‘A hell of a lot of money:’ Oil coalition spends big to boost Long Beach councilwoman’s Senate campaign

A coalition bankrolled by oil companies has spent more than $1 million in support of Long Beach Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez’s race for the 33rd state Senate district, state campaign records show.

Gonzalez and her campaign said they aren’t sure why the Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class—an independent expenditures coalition funded by the likes of Chevron, Valero and Tesoro—is supporting her campaign.

In a statement, Gonzalez denied soliciting any contributions.

The coalition has spent $600,000 on television ads that have begun to air on local networks, roughly $225,000 on billboard ads, and about $30,000 on consulting, according to the Secretary of State’s office. The coalition also paid for website ads on the Post and Press-Telegram.

No other candidate in the race has received this level of backing from this coalition—or any other committee.

While none of the expenditures were made in coordination with Gonzalez’s campaign, or with her approval—it’s against campaign finance law to do so—the funding has raised eyebrows among constituents and Sacramento insiders alike.

“That’s a hell of a lot of money for a safe Democratic State Senate seat,” wrote state capitol insider Scott Lay, who first reported on the expenditures on his political blog The Nooner. “But, if you know the district, you likely know that it is only a handful of Democratic seats with significant oil business.”

Lay pointed to the Port of Long Beach’s major crude oil terminals and the Long Beach tidelands, where gas and oil companies operate.

It’s unclear what the coalition hopes to gain from helping elect Gonzalez to the state Senate. A phone number listed on the coalition’s independent expenditures report connected to a lobbying firm with offices in San Francisco and Sacramento. A request for comment went unanswered.

Lay suggested the oil companies could be looking for a friend when it comes to certain pieces of legislation, pointing to Sen. Bob Wieckowski’s oil and gas severance tax that could go before the state Senate.

During a forum last Wednesday, candidates were asked about their position on the severance tax, known as SB 246. Gonzalez was on a trip to Canada in her capacity as a councilwoman and missed the event.

In a statement announcing the endorsement of the California League of Conservation Voters, Gonzalez denounced the contributions to her cause.

“I am aware of an independent expenditure active in the race, and I want to be clear that I will not accept oil company contributions nor will I be influenced by special interests,” Gonzalez stated. “These groups are acting independently, and I have not coordinated or courted their involvement.”

Mike Young, political and organizing director for the conservation league, said while the group did not know about the expenditures—they made the decision to endorse her the week prior to the finance report—it does not change their opinion about her.

“There are times when an independent expenditure is a reflection of a person’s performance but this is not one of those times,” Young said in a phone interview.

Young pointed to the case of Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, a San Bernardino Democrat, who lost to a progressive Democrat in 2016 after she was criticized for being supported by a committee funded in part by Chevron. The donations led to her being called “Chevron Cheryl.

“[Gonzalez’s] track record means a lot to us and we know her heart is in the right place,” Young said. “The independent expenditure is unfortunate and we’re not happy they’re trying to get involved. She could’ve won this on her own without them.”

Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, said in an email that the group has in the past seen candidates who were the beneficiaries of oil independent expenditures “come to Sacramento and be among the most independent and environmentally minded legislators. We have also seen the opposition.”

“Oil industry money is never clean. And independent expenditure (IE) campaigns by the oil industry are complicated by the fact that candidates who are helped or hurt by IEs have no control over the campaigns or the IE campaign’s decision to endorse and spend,” Phillips said.

Phillips pointed to past successful environmental issues that Gonzalez has worked on with the club’s grassroots activists.

“She recently said she would not accept oil company contributions and will not be influenced by oil company IE expenditures,” Phillips said. “We take her at her word.”

The Sierra Club has not completed the endorsement process for this race so it has not yet endorsed anyone.

Environmental issues are a major concern for the district Gonzalez represents as a councilwoman; it includes the city’s westside, which is surrounded by an industry dependent on the Port of Long Beach and the effects associated with the pollution it causes.

The 33rd district includes the southeast Los Angeles communities along the 710 freeway corridor, an area that is exposed to higher levels of air pollution than other parts of the region. These communities are made up of mostly low-income immigrant residents.

Locally, Gonzalez spearheaded a Styrofoam ban in the city and regionally she is a member of the Environmental Advisory Team on the LA River Master Plan Committee.

According to a 2016 article by CalMatters, big oil spending on Democrats—especially black and Latino Democrats—is becoming a trend.

With an environmental movement that “remains largely white” it allows for the oil industry to court ethnic communities, according to the article. The Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class spent nearly $2 million on eight candidates. Six of them were Latino and black Democrats.

The special election is scheduled to take place March 26.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to remove comments from Sergio Carrillo, Gonzalez’s campaign consultant, who wanted to remain off the record. The Post is still waiting for comment from Lena Gonzalez. 

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Stephanie Rivera is the community engagement editor for the Long Beach Post. After graduating from CSULB with a degree in journalism, Stephanie worked for Patch Latino and City News Service before coming to the Long Beach Post in 2015.
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