Valero-Funded PAC Pours More Than $250,000 Into Benicia Mayor's Race

Valero's oil refinery in the Solano County city of Benicia. (Craig Miller/KQED)

A political action committee funded mainly by the Valero Energy company has raised more than a quarter-million dollars to convince Benicia residents to vote for its preferred candidate in the city's mayoral race.

The San Antonio-based oil giant runs the Benicia refinery, one of California's largest, which is located in the small Solano County city.

Contributions to the Working Families for a Strong Benicia PAC represent four times the total combined amount raised from individual donations by the city's three mayoral candidates.

In the mayor's race, Valero and one of its allied unions are supporting Christina Strawbridge, a councilwoman and vice mayor, against Councilman Steve Young — both Democrats — funding phone polls, digital ads and mailers and reigniting a debate over the city's future.

Since 2019, Valero has donated $240,000 to the committee. The donations come two years after the Valero-funded PAC spent thousands to help Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada win seats on the Benicia City Council and defeat Kari Birdseye, an environmentalist candidate who supported tighter regulation of the refinery.

The PAC also received a $25,000 contribution from the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Lodge 549 in what the union calls an effort to stop "coastal politicians" from killing manufacturing jobs.

"Steve Young wants Benicia to be a town where tech professionals buy a latte and telecommute. Christina Strawbridge wants it to be a place where our members who live in Benicia, who come home from work dirty and tired, can continue to raise their families, too," said Timothy Jefferies, the union's business manager.

Elizabeth Patterson, Benicia's current mayor and one of Valero's leading critics, is leaving office after serving in that position for 13 years and on the City Council for 17 years prior to that.

The election arrives as Valero and other oil companies that produce and process petroleum in California face declining sales because of the coronavirus pandemic and increasing calls for the state to move away from fossil fuels as it battles climate change-driven wildfires.

With gasoline demand dropping, two of the Bay Area's refineries, the Marathon plant in Martinez and Phillips 66 in Rodeo, are shifting to producing renewable fuels.

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Last Thursday, Valero announced a loss of $464 million in the third quarter of this year.

The two worst refinery accidents in the Bay Area in the last three years took place at Valero's Benicia refinery.

A May 2017 power outage at the refinery led to a major release of toxic sulfur, prompting city leaders to call for an industrial safety ordinance. In March 2019, the plant had a series of malfunctions that led to another significant pollution release.

Patterson and Young have since pushed for the city to have more regulatory control over the refinery. Attacks from the Valero PAC followed.

"Steve Young doesn't need a job because he is supported by the taxpayers of California. He has no reason to protect Benicia's jobs and tax base," states one of the recent mailers from the Valero PAC that was widely distributed to Benicia voters.

"Christina is a local business owner and knows how important it is to keep Benicia working. Now, more than ever, we need leaders like Christina Strawbridge," it states.

Benicia residents have also received several rounds of calls paid for by the Valero-funded PAC, aimed at convincing voters to back Strawbridge.

Young: 'Leave it to Benicia Voters'

Young says he's not against the refinery, noting that it's a major part of Benicia's economy and that Valero frequently contributes to "worthy local causes."

He says the PAC is targeting him because he led a Planning Commission vote several years ago that ultimately led to the rejection of Valero's crude-by-rail application.

"Their ongoing attempts to influence the makeup of the City Council go far beyond normal corporate interest in local affairs," Young said in an email. "Leave it to Benicia voters to elect their own representatives."

Young says he wants the company to be more transparent about problems and accidents at the refinery and to send out immediate alerts to Benicia residents when accidents occur. He also says the city should have stronger air quality monitoring systems in place.

"The relationship between Valero and the community is strained," Young said, adding that city officials and refinery executives can change that by holding monthly meetings.

Young says he's a stronger candidate than Strawbridge because of his career working in local government and his better understanding of how to address problems facing the city.

Strawbridge: 'Heal the Divide'

Strawbridge says that since she was elected to the City Council in 2018, relations between Benicia and the refinery have improved.

She notes that while the city did not put in place the more stringent regulations that Young and Patterson wanted, Benicia reached an agreement with Valero that includes the addition of portable air monitors, notifications during hazardous material incidents and increased disclosure on incident investigations.

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But she also acknowledges that the campaign work by the company's PAC is not helping the two sides get along.

"The relationship needs to improve and may have had a setback with this election cycle and Valero's formation of a PAC," Strawbridge said in an email.

"There is now a continued lack of trust within the community about the methods used during the election that were similar to 2018," she added. "Once again, Valero has gone after my opponent with negative ads. That does not work in Benicia."

Strawbridge believes the pushback from Valero's critics has also gone too far.

"There has been a concerted effort to discredit me on social media and the local paper by supporters of my opponent," Strawbridge said. "As mayor of Benicia, I plan to heal the divide our city has experienced for many years."

Strawbridge touts her experience promoting nonprofits, preserving historic buildings and advocating for parks and local tourism. She says her background in small business will help guide the city through the pandemic.

A third mayoral candidate, Jason Diavatis, who has not been supported or opposed by the Valero PAC, did not respond to a request for comment.

Influence in California

Valero's donations to the PAC represent just one place the oil company has made campaign contributions to influence California races.

The oil giant and its various political action committees have contributed at least $14.1 million to California groups and congressional candidates in the state since 2015, according to a review of state and federal campaign finance data by MapLight, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that follows money in politics.

Jason Kaune, the Benicia PAC's treasurer and head of political law at Nielsen Merksamer, a Sacramento-based lobbying firm, declined to comment. A Valero spokeswoman also did not return a request for comment.

The work of a similar PAC in the 2018 election led to a significant divide in Benicia, pitting environmentalists against refinery workers.

During that election, the city filed a complaint with state campaign finance regulators, alleging that Valero sponsored a so-called push poll intended to negatively characterize Birdseye, the environmental candidate. The state's Fair Political Practices Commission, though, declined to investigate the calls.

The dispute led the City Council to approve stronger disclosure rules for political committees involved in local elections.