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Watch as four giant oil companies try to interfere with a California election

The oil and gas industry has never been shy about deploying its billions of dollars in resources to get what it wants from the political system. But seldom are its activities as flagrant as they are in a California legislative battle pitting two Democrats against each other.

The oil companies’ instrument in the race between incumbent Cheryl Brown (D-San Bernardino) and challenger Eloise Reyes is a committee dubbed the “Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class.”

Bogus PACs masquerading as grass-roots organizations love to drape themselves with these uplifting monikers, but the state’s political spending laws require the backers to reveal themselves. In this case, 100% of the money funding the coalition comes from four oil companies: Chevron ($2 million), Valero Energy ($2 million), Tesoro Corp. ($1 million) and California Resources Corp., which was spun off from Occidental Petroleum in 2014 ($500,000). This is chump change for the oil companies, which collected a combined $257 billion in revenue last year.

So far the coalition has spent more than $1.6 million on California political races, but more than one-third of that has been paid out as independent expenditures in the Brown race, much of it for two Internet video ads. The independent spending by the industry has outstripped direct contributions to the Brown campaign, which have come to a little more than $400,000 this year, mostly from business interests (including $4,200 each from Chevron, Tesoro and Valero).

The ads actually target State Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino), who isn’t in the race but has endorsed Reyes. As my colleague Patrick McGreevy reported this week, the ads have drawn fire from the Leyva camp, which called them “racially divisive” and “reprehensible.”

It’s not hard to see why. Ethnic politics lie shallowly below the surface of the ads, which identify Brown as an “African-American candidate” and reports her support from the Democratic Party establishment and “Cesar Chavez United Farm Workers.”

A Chevron spokesman painted its political activities in pastel hues. “Chevron regularly supports a host of candidates, ballot measures, and pro-business organizations and committees, such as Restoring our Middle Class,” he said. “Our approach is focused on supporting good government, free enterprise and economic progress.” The company says it complies with the law in making political contributions, which appears to be true.

A Brown campaign spokesman says there was no coordination between Brown and the coalition. “At the end of the day, she’s beholden only to her constituents,” said the spokesman, Daniel Sanchez. “The PACs do what they want to do.”

Yet you’d need a decoder ring to understand what’s really behind the oil industry’s support for Brown, and its role in politics generally. So here goes.

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Brown long has been identified as a friend of the oil industry, notably when she held out last year on endorsing SB 350, a landmark environmental bill, until it was stripped of a mandate to cut petroleum use in California by 50% over time. The industry mobilized to kill the provision, spending some $16 million on Sacramento lobbying last year, while it was making its way through the Legislature.

After the gasoline provision was scrapped, Brown voted for the bill. In April, during Brown’s primary campaign, Chevron obliged her by contributing $1 million to an independent expenditure committee supporting her. This prompted a union-backed campaign supporting Reyes to dub Brown “Chevron Cheryl.”

Interestingly, Brown’s pro-industry stance isn’t mentioned even in passing in the ads produced by the oil companies. They cite only her support of raising the minimum wage, passing a pay-equity law, and increasing school funding — all laudable goals and part of California Democratic orthodoxy, but hardly the oil industry’s main concerns.

All this would be a footnote in local political history were it not for the oil industry’s habit of injecting itself into local politics more broadly, if sometimes unsuccessfully. In 2010, Valero, Tesoro and Occidental spent more than $2 million to push Proposition 23, which aimed to eviscerate the state’s greenhouse gas regulations. (They lost.)

That same year, Venoco, an independent oil firm, tried to swamp the city of Carpinteria by spending heavily on a ballot initiative that would exempt itself from city building regulations, so it could operate a 10-story oil derrick round the clock next to a residential neighborhood and on the edge of ecologically-sensitive coastal bluffs. (It lost.)

Then there’s Chevron, which is in a class by itself. In 2014, we reported on how the giant oil company had set up the “Richmond Standard,” a bogus news website in the California community where a major Chevron refinery is located, the better to purvey undigested Chevron publicity handouts and slanted reports about environmental activists. (“If you're looking for a story that's critical of Chevron, you're not going to find it in the Richmond Standard," its lone staff writer, an employee of Chevron’s publicity firm, told us at the time.)

Chevron also poured an astounding $2.9 million into Richmond municipal campaigns, including $1.4 million to a committee supporting pro-Chevron candidates and $500,000 in opposition to Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, a Chevron critic. As we mentioned at the time, the figures suggested that the company was preparing to spend at least $33 for the vote of every resident of the city 18 or older. The anti-Chevron slate won. 

That doesn’t make industry spending in our political campaigns innocuous, not by a long shot. The deployment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in local campaigns to support the narrow interests of business corporations should make every voter nervous. The individual is being outspent, big time, to the point where the individual vote may not mean very much at all.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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UPDATES:

6:49 p.m.: This post has been updated with more background on Chevron’s Richmond Standard website.

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