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Dozens gathered at Benicia’s town center on Wednesday evening to decry what they are calling “malicious” campaigning by the owners of the town’s refinery, Valero, which they say is trying to influence Tuesday’s election.

Carrying signs that read “Valero: Big Bucks Run Amok” and “Stop Polluting Our Elections,” residents rallied in support of two council candidates not backed by Valero, Terry Scott and Kari Birdseye. They also cried foul about big oil money in small-town races.

“We are not paid lobbyists!” said local refinery pollution watchdog Cathy Bennett at the rally. “We’re not even public figures. We are your neighbors … We know this community. We are this community! A corporate giant in Texas does not know this community!”

Benicia protesters display signs duirng Wednesday’s rally opposing Valero’s involvement in local politics. (Photo by Katy St. Clair/Bay City News)

Mayor of Benicia Steve Young has been very vocal about Valero’s influence on politics in town as well as its effect on air quality. He has to walk a fine line since Benicia’s largest employer is Valero, which also contributes philanthropically to local organizations and causes. But Valero is also a polluter and was found last spring to have emitted hazardous chemicals at hundreds of times the daily limit since 2003, galvanizing activists in town and angering Young.

But the mayor has another problem with Valero — its contributions to local elections. The company has pumped over $500,000 into mayoral and city council races over the last three election cycles. Valero spent money to try and defeat Young in his race, but he won anyway. The company has also backed City Councilmembers Christina Strawbridge and Lionel Largaespada, who are running for re-election on Nov. 8th.

Mayor calls mailer misleading

Now the mayor is speaking out again after a Valero-backed mailer was sent out to residents that he and others say is deceptive. The mailer reads “Re-elect Strawbridge & Largaespada,” with pictures of both candidates along with other councilmembers Trevor Macenski, Vice Mayor Tom Campbell, and Mayor Steve Young.

“We gave no permission for them to use our photos in the obvious attempt to confuse voters about whom we support,” said Young in a statement released Oct. 28, saying that the mailer “could not be more deceptive.”

Both Campbell and Young support council candidates Kari Birdseye and Terry Scott.

Valero is Benicia’s largest employer, contributing philanthropically to local causes. But it is also a polluter, which has galvanized activists in town.

“In 2018, the Valero funded PAC successfully defeated Kari Birdseye and helped elect Largaespada and Strawbridge with a toxic, negative campaign against her,” said Young. “In 2020, a similar negative campaign was launched against me in my race against Ms. Strawbridge, but Benicia voters saw through the negative ads and I was elected Mayor.”

Valero did not respond to requests for comment.

“If this [mailer] comes to your door and you’ve not been paying much attention, you will clearly assume the entire City Council supports these two candidates,” wrote resident Roger Straw in an online post.

Though Valero has never explicitly commented on why it supports Largaespada and Strawbridge, Largaespada supported the company’s push to bring crude-by-rail into Benicia. The move was quashed by the City Council at the time, with even Strawbridge voting to bar the transports. However, she initially voted to continue discussions about crude-by-rail before ultimately voting “no,” something she has said might have led to her losing her previous run at re-election. Mayor Young, who was on the planning commission at the time, also knocked down the crude-by-rail idea, which he thinks was the impetus for Valero’s opposition to his mayoral campaign.

Playing the name game

Another thing Valero has done that has ired activists is change the name of its PAC, which opponents say is deceptive and obfuscates the billion-dollar industry behind it. Once named Working Families for a Strong Benicia, now the PAC is called Progress for Benicia, a Coalition Supporting Local Jobs and the Economy.

According to Progress for Benicia’s campaign finance reports, monetary contributions to Tuesday’s election total $200,000.

The mayor points to the Citizens United v. FEC ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows corporations to contribute unlimited funds to campaigns.

“Usually, this level of over-the-top spending is confined to national and statewide elections, not in small towns like Benicia,” Young wrote in February. “But Valero’s size and wealth gives them the belief that they can pick and choose who should be our elected representatives.”