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Can a California Refinery Town Heroine Beat Big Money In Politics Again?

By Steve Early

Jovanka Beckles with campus workers at UC-Berkeley
Jovanka Beckles with campus workers at UC-Berkeley. Photo credit: Steve Early

Since the election of Donald Trump and inauguration day protests against him across the country in January, 2017, some women involved in that nationwide movement have decided to run for office themselves. At the local, state, and federal level, first-time female candidates are challenging both conservative Republicans and corporate-backed Democrats. One of the most widely-noted examples of this electoral wave was last month’s New York City primary contest between a long-time Congressional incumbent and twenty-eight-year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

A young woman of color who went to Boston University and backed Bernie Sanders in 2016, Ocasio-Cortez lives in the apartment building she grew up in and, until recently, supported herself by tending bar in Manhattan. She waged a low-budget campaign, but one that resonated with poor and working-class people in her Bronx and Queens district. Her male opponent, leader of the powerful Queens Democratic Party machine, raked in money from Wall Street and spent heavily on glossy mailers.

Ocasio-Cortez scored an upset victory, powered by grassroots canvassing by activists from the Democratic Socialists of America and other groups. Now she, rather than incumbent who saw himself as a future House speaker, will be on the November ballot against a token Republican. If voters back Ocasio-Cortez again, she’ll become the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress (not to mention its youngest socialist).

Ocasio-Cortez’s inspiring breakthrough provides a timely reminder of what other younger women—and men—are up against, when they, as ordinary working people, seek elected office in places like New York or California. Most successful candidates, on either coast, tend to have professional backgrounds, plus personal wealth or ties to others with it. They leverage their law, business, consulting, or incumbent office-holder connections to build big campaign war chests, filled with contributions from industry associations, corporate political action committees, and wealthy individuals. With far greater ease than any blue-collar or service sector worker, they can take time off to campaign, particularly if they’re already on the public pay-roll.

The current campaign experience of one of the heroines of Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City, my Beacon Press book about Richmond, CA, illustrates this uneven playing field. Richmond city councilor Jovanka Beckles, a black latina lesbian born in Panama, is running for a seat in our state assembly. Her current elected position comes with no full-time salary, just an annual stipend. To support herself, Beckles does child protection work for Contra Costa County, now putting in four ten-hour shifts, every week. Since last summer, she has also been out campaigning many evenings and almost every weekend in Assembly District 15, which covers part of Oakland, all of Berkeley and Richmond, and several neighboring communities in the East Bay.

As I reported in Refinery Town, Beckles is deeply committed to running “corporate free.” As a candidate backed by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and Bernie Sanders himself, she has spurned all campaign donations from corporate PACs, while welcoming, as a union member herself, support from local labor organizations representing nurses, teachers, transit workers, and city employees.

Four years ago, when Beckles was standing for re-election in Richmond, her advocacy of environmental justice, tax and campaign finance reform led our city’s largest employer, Chevron, to spend more than three million dollars trying to defeat her. Despite being deluged with negative ads and slanderous mailers, Richmond voters returned Beckles to office, along with two RPA running mates also credited with helping to revive the city. And, then in 2016, two younger progressives, supported by Beckles, won election to the council as well, after campaigning for new tenant protections. Despite strong opposition by landlords and local real estate interests, Richmond now has both rent control and a progressive “super-majority” of five out of seven city councilors.

Moving up in politics—while sticking to the principle of running “corporate free”—is not easy, however. By June of this year, Beckles found herself in a “jungle primary” race with ten other Democratic or Republican candidates, five of whom were far better funded than her. (In California, the top two primary vote getters move on the general election, regardless of party affiliation.) The first-place finisher was Buffy Wicks, a well-connected former Obama Administration official who has never held elected office before and lived only briefly in the district.  

Wicks became the beneficiary of more than $1.2 million in campaign funding from wealthy donors tied to Lyft, Uber, and Bay Area tech firms, charter school interests, major landlords, a health care industry PAC, and Govern for California, a business oriented Super-PAC created by the current board chair of Wal-Mart and a former top advisor to Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This being California, the AD 15 candidate who out-spent Beckles by a ten-to-one margin is not a Republican herself, but rather a self-proclaimed fellow “progressive” Democrat (albeit one who does not favor rent control or moving too fast in the direction of single payer health care). The “corporate money free/people power” candidate from Richmond placed second on June 5, thanks to a largely volunteer-run campaign like Ocasio-Cortez’s and a Sanders-style small donor base. Beckles was backed by Our Revolution, the national network of local progressive groups, including the RPA, which grew out of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. She also won endorsements from the SEIU, the Teamsters, ATU, CWA, and NUHW, all of which favor union members running for office themselves.

Over the next four months in Assembly District 15, we’re likely to see much more of the record-breaking political spending that dominated the primary stage of the race. The role of Obama Administration alumni and deep-pocketed national Democratic Party donor networks, on Wicks behalf, has already drawn critical media attention. If the candidates were both men, their run-off might even be described as a contest between David and Goliath. Jovanka Beckles has no shortage of experience being out-spent by opponents with corporate patronage and, thus, far deeper pockets. “We don’t have a million dollars to send out a bunch of mailers,” she says. And that’s because “we’re not trying to elect another status-quo Democrat.”

On November 6, we’ll find out whether “big money” can buy an election in the liberal East Bay—or whether, once again, a lot will be spent in vain, in the fashion of Chevron four years ago in Richmond.


About the Author 

Steve EarlySteve Early is a journalist, lawyer, and Richmond-based author of Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City (Beacon Press, 2017). He can be reached at [email protected]. Visit his website.