Despite pledges to forgo contributions from corporations and fossil fuel companies, money from major polluters and industry PACs has poured into the campaigns of some of the top candidates vying to represent California’s 15th State Senate District.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese and former Federal Elections Commission (FEC) chair Ann Ravel—two of seven candidates trying to replace state Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) when he terms out this year—vowed to shun donations from Big Oil and corporate PACs. But a peek at the duo’s latest campaign filings suggest that neither candidate stayed true to their word.
On Sept. 15, Cortese signed his name to the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, an agreement that says a candidate won’t take more than $200 from oil, gas and coal industry executives, lobbyists and PACs. By the time the county official made that promise, however, he’d already taken three checks from the fossil fuel industry—namely, $2,500 from AMG Petroleum Inc., $1,000 from Robinson Oil Corporation and $500 from Western States Oil Co. Stephen Lopes.
Cortese defended the donations. Not only did they come in before he took the pledge, he argued that they wouldn’t have broken his vow even if they were made after the fact. That’s because the No Fossil Fuel Money vow reportedly exempts retail gas stations, which make most of their money from convenience store sales, Cortese explained. AMG Petroleum Inc. owns a Valero gas station, he said, while Robinson Oil Corporation is the parent company of Rotten Robbie.
“Clearly these are not Big Oil interests,” Cortese said. “They are locally owned, generational family service station businesses. … We continue to vet our contributions to ensure that nothing within the pledge definitions slips in.”
But David Turnball, a spokesman for one of the groups in the No Fossil Fuel Money coalition, said that donations Robinson Oil Corporation and Western States Oil Co. may have violated the spirit of the pledge.
“As for Robinson Oil, as far as I understand it, that company does both retail gas stations via their Rotten Robbie brand as well as fleet/commercial distribution via the Robinson Oil brand,” he said. “Whereas a gas station owner likely makes equal amounts on convenience store receipts as on gas, a wholesale seller of gas/oil to fleets is solely focused on distribution of oil/gas and thus should be included as a fossil fuel company.”
As for Ravel, the ex-Obama FEC appointee has taken a couple of checks from corporate PACs—initial campaign pledge notwithstanding. To wit: $1,500 from Liberty Mutual Insurance Company Federal PAC and $4,700 from Personal Insurance Federation of California Agents and Employees PAC. When asked about the donations, Ravel said she didn’t feel that insurance companies are “acting as a detriment [to] society”—her litmus test for refusing donations.
Garrick Percival, a political science professor at San Jose State University, called that logic questionable. “There are big stakes in what government does for insurance companies, so they have an incentive to influence who’s in office,” he said. “Insurance companies understand the importance of lawmaking because it does have such a big impact on their industry.”
Ravel deflected criticism of her insurance PAC donations by calling out her rival Nora Campos, a former assemblywoman whose bid for SD 15 has drawn considerable financial support from the oil and gas industry.
Indeed, a Big Oil PAC called the Restore California’s Middle Class Coalition spent nearly $700,000 in independent expenditures supporting Campos. Granted, campaign finance laws prohibit the committee from coordinating with Campos’ campaign—something Campos raised in her own defense.
“The fact is, I have received one $4,700 contribution from one oil company,” Campos said about a donation she received from Chevron. “While some may speculate as to the motivation of energy companies, I can simply point to my 97 percent California League of Conservation Voters legislative report card scores during my six years in the Assembly.”
However, Campos’ actual lifetime score for the California League of Conservation Voters was 87 percent. And in 2016, her scorecard dropped to mere 67 percent for the year.
Ravel, Cortese and Campos are running in the March 3 primary against San Jose Councilman Johnny Khamis, Army Staff Sgt. Ken Del Valle, paratransit driver Tim Gildersleeve and mechanical equipment manufacturer Robert Howell.
In a previous version of this story Campos misstated that her California League of Conservation Voters score was 97 percent. Her actual score was 87 percent. The story has been updated.