By Matthew Selman
Some would call Valero’s refinery infamous, the massive smokestacks towering above the Industrial Park put a dent into the beauty of Benicia. Many people have come to terms living with a refinery, but for decades the citizens of Benicia have been vocal about their thoughts of Valero marking their territory next to so many homes. Valero is now pumping money into local elections attempting to control who holds council in Benicia, hoping for lighter regulations, and to ensure oil continues to be produced at the level it is in Solano County.
Valero has played a massive role in the economy, philanthropy, and employment in Benicia, making it hard for the Mayor to speak out against Valero’s actions. After all, the refinery employs the largest number of people in Benicia. Despite all of the great things Valero does to improve our community, the company may be trying to make their presence permanent, and possibly increase expansion in the coming years.
Oil in America is becoming increasingly expensive, due to climate regulations and international affairs, making people look to alternative fuels or batteries to live their day to day lives. Climate change is also putting pressure on oil companies because many states are looking to limit gas-powered vehicles in the coming years. Valero, like any other oil company, is looking for ways to combat these changes. Keeping a positive relationship with local politicians is one way Valero is trying to maintain their status in Benicia.
In the midterm election during November, Valero pumped thousands of dollars into the republican candidates for Benicia’s city council, attempting to add republican members into the council. Mayor Steve Young claims his image was used deceptively and without permission. A mail-sent campaign ad funded by Valero used a picture of their proposed candidates, Lionel Largaespada and Christina Strawbridge standing next to mayor Young with the words, “Re-elect Strawbridge and Largaespada.” In a statement from Mayor Young regarding the campaign ad, he said, “we gave no permission for them to use our photos in the obvious attempt to confuse voters about whom we support.” Young is fed up with Valero’s actions and believes it is time for something to change.
Corporations influencing elections is not unheard of, in fact issues like this have gotten all the way to the Supreme Court. In the Citizens United Vs. FEC trial, the Supreme Court ruled companies can contribute unlimited funds into campaigns. This sort of funding to campaigns typically happens on the state and federal levels according to Mayor Young, which is what makes this situation particularly difficult to him and his citizens. It can drastically change election results and trend away from democracy and toward oligarchy.
Benicia has stayed strong though, the past three election cycles money has been sent to Valero-endorsed candidates. During the 2020 local election, Valero funded republican candidate Jason Diavatis’ campaign, hoping he would put the local economy on top of his priority list. Even with a stipend for Diavatis, Benicia residents still elected current Mayor, Steve Young. The amount of campaign donations coming from a billion dollar industry into a small town can be detrimental to the future of Benicia.
Election results were nothing short of disappointing for Valero, in yet another election Valero backed candidates were not elected a seat. Terry Scott and Kari Birdseye won both available council seats by a narrow margin, making Valero rethink their status in Benicia. The Valero Political Action Committee, or PAC, was once named “Working Families for a Strong Benicia” and is now named “Progress for Benicia”. Climate activists believe this name change is trying to hide the real motives behind Valero’s refinery and attempting to shine a good light on the company.
You can’t deny the great things Valero does for the community, and many citizens don’t. Many hard working men and women dedicate their lives in order to live a clean and healthy life in Benicia. The citizens of Benicia aren’t upset with the employees of Valero, they are upset with the executives. The people who are pulling the strings as if they aren’t potentially harming future generations in Benicia. Despite being one of the largest American corporations pumping money into local elections, Benicia has been able to maintain democracy, a stable economy, and be home to one of the most Beautiful cities in the Bay.