Public Comment

The Assembly Race Turns Nasty

Joanna Graham
Friday October 24, 2014 - 10:22:00 AM

What’s going on in the race for California Assembly District 15? Elizabeth Echols is running perhaps the nastiest campaign I have ever seen—a nearly 100% negative campaign based on the insinuation that her opponent, Tony Thurmond, is backed by “big oil, tobacco, and predatory lenders”—perhaps the three industries most guaranteed to bring rage into the hearts of liberal Bay Area voters (surpassing even Big Soda).

And on what is this insinuation based? Has Tony Thurmond done anything in his public career to give grounds for it? Not that I have so far been able to dig up—nor Echols either, presumably, since she has provided no instances. Rather, it is based completely on the mysterious direct mail we have been receiving on Thurmond’s behalf from The Alliance for California’s Tomorrow and, apparently (I have not personally received any of these), from Keep CA Strong PAC.

So what are these entities? They are independent expenditure committees, which have been proliferating like cancer cells, particularly in the aftermath of Citizens United. Essentially they are political money laundering operations designed specifically to make the connection between the donor and the beneficiary untraceable. Even the recipient of the largesse does not know—by law cannot know—who is spending the money. So the source of the mailers is a mystery. Thurmond does not know who paid for them and Echols does not know either.  

Mal Warwick, long-time Berkeley political operative and current supporter of Elizabeth Echols, wrote, in his Berkeleyside op-ed of October 16, “There’s no way to know why these groups [big tobacco and big oil] are spending so much money here. We can only assume that something about Thurmond, or his opponent, Elizabeth Echols, has moved them to support one and oppose the other.” 

I agree—with two provisos. One, we have no reason to conclude that the donors are “big oil etc.” since we don’t know which entity or entities from published donor lists which include a broad array of California organizations, labor as well as business, are actually paying for the mailers. And two, since every mailing may well be doing more harm than good to Thurmond—this is rather Machiavellian—we don’t even know which candidate is being supported, which opposed. It’s possible that someone is mailing them specifically to give Echols, one of the weakest candidates to come down the pipe in a long time, something to campaign about. 

I have a guess about that, but it’s pure guess. I will return to it in a moment. But first, a reminder. 

This assembly race is not the sort of race that we are used to and that, at first glance, it appears to be—a race between two more-or-less equal Democrats, each with his or her own group of supporters. This is a race which was not supposed to be happening, because Elizabeth Echols is the Chosen One of Berkeley’s own Bates-Hancock machine which has controlled the assembly seat for the past 38 years (and the mayoralty of Berkeley for 20 and counting). 

Remember that Echols won the primary back in June, and, if California hadn’t changed to the bizarre top-two rule, she would have faced some hapless Republican in the general election and won handily. The contest with Thurmond was unexpected and, I am sure, deeply resented. As we know from long experience, Tom Bates does not like to be thwarted. 

In the 2002 election, for example, he removed free papers that endorsed his rival from boxes on the U.C. campus; after first denying it, he paid a $100 fine. In 2008, Nancy Skinner, described at the time in the Daily Cal as “part of the dominant political organization in Berkeley” and “connected to the Bates-Hancock faction,” entered the race belatedly amidst some confusion as to whether she had been planning to run at all, going on to defeat Bates’s enemy, Berkeley city councilmember Kriss Worthington. So in the Berkeley half of the assembly district, there’s a history of not completely nice campaigning. 

Note that I said “Berkeley half.” The Warwick op-ed is entitled “Big Tobacco and Big Oil have no place in Berkeley Politics,” and the op-ed decries the entry of outside interests into a “Berkeley” race. Nothing could better demonstrate my contention that, after 38 years, the assembly seat is considered a “Berkeley” (i.e., Bates-Hancock) seat. Because wait! There is another medium-sized city in the district—Richmond. And from the point of view of Richmond politics, “big oil” is hardly an outside interest. As long-time Richmond city council member and current mayoral candidate Tom Butt remarked in 2007: “There’s an old saying here, that Richmond’s a plantation, and Chevron’s the plantation owner.” 

Butt should know. As of early October Chevron had spent $1.26 million through three campaign committees, all with the same address and slightly differing versions of another of those vaguely progressive sounding names—Moving Forward—to defeat him and three potentially troublesome candidates for the Richmond city council. That’s a lot of money to spend on a municipal election. Why? 

Because (1) in the last decade, for the first time in 100 years, a progressive faction that actually stands up to Chevron managed to get elected to the Richmond city council and the mayoralty, and (2), they did so at the worst possible time for Chevron, which desperately needs to upgrade its Richmond refinery to process heavy crude, which—let’s face it—is the crude of the future. 

How did Tony Thurmond vote on Chevron’s upgrade/expansion during his years on the Richmond city council (2005-08)? He voted with the progressive faction against it, and the plan remains in limbo at this time. In the 2007 SF Gate article quoted above, activist Juan Reardon remarked, “If it’s a matter of serious economic concern to Chevron, they’re going to get their way. Everyone knows that taking on Chevron jeopardizes your chances of getting re-elected to the council or of running successfully for higher office.” 

I think it’s possible that Warwick is right about “big oil” but wrong about who is the target and who the beneficiary. It might seem a little crazy that Chevron would be trying to keep Thurmond out of the assembly by funding direct mail for him—including the gorgeous 16-page booklet “resembling a corporate report” to which Warwick refers. I certainly have no proof of this and many other options are on the table. But if Chevron wants to punish Thurmond for his city council votes, it seems to me that it would be counterproductive for them to attack him directly. There’s hardly anything more likely to encourage liberal Bay Area voters to support a candidate than a perception that “big oil” is out to get him, while obviously expensive mailers resembling corporate reports are likely to push us in the other direction. In addition, I can’t imagine why a “good” person or organization which truly wanted to support Thurmond wouldn’t clearly self-identify, instead of going through a money-laundering IE that raises troubling questions and hands his opponent her one and only issue. 

There is at least one prior instance of The Alliance for California’s Tomorrow attempting to game the system in a California race, when, in a primary, they supported a Republican candidate who could not possibly win in November, in an apparent attempt to keep a progressive Democrat out of the top two. And with respect to Chevron’s current three similarly named IE committees in Richmond, Sarah Swanbeck of California Common Cause remarked that, “This is a good way, and I’m using the word good ironically, for corporations to obfuscate where funding actually comes from,” adding that the creation of multiple campaign committees with similar names is unusual. 

All of which is to say that we’re still in the early days of independent expenditure committees and the process is only going to get more sophisticated, more strategic, more subtle, more ruthless, and more confusing to the voter. The best defense, I believe, is to pay no attention to anything that comes from anywhere other than a candidate’s own campaign committee. 

Meanwhile, I’ve made up my mind about Elizabeth Echols. Anyone who would run such a dirty campaign—not only negative, but based completely on innuendo with respect to mailings the source of which is unknown and which her opponent cannot control—is a person of bad character. I wouldn’t vote for her under any circumstances.