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California Politics: Oil, housing and labor spent big on 2022 legislative races


A new legislative session kicked off in Sacramento this week after interest groups dumped nearly $78 million in independent expenditures into California Senate and Assembly races in the election.

Much of the money was directed to races interest groups perceived as pitting moderate and progressive candidates against one another in the ongoing tug-of-war over the soul of the California Democratic Party.

Independent expenditure committees spent more than $10 million on the intraparty state Senate fight in which former Sacramento City Council member Angelique Ashby narrowly defeated Dave Jones, a former California insurance commissioner. The contest is among the most expensive campaigns funded by outside groups in the state Legislature’s history.

But though business and labor fought mostly over Democratic candidates they hoped would be more sympathetic to their causes once in office, at least one tight Democrat vs. Republican race was almost entirely ignored.

Labor sat on the sidelines as incumbent Assemblymember Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) lost to Josh Hoover (R-Folsom). Cooley received next to no love from outside committees, with the exception of the $80,528 that the California Assn. of Psychiatric Technicians chipped in on his behalf in the last month before the election. Hoover received a single $1,318.85 independent expenditure from the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs Assn.

With the help of my colleagues, we present you with a brief breakdown of some of the groups that spent big and what they hope to get from the California Legislature.

Big Oil

Who spent: An independent expenditure committee funded by Valero, Marathon, Chevron and Phillips 66 spent more than $8 million on legislative races in the election cycle.

Who they helped: Business backing Ashby is a common theme, with the oil committee dropping $1.7 million on independent expenditures to boost her over Jones, according to campaign finance data. As the money piled up, Ashby denounced the support she received from the industry and reiterated her pledge that she wouldn’t and didn’t accept money from oil to her candidate account, noting that she cannot control the activities of outside committees run by interest groups (campaign finance laws prohibit this).

Oil interests delivered $979,000 in support of Democratic state Assemblymember Stephanie Nguyen, a former City Council member in Elk Grove who won in November. The committee supported Assemblymembers Juan Carrillo, a Democrat from the Antelope Valley, David Alvarez (D-San Diego) and San Joaquin Valley Republican Juan Alanis; and Orange County Republican Sen. Janet Nguyen in their respective wins.

Costly letdowns: The committee spent more than $700,000 to support Leticia Perez, a Democrat on the Kern County Board of Supervisors who lost an Assembly seat to doctor Jasmeet Bains (D-Bakersfield). They also backed the unsuccessful bids of Orange County Republican Matt Gunderson, who lost to Encinitas Democrat Sen. Catherine Blakespear; Republican incumbent Suzette Martinez Valladares in her loss to Assemblymember Pilar Schiavo (D-Chatsworth); and Robert Pullen-Miles, the mayor of Lawndale, who lost to Assemblymember Tina McKinnor (D-Inglewood).

What they want: A sympathetic ear — and vote — in the ongoing battle oil companies are losing against Gov. Gavin Newsom. Newsom persuaded lawmakers to support a series of climate policies that oil opposed in August. Now he’s urging the Legislature to impose a cap on the profits of California’s oil refiners, whom he blasted for making high profits while gas prices soared this year.

The housing industry

Who spent: Real estate agents, landlords and builders, including the California Assn. of Realtors, the California Building Industry Assn. and the California Apartment Assn.

They bolstered their favored candidates through committees such as: “Fighting for Our Future,” “Keep California Golden,” “Housing Providers for Responsible Solutions,” “California Alliance for Progress and Education” and “California Labor and Business Alliance,” among others.

These committees alone spent close to $6 million in the general election in support of their favored candidates, according to data from the California Target Book.

Who they helped: Ashby, who beat out Jones for a chance to represent Sacramento in the state Senate.

Former Fresno City Councilmember Esmeralda Soria bested retired Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin, a Republican, for a seat in the Assembly after a closely watched and tight race.

Previous Republican Assemblymember Roger Niello returned to the Legislature to represent a somewhat swing district in the state Senate that includes portions of Sacramento and Placer counties, after fending off Democratic school board member Paula Villescaz.

Palmdale Assemblymember Tom Lackey prevailed in a rare incumbent-on-incumbent race that the redistricting process forced him into against his more conservative Republican colleague, Thurston Smith.

A non-exhaustive list of other beneficiaries: Alanis, Bay Area Democrat Diane Papan and Democrats Wendy Carrillo of Los Angeles and Brian Maienschein of San Diego.

