Dan Morain

Dan Morain: After election losses, Chevron turns to Rubio

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

Setting aside questions of propriety, Chevron was shrewd to hire state Sen. Michael Rubio to head its governmental relations operation.

Rubio's decision to quit midterm makes sense, too. I don't doubt his stated reason for giving up a promising political career: that he and his wife have a daughter who has Down syndrome and he felt a need to put his family first.

By stepping through the revolving door, the first-term Democratic senator will probably more than double his legislative salary, heady stuff for a guy who grew up without much in the Kern County oil patch. He's accepting a cushy position.

Chevron is adept at turning profits. But the oil giant had a dismal election last year. The company spent $7.2 million on the 2012 campaign in California and emerged with little to show for it, other than an annoyed Senate president pro tem.

In a state where Republican voter registration has dipped below 30 percent and the state GOP is close to bankruptcy, Chevron made the less-than-brilliant decision to give $400,000 to the California Republican Party in the last election cycle, twice the sum it contributed to the California Democratic Party.

Worse, it gave $1.2 million to an independent campaign called California Now, which backed three Republican state Senate candidates. They lost to Democrats Cathleen Galgiani of Livingston and Southern Californians Fran Pavley and Richard Roth.

"No question about it. I'm very aware of it," Darrell Steinberg said, not amused. "Look, it's politics. They chose to do what they did, and we won. Maybe there will be a change. You hope for the best."

Chevron bet wrong in small ways, too, giving $4,900 to then Republican Assemblyman Jeff Miller in his race against Roth for a Riverside County Senate seat. In desperation, Miller sent out a mailer accusing Roth, a retired Air Force major general, of "protecting illegal aliens."

"Give them everything they want – even our jobs. And have the taxpayers foot the bill," the mailer said, providing yet more evidence to support the GOP's reputation for being anti-Latino.

Given Rubio's roots, he'd be unlikely to use his position, which will entail overseeing Chevron campaign spending, to fund candidates who would try to win by bashing immigrants.

Then again, roots can grow in different directions and become twisted.

Rubio first won elective office as a Kern County supervisor in part by touting his work, as an aide to then-Sen. Dean Florez, on bills cracking down on air polluters in the southern end of the Central Valley.

He's a marathoner and long-distance bicyclist, and, until his resignation Friday, represented a part of the Valley where four out of seven kids are said to carry inhalers because of asthma.

Rubio, who like Chevron didn't return my calls, clearly has made his peace with the oil industry. As a senator, he accepted oil campaign donations, meals and other favors, and was an industry vote.

As head of Chevron's California government affairs, Rubio will direct its lobby operation. Chevron employs eight lobby and law-lobby firms and spent $5.6 million in the 2011-12 legislative session, ranking sixth among all employers of lobbyists.

Although the operation is formidable, Rubio will have his work cut out for him. Chevron faces California's strict low-carbon fuel standards and the complex cap-and-trade program.

In the short term, Rubio probably would have been more useful to Chevron if he remained in the Senate. He pushed a bill last year that would have benefited Chevron's effort to expand its Richmond refinery.

This year, he worked on legislation to pare back the California Environmental Quality Act, and defended industry against regulators seeking to limit the ability of companies to extract oil and gas by the process known as fracking.

In the Senate, Rubio was a young man in a hurry, the sort of politician who could have looked in the mirror and seen a governor or U.S. senator. He is smart, ambitious and a Latino in a state where Latinos make up more than 20 percent of the electorate. By the age of 35, he had worked as a legislative aide, served on the Kern County Board of Supervisors and been a state senator, all of which give him relationships with a new generation of California leaders.

"If I'm a corporation, why wouldn't I want to get that guy? I can't think of a reason," said campaign strategist Richie Ross, who was Rubio's consultant.

Rubio's career in politics is over. Californians would never elect an oil industry executive. He felt he needed to quit the Senate for the sake of his family and sell his services to a high bidder, and that is a little bit sad.