Op-ed: Big Tobacco and Big Oil have no place in Berkeley politics

If you’ve lived and voted in Berkeley for a long time, as I have, you’ve no doubt noticed that our election campaigns typically pit one Democrat against another with nary any interest from anyone outside the East Bay. Now that has changed.

For the first time ever, two “independent expenditure” committees, or PACs, have already spent more than $200,000 in the contest for the 15th Assembly District seat, which encompasses all of Berkeley, Albany, Richmond, and North Oakland plus several smaller communities. According to the latest filings at the California Secretary of State’s office, the two committees, funded by Big Tobacco, Big Oil, and predatory lenders, have entered this local race in support of Tony Thurmond, one of the two candidates in the race. The evidence is in the slick campaign literature now flooding into our mailboxes, including a large, full-color, 16-page booklet resembling a corporate annual report.

According to the Secretary of State, one of these two committees, “Keep CA Strong PAC,” has received a total of $250,000 from an oil producers’ group called the California Independent Petroleum Association, which numbers Chevron and Occidental Petroleum among its members. The same group has contributed $200,000 to the other committee as well, the “Alliance for California’s Tomorrow,” which also took $90,000 from tobacco giant Philip Morris earlier this year.

There’s no way to know why these groups are spending so much money here. Judging from their websites and their comments in public at the debate held Oct. 7 at Berkeley City College under the auspices of the League of Women Voters, the two candidates appear to agree on nearly all the issues. However, businesses do not spend money without expecting something in return. We can only assume that something about Thurmond or his opponent, Elizabeth Echols, has moved them to support one and oppose the other.

Whatever the explanation may be, our community should not stand for this. We should reject this effort by well-funded outside interests to influence this or any election here. Big Money has no legitimate place in the political process in Berkeley (or anywhere else, for that matter). Unlike the rest of the state, election campaigns in Berkeley have not been dominated by Big Money so far. I don’t want that to start now. Oil and tobacco interests do not represent our community’s values or our priorities, and I, for one, do not want our elected representatives to be beholden to them.

Meanwhile, in a similar but more widely noticed move, Big Soda has already spent $1.675 million to defeat Measure D on the Berkeley ballot, which would impose a tax of one cent per ounce on sugared beverages sold here. Unfortunately, then, Big Oil, Big Tobacco, and the predatory lenders aren’t alone in bulldozing their way into what should be a purely local decision-making process. From my perspective, none of them is welcome here.

Please join me in saying No to these cynical attempts to manipulate the voters of our community.

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Mal Warwick is an author, entrepreneur, impact investor, and book reviewer who writes for Berkeleyside from time to time. He has lived in Berkeley since 1969. Warwick supports Elizabeth Echols and has donated $5,000 to her campaign.