Sen. Jim Beall prefers to dig into the fine details of how to go about structuring a gasoline tax increase to pay for road repairs.
To make that point, the San Jose Democrat piled a stack of papers 2 feet high onto his desk. Not much with a sound bite, Beall declared: “It is very important that I focus on the transportation infrastructure for the good of the state.”
Not many phrases can stir a soul quite like “transportation infrastructure.” But as much as Beall would love to focus on filling potholes – and he honestly would – he faces what could be the campaign of his life.
He has been running for office since 1980 when he won a San Jose City Council seat at age 28. Now 64 and in his 19th election, he understands the rules of engagement, except that they’re changing.
This time, Assemblywoman Nora Campos, herself a San Jose Democrat but one from a younger generation, is seeking to shove Beall aside. So are the money players with the deepest of pockets of all, the oil industry.
Led by $5.2 million from Chevron, four oil giants have amassed no less than $9.9 million since January 2015 to be spent on this year’s legislative races. In the same period in the last election cycle – January 2013 through mid-May 2014 – oil companies had raised $6.8 million, $3 million less.
Industry spokesmen won’t explain the increase. But you don’t need top secret memos to figure it out. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León last year carried Senate Bill 350, which sought to cut petroleum use by half. That posed a direct threat to the industry.
With support from reliably liberal members such as Beall, de León easily won Senate approval. The industry reacted with a $10 million ad and lobbying campaign targeting wavering legislators. When Campos and other business-friendly Democrats in the Assembly balked, de León stripped the oil reduction sections from his bill.
Other issues gnaw at the industry, too, chief among them the state-imposed low-carbon fuel standard, which compels oil refiners to reduce the carbon content of their fuel, a costly and complex undertaking. Industry lobbyists say they cannot comply and have turned to the Legislature for help.
Beall isn’t particularly sympathetic. Campos didn’t call me back, opting instead to issue a statement responding to a question I didn’t ask. But oil companies know who their friends are and have spent $340,000 on ads and other campaign efforts to toss out Beall and to elect Campos to the Senate.
“They’re trying to get the people who care about the environment to back down,” Beall said. “It’s hardball politics.”
As Senate leader, de León’s first responsibility is to protect any Senate Democrat who faces an election challenge. Toward that end, he successfully pushed the Senate last week to lift restrictions on fundraising it had adopted in 2014 when three sitting senators faced criminal charges.
Essentially, the Senate banned itself from fundraising for a month during budget negotiations and another month at the end of legislative sessions. The gesture was nice window dressing and prompted some cynics to state the obvious: Legislators weren’t for sale year-round, only 10 months out of the year.
The restriction was voluntary, and the Assembly didn’t follow the Senate’s lead. That meant Campos could raise money while Beall would face restrictions. As it happens, Campos’ fundraising is anemic by today’s standard. She had $163,000 in cash at last count, compared to Beall’s $314,000. But when you add in independent campaigns supporting Campos, she leads Beall in the money race.
Most of the money from Chevron, Valero, Tesoro and a spinoff of Occidental Petroleum is gushing into a campaign committee called the Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class. It’s spending to defend one Republican, and elect or re-elect business-friendly Democrats in four races, including the Campos-Beall race.
Oil money is seeping into unexpected places. Last month, Chevron gave $1 million to a campaign committee called Keeping Californians Working, sponsored by the California Dental Association and others. Dentists and oil companies must have common interests. Drilling, perhaps.
Keeping California Working hopes to keep Winters Mayor Cecilia Aguiar-Curry working by spending heavily to elect her to the Assembly seat that includes Yolo and Napa counties, over her Democratic rivals, Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor and Davis Mayor Dan Wolk. Business-funded independent campaigns – including the oilies’ Coalition to Restore the Middle Class – have spent no less than $828,000 to elect Aguiar-Curry.
Campaigns become proxies for issues that play out in the Capitol. This one is bigger than most, involving as it does the primacy of the oil industry and California’s fight against climate change. A question lingers: What of the wealthy environmentalists who supported SB 350? For now, San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, a friend of de León’s and a climate change activist, is monitoring the situation, one of Steyer’s aides said. I’d expect a response soon.
Democrats are in no danger of losing control of the Legislature in 2016. There’s even talk that they could gain supermajorities in both houses in the November election. In theory, Democrats would control all aspects of Sacramento. But that’s theory. As the Beall-Campos race and few others show, Democrats come in different types.