Capitol Alert

Big oil vs. billionaire: A fight for California legislative votes

Chevron, Valero, Tesoro and California Resources Corp. have given nearly $6.9 million since mid-2015 to three independent expenditure committees that support business-friendly candidates.
Chevron, Valero, Tesoro and California Resources Corp. have given nearly $6.9 million since mid-2015 to three independent expenditure committees that support business-friendly candidates. The Associated Press

Special interests have come to play in the Bay Area.

In a one-minute radio ad airing in the 15th Senate District, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer says, “The big oil companies will stop at nothing to protect their profits.”

Steyer warns listeners that the industry is spending heavily to knock Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, out of office. “Why?” Steyer asks. “Because Jim Beall voted for clean energy.”

Beall’s challenger, Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, casts Steyer’s involvement as an opportunity for the wealthy businessman to “purchase a new toy and experiment with his theories.” The voters care about jobs, health care and quality education, she said.

“We didn’t all start at Phillips Exeter Academy,” she said, mocking Steyer’s privileged upbringing.

The public jabs are part of a multimillion-dollar election battle between oil interests and environmentalists backing Democrats on opposite ends of the party’s political spectrum.

Chevron, Valero, Tesoro and California Resources Corp. have given nearly $6.9 million since mid-2015 to three independent expenditure committees that support business-friendly candidates. Thus far, the committees have spent $1.4 million on three unusual intraparty races with incumbents facing opponents in re-election bids.

Nearly 400 miles south of San Jose, a 20-foot-wide mobile billboard travels along San Bernardino streets with an image of a polluted sky over a packed roadway and Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown’s name on a replica of Chevron’s logo.

A coalition of labor unions and environmental groups who support newcomer Eloise Reyes, Brown’s challenger in the 47th District, paid for the ad and dreamed up an unflattering “Chevron Cheryl” moniker. Environmental groups were outraged when an oil-funded mailer cast her as an environmental champion “for us all.”

Oil-funded committees have spent $873,490 to support Brown in the 47th Assembly District. Campos, who is taking on Beall in San Jose, is benefiting from $339,347 in independent spending from oil-backed groups. The interests also have spent $187,439 to boost Raul Bocanegra, who is working to unseat Assemblywoman Patty Lopez in the 39th District.

Steyer and other environmentalists say the oil companies are retaliating against Democrats who voted for a host of climate change laws last year. The biggest fight occurred over Senate Bill 350, which originally sought to cut petroleum use in half, increase the electricity California derives from wind, solar and other renewable sources to 50 percent, and require the state to double the energy efficiency of buildings over time.

Brown wouldn’t support the bill until the petroleum reduction was removed. The bill eventually passed without it, which was seen as a coup for oil and a considerable failure for proponents.

Steyer stepped into the intraparty fight last week and set aside $500,000 in an independent expenditure committee to back Beall. Steyer is monitoring other races where oil interests are spending heavily, said Gil Duran, a spokesman for Steyer.

Oil companies are “trying to steamroll good legislators who stand up for California’s families and put their health and well-being before the profit margins of oil companies,” Duran said.

Chevron directed questions about the spending to one of the oil-funded groups. The committee, which calls itself the Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class, said in a statement that it “supports leaders who have protected California jobs and the middle class and share our commitment to policies that help businesses thrive.”

Democrat-on-Democrat races are outside the norm in the California Legislature. But as Democrats came to dominate state offices in California and Republicans’ influence waned, business interests began to seek out and support the more industry-friendly legislators among them. Moderate Democrats have the opportunity to sway votes by deciding whether to take sides with their own party or Republicans.

Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College, said Democratic political hopefuls typically wait their turn rather than challenging an incumbent in their own party. It’s not just a courtesy – incumbents are hard to beat because they often have better visibility, greater fundraising potential and more experience than new candidates, he said.

But he suggested aspiring legislators are less inclined to wait for someone to vacate a seat under changes to term limits approved by voters in 2012.

Previously, lawmakers were allowed six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate. Now legislators can serve a total of 12 years, with no restrictions on time spent in each house.

“With the change in term limits, it changed the calculation,” Pitney said. “There are a lot more ambitious politicians than there are seats.”

Lopez, elected to the Legislature in 2014, is familiar with intraparty contests.

She unexpectedly took the 39th District from Bocanegra, an incumbent some thought was bound to become the next Assembly speaker. Lopez, a Mexican immigrant and longtime volunteer with no prior experience in office, said she ran because she was frustrated with the local education system and didn’t feel like Bocanegra cared enough about his constituents.

Now Bocanegra is trying to take the district back, raising nine times as much money to spend on the race than Lopez – $607,648 to her $68,540. Special-interest committees representing charter school advocates, doctors and Realtors as well as oil companies have spent another half-million dollars in an effort to ensure he assumes the seat. As of Wednesday, no outside interest had weighed in on Lopez’s behalf.

Lopez said she understands that the oil industry is targeting her due to her support for SB 350 and other climate change measures.

“For me, I don’t take it personally,” Lopez said. “I totally understand that these people are doing business. I’m not (in) business for them. I’m not the best person in Sacramento for them, but I am the best person for my community.”

Lopez said she beat Bocanegra with less than $20,000 in her campaign fund, some of which she earned by selling tamales, last time around. She said that if outside interests actually cared about the district, they would give their money to struggling families, schools or other groups that need it.

In the 15th Senate District race, Beall has collected $658,913 in his own campaign fund from supporters. Campos has raised about $342,000, but also is benefiting from the oil money.

Campos and her team did not respond to interview requests.

“Big oil companies are not spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Nora Campos because they have the best interests of Silicon Valley in mind,” said Greg Leifer, a spokesman for Beall’s campaign, in a statement. “Big Oil doesn’t want to lose an ally in Sacramento, so they are spending whatever it takes to try to keep her in Sacramento.”

Eloise Reyes also questions the money pouring in for her opponent, Assemblywoman Brown. Brown’s campaign has raised $695,407 compared to Reyes’ $287,701.

Reyes said she didn’t consider running against Brown, an incumbent, until she looked at her voting record. She called Brown’s efforts to remove the petroleum amendment in SB 350 “appalling.”

“We knew they would play in this race,” Reyes said. “Cheryl has voted on their behalf. Of course they would want to protect her. I never would have imagined that they would put a million dollars into this race.

“It’s up to Chevron, but if they want to spend that much money to keep Cheryl in, it begs the question of what’s the interest of having a representative being so aligned with them?”

For her part, Brown said she pays no attention to outside spending in the race.

She attributed her early opposition to Senate Bill 350 to a lack of jobs in the Inland Empire that forces a high percentage of the population to commute for work. The previous version of the bill, she said, would have forced them to pay higher gas prices.

“I am a deliberate thinker, and I don’t do things on the fly,” she said. “Those are the kind of people that many companies and industries want in Sacramento. The other people want people who will do whatever they will tell them to do. I’m not that kind of person; therefore, I stand up for what’s right.”

Brown said she votes differently than a more stereotypical Democrat representing San Francisco or other wealthier parts of the state because the Inland Empire is impoverished and has different needs.

What does she think about the Chevron Cheryl title?

“Sticks and stones can hurt your bones, but names will never bother me,” she said.

Jim Miller contributed to this report.

Taryn Luna: 916-326-5545, @TarynLuna

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