What they want: Legislation that eases construction barriers and reduces development costs, such as a failed 2020 proposal that would have made it easier for churches and nonprofit organizations to build on excess land. It was reintroduced this week as Senate Bill 4. Builders, landlords and realtors routinely fight against bills to expand tenants’ rights in California, which they contend is a disincentive to development and discourages mom-and-pop ownership of rental units.

— Staff writer Hannah Wiley

Labor unions

Who spent: Labor unions always spend big to influence politics in this blue state, and among them is the behemoth Service Employees International Union. Its 700,000 members include workers in healthcare, child care, janitorial services, security and state government.

SEIU helped its candidates of choice by pumping nearly $4 million into eight independent expenditures alone. That includes more than $1.5 million to the “Opportunity PAC,” a coalition of teachers, healthcare providers, faculty members, school employees and public and private employee organizations.

The union also gave about $745,000 to the “Nurses and Educators California” committee, and $175,000 to the “California Alliance,” a coalition of consumer attorneys, conservationists and food and commercial workers.

Who they helped: SEIU and its affiliate chapters were top donors in independent expenditure committees created to support Democrat candidates Lola Smallwood Cuevas, of Los Angeles, and Blakespear, both of whom won their seats in the Senate last month.

Smallwood Cuevas is a project director at the UCLA Labor Center and ran a campaign promising universal healthcare “funded through progressive taxation.”

State Sen. Aisha Wahab (D-Hayward) and Assemblymember Liz Ortega, a Democrat from the East Bay, also received top support from SEIU. Wahab is the first Muslim and first Afghan American elected to the state Senate, and she made “livable wages” a campaign promise. Ortega, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico as a toddler, is a longtime labor leader and served as the statewide political director for AFSCME Local 3299, the University of California’s largest employee union.

In an email celebrating the wins of Wahab, Ortega and Smallwood Cuevas, SEIU Local 2015 heralded “pro-worker women of color.”

“We are looking forward to capitalizing on this momentum to continue to highlight the need for better wages, demand support for improved workplace protections, and put pressure on those with the power to make the necessary changes needed to fix this broken industry,” the union, which represents nearly 450,000 long-term-care workers, said in a statement.

SEIU also helped bring McKinnor to the Assembly this year. During this week’s start of session, McKinnor, a former legislative staff member, took up union-friendly legislation to allow her former colleagues in the state Capitol to unionize — a bill that has failed in the past.

It wasn’t all wins, though: SEIU groups lost big in their fight for Jones, who was defeated by Ashby. SEIU was a top donor of three committees that gave a collective $1.3 million in the unsuccessful Senate district bid.

What they want: SEIU has not yet named specific legislation it will be supporting in the new year, but is broadly calling for union rights for all — including temporary and contract workers — and for higher wages and continued COVID-19 protections. Labor has also signaled its plans to make changes to the referendum process.

“As we fight for working people, we will also fight the corporate greed that is committed to keeping workers down and communities disempowered, from gig companies to fast-food companies to Big Oil. We will seek to address and stop these industries’ perversion of our direct democracy here in California,” Tia Orr, executive director of SEIU California, said in a statement.

— Staff writer Mackenzie Mays

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California politics lightning round

— More than two months after he said he would ask the Legislature to place a new tax on oil refiners, Newsom shared a first look at his plan to cap the industry’s profits. His proposal thrust a new class of state lawmakers into the middle of his fight with the industry.

— California nonprofit colleges and faith organizations such as churches, mosques and synagogues would be able to build affordable homes on their land under a bill introduced this week to help alleviate the state’s worsening housing shortage and homelessness crisis.

— More than 1,000 University of California faculty members are imploring Newsom and state legislators to wade into the ongoing academic workers strike and urge UC leaders to meet union demands.

— A state lawmaker has proposed legislation that would require California’s 266,000 lawyers to report misconduct by colleagues to the State Bar, the agency that regulates the legal profession.

— The Los Angeles City Council voted to reinstate the salary of indicted Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas, more than a year after he was suspended from his post while facing federal corruption charges. Ridley-Thomas will receive about $265,000, while an additional $99,500 will go to his legal team.

— Across California, private educational foundations, which exist to support public school districts, rent campus space and run tuition-based summer school — charging as much as $720 for a class. Attorneys with the pro bono law firm Public Counsel and others filed suit against the state, Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and the Department of Education, saying the fees are illegal.

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