Two Benicia City Council incumbents backed by a Valero-funded “Progress for Benicia” political action committee appear to have lost their re-election, according to the latest numbers posted by Solano County on Tuesday.
Benicia is home to the Valero refinery, which is the largest employer in the city.
Terry Scott appears to have won a seat on the council with nearly 25 percent of the vote, followed by Kari Birdseye with nearly 24 percent of the vote.
Possibly ousted were Christina Strawbridge, who has served on the council twice, and Lionel Largaespada, who was first elected in 2018. Largaespada was the lone, comparably conservative voice on the council and received about 23 percent of the vote this November, only 148 votes shy of Birdseye as of Tuesday.
Largaespada conceded the race last Thursday, saying on social media that it was an “honor and privilege” to serve the community he loves.
Valero’s PAC pumped nearly $90,000 toward the campaigns of Strawbridge and Largaespada through advertising and a mailer. The mailer sent to voters had pictures of both candidates saying “Re-elect Strawbridge and Largaespada” along with shots of other current council members Trevor Macenski, Vice Mayor Tom Campbell and Mayor Steve Young, much to the chagrin of Campbell and 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 supported council candidates Birdseye and Scott.
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 Valero employs so many residents and 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.
The mayor has another problem with Valero — its contributions to local elections. The company has spent over $500,000 toward 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.
In the wake of both Valero-backed candidates losing on Nov. 8, some question if the oil giant’s influence hinders rather than helps candidates Valero supports.
“I don’t think there’s any question that Valero’s involvement in the last two races negatively affected the candidates they were supporting,” said Young. “Voters have shown that they reject this level of corporate influence in our local election and will continue to do so if Valero chooses to keep trying to affect local races in the future.”
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. 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.
Valero has not responded to requests for comment on the election results.