benicia and has been involved with community groups for 30 years.
Like Largaespada, she said she's wary of the support she's getting from the Valero-backed group.
"I think they think they're helping me," Strawbridge said, stressing that she's not aligned with any group or other candidate. "I'm an independent person, as I proved when I was on the City Council for five years."
Strawbridge notes that Valero's taxes account for a large part of Benicia's budget and have attracted businesses that support refinery operations to the city's Industrial Park. She said the company "has always stepped up" to help community groups and to do volunteer work in the city.
"That said, I believe there needs to be better communication between Valero and the city of Benicia. It has gotten to be at an all-time low in our relationship," Strawbridge said.
While she likes certain parts of the mayor's Industrial Safety Ordinance proposal, including its push for more air monitors, she said Patterson brought it to the council without gathering enough input from others.
"The public didn't get a chance to review it when it was introduced. Nor did city staff. They had less than a week," Strawbridge said.
Strawbridge has received close to $24,000 in donations from a mix of individuals, businesses and political action committees. She said she returned more than $1,000 from political action committees associated with Valero's independent expenditure.
Also in the Running
The fourth candidate running, William Emes, is a retired carpenter who has received no donations or endorsements.
"The only endorsement that counts is your vote," his website states.
Emes said he has worked in refineries and has a direct understanding of "what safety means."
In an email he emphasized that he wants to be on a team that "gets things done" and that he places great value in being transparent and objective.
"The manner in which the unions and Valero involved themselves in our election was completely unprincipled and contrary to any meaningful public discussion," Emes said.
Valero's Stance and Labor Allies
A Valero spokeswoman did not answer questions about the committee's involvement in the council election but instead pointed out the company's views in an Oct. 16 letter to the Vallejo Times-Herald.
The letter, signed by refinery general manager Don Wilson, emphasized the refinery's long-standing presence in Benicia and its strong safety record. It also directly criticized Patterson.
"Unfortunately, at City Hall, the mayor has decided to make our operations, employees' jobs and the city's tax revenue her target," Wilson wrote.
The five unions that have donated to the super PAC are the Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers Local 16, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local 549, the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, the California State Pipe Trades Council and the District Council of Iron Workers.
The groups who have contributed to the committee represent workers at various refineries, among other industries.
Donald Zampa, president of the Iron Workers District Council, which contributed $30,000 to the committee, said his organization's involvement in Benicia is aimed at saving jobs.
Zampa said he was not familiar with Patterson's safety ordinance but believes she is putting the city's economic health at risk.
"If it was up to her, she would close down the number one job provider in Benicia," Zampa said.
Push for Investigation into Valero-Backed Group
Mayor Patterson, who supports Birdseye, calls the oil refining sector "a fading industry" that Benicia should pivot away from.
"Valero is trying to bully and buy its way into politics in Benicia," Patterson said. "I had not seen it so vicious and ugly as it has been this year."
Heather McLaughlin, Benicia's city attorney, has filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission against the Valero refinery in connection with a series of phone calls made to Benicia residents about the election.
The so-called push poll involved a questioner laying out negative statements about Birdseye and positive ones about Largaespada and Strawbridge.
In September McLaughlin emailed the firm believed to be behind the phone calls, Research America, warning them that the calls may appear to violate Benicia's municipal code requiring certain disclosures for campaign communications funded by independent expenditures.
On Oct. 18, McLaughlin requested an FPPC investigation, alleging that Valero sponsored the poll and "did not disclose they were behind the poll during the telephone calls."