Valero-Backed Candidates Win Benicia City Council Election

The Valero refinery in Benicia. (Craig Miller/KQED)

Two candidates backed by Texas-based Valero Energy Corp. won seats on the Benicia City Council in Tuesday's election, while another candidate attacked by the large oil company lost.

Valero — which operates a refinery that's one of Benicia's largest employers — along with five state and local labor groups donated more than $165,000 to a political action committee that backed Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada and opposed Kari Birdseye, an environmentalist.

That amount is more than three times as much as what the candidates raised combined.

By Wednesday morning, Strawbridge got more than 33 percent of the vote, Largaespada garnered close to 30 percent and Birdseye received 26 percent, according to the Solano County Registrar of Voters. Those numbers don't yet include all mail-in and provisional ballots.

Birdseye has conceded the election, but she expressed displeasure with the PAC's actions.

"We ran a smart, clean campaign and played by the rules. These election results will only embolden special interests to throw in money to local races to buy candidates to do their dirty work," Birdseye said in an emailed statement.

The Valero PAC's ads called Birdseye "a yes man" for Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, and "another job killer" that was "bad for Benicia."

Its work deepened a divide at City Hall and the rest of Benicia over the city's relationship with its refinery neighbor, 18 months after the facility experienced a full power outage that led to a major release of pollution.

The Valero PAC's work led to a failed attempt by Benicia city officials to get the state's political watchdog to investigate some of Valero's communication with voters weeks before the vote.

And it reminded critics of an effort by Chevron to sway voters in Richmond in 2014 when the company spent millions on an attempt to elect a slate of its allies to the City Council.

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Strawbridge, who was previously on the council, emphasized that she did not support what she called the committee's "smear campaign," and said it's time for the city to come together and improve its dealings with Valero.

"It's been a tough election," Strawbridge said in an interview Wednesday. "I ran on my own credentials, my own experience and I feel like that resonated with the residents."

A Valero spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

Last month the company wrote a letter to the editor at the Vallejo Times-Herald, emphasizing the refinery's strong safety record and criticizing Mayor Patterson.

Union officials have said that Patterson's criticism of Valero puts the city's economic health at risk. And, since Birdseye was her ally and a spokeswoman for the National Resources Defense Council, she became the target of the PAC.

"Last night the voters of Benicia made it clear the path they want our city to take," said Don Zampa, president of the District Council of Ironworkers, in an emailed statement. Zampa's group is one of the those that donated to the PAC.

"Benicia is home to a blue-collar workforce. We've been here for generations and we are not going anywhere," Zampa said.

Patterson, for her part, has said Valero tried to bully and buy its way into politics in Benicia.

Largaespada did not respond to a request for comment.

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