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Jovanka vs. Buffy: In Assembly District 15 race, it’s a choice between local roots and outside money

September 28, 2018

by Steve Early

At a Sept. 22 rally called Four Warriors for the People, supporters of Jovanka Beckles, including her primary rivals, urged a friendly crowd at Martin Luther King Middle School to elect Jovanka in November. This photo, taken backstage, features Adonal Foyle, former Golden State Warrior, activist and founder of Democracy Matters; Nina Turner, Our Revolution president and former Ohio state senator; Jovanka Beckles; and two primary rivals, Judy Appel, Berkeley School Board member; and Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto, El Cerrito City Council member. Those two primary rivals and a third, Andy Katz, gave short tributes to and strong endorsements of Jovanka, and her fourth major primary rival, Oakland City Council member Dan Kalb, who couldn’t be at the rally, sent a powerful supportive message that Jovanka read to the audience. – Photo: Luke Thibault

This year’s primary contest to replace Tony Thurmond as Assembly District 15 representative in Sacramento produced what one local political observer called “the strongest field in California legislative history.” (See http://beyondchron.org/star-field-east-bay-d15-assembly-race/) The “all-star” cast of talented public servants included six serving members of East Bay city councils or elected boards.

Most of those who did not succeed in their primary campaigns have since rallied around one of their own, Richmond City Council member Jovanka Beckles, a leader of the Richmond Progressive Alliance.

This year’s primary contest to replace Tony Thurmond as Assembly District 15 representative in Sacramento produced what one local political observer called “the strongest field in California legislative history.”

Beckles is a long-time child protection worker for Contra Costa County and one of the heroines of “Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of An American City,” a book I wrote about the revitalization of Richmond. She is a two-term city councilor who got re-elected four years ago with help from Sen. Bernie Sanders.

In that 2014 municipal race, a Chevron-funded political action committee spent more than $3 million trying to defeat Beckles and her RPA allies because of their city hall reforms and environmental justice advocacy.

Being smeared by Big Oil and winning nevertheless – without corporate donors – convinced Beckles of the need to challenge big money in politics everywhere. In AD 15’s crowded primary field, she distinguished herself as the only genuinely “corporate free” candidate.

Most of those who did not succeed in their primary campaigns have since rallied around one of their own, Richmond City Council member Jovanka Beckles, a leader of the Richmond Progressive Alliance.

Beckles’ past and present refusal to accept business backing has won her strong support from Our Revolution. OR is the national progressive network, led by former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, that is trying to make the Democratic Party more democratic and less influenced by wealthy donors and the corporate interests they often favor.

Beckles has relied on small donors, grassroots volunteers and door-to-door canvassing, often by fellow union members and retirees. Her primary campaign budget ($160,000) was much smaller than her competitors’– particularly Buffy Wicks, who garnered 30 percent of the vote after being the beneficiary of $1.2 million in spending on her behalf. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I am a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a Beckles campaign donor and volunteer, but not an official spokesperson for her campaign.)

To me, the central issue in the AD 15 run-off is the role of big money in California politics. In January, the winner will head for Sacramento where, as Bob Dylan once said, “money doesn’t talk, it swears.”

Beckles’ past and present refusal to accept business backing has won her strong support from Our Revolution.

Are you for single payer? Commercial property tax or criminal justice reform? Repeal of Costa-Hawkins restrictions on local rent control? A ban on fracking? Workers’ rights protections or stronger measures to reduce carbon emissions and California’s dependence on fossil fuel?

Legislative action on all those fronts – and many more – regularly runs into a solid wall of corporate opposition. Bills get bottled up and killed by Senate or Assembly leaders or a Democratic governor doing the bidding of big business lobbyists (like the Western States Petroleum Association), powerful industry PACs or individual donors with enormous wealth.

Even Democrats representing minority communities tend to lose their reformist zeal after they take office. In Sacramento, they come under enormous institutional pressure to go along to get along.

Being a “team player” – and voting the way the leadership or the governor wants – assures future campaign fund-raising help, personal career advancement in government, and, later on, maybe a plum job in the private sector. The result is too much public policy making that favors powerful special interests over poor and working class Californians and the environment.

It takes courage, conviction and a strong independent streak to resist the carrots and sticks of a corporate-financed political establishment. Jovanka Beckles helped advance a multi-issue reform agenda in Richmond that was bitterly opposed by old guard Democrats and their business backers. She has the track record and battle scars to prove it. (The latter enable critics to claim, unfairly, that Beckles is too strident, militant or un-collaborative).

Beckles’s platform is actually quite substantive and reasonable (see http://www.jovanka.org/platform). Her record as a movement builder and change maker in Richmond confirms that she does know how to form left-liberal coalitions or legislative voting blocs in order to get things done for her constituents.

In other circumstances, the Democratic Party donor class would have warmly embraced an Assembly candidate with local electoral experience who is also a Black Latina lesbian immigrant. But those with deep pockets who elevate personal identity and biography over working class politics aren’t keen about Democrats, like Beckles, who belong to unions, support rent control, don’t waffle on single payer and backed Bernie Sanders in 2016.

If you’re an East Bay voter looking for real change in Sacramento, my advice is go for the candidate with local funding, long-time community ties and a commitment to progressive politics that’s real, not just rhetorical. Her name is Jovanka Beckles!

Beckles’ opponent, Buffy Wicks, has a very impressive resume. Yet being a maverick – in the East Bay tradition of the late Ron Dellums or his successor Barbara Lee – is not part of it. Wicks has been a skilled political operative at the national level since aiding Barack Obama’s first presidential election victory.

She then served on the White House staff, until leaving to direct a super-PAC called Priorities USA Action, which raised several hundred million dollars for Hillary Clinton’s presidential race. Two years ago, Wicks also ran Clinton’s California Democratic primary campaign against Bernie Sanders.

Beckles’ opponent, Buffy Wicks, has a very impressive resume. Yet being a maverick – in the East Bay tradition of the late Ron Dellums or his successor Barbara Lee – is not part of it.

Wicks has never held any elected or appointed local office. Her national Democratic Party fundraising connections helped her purchase name recognition that’s the envy of every other two-year resident of AD 15! During the primary season, my Richmond mail box filled up with 12 glossy mailers, featuring Wicks in multiple grip-and-grin shots with a former president, a future governor, a current California senator and so on.

Two pro-Wicks brochures came from that well-known health care reform group, the California Dental Association (at a cost of nearly $100,000). Seven more were sent by Govern for California, an “independent expenditure” committee with “major funding” from David Crane, a wealthy Bay Area investor, charter school advocate and opponent of tax reform, who was a top advisor to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Co-founded by Walmart board member Gregory Penner, Govern for California spent nearly $500,000 on Wick’s primary race.

Wicks has never held any elected or appointed local office. Her national Democratic Party fundraising connections helped her purchase name recognition that’s the envy of every other two-year resident of AD 15!

Wicks’ own direct donors picked up the tab for three more mailers. Those generous friends include corporate lawyers, leading venture capitalists, tech firm owners and managers, real estate developers, bankers and political consultants, all poised to fund another direct mail blitz before Nov. 6, if they haven’t maxed out already with $8,800 in personal contributions. (For more details on who is spending heavily on Wicks and why, see buffywicks.money.)

If you’re an East Bay voter looking for real change in Sacramento, my advice is go for the candidate with local funding, long-time community ties and a commitment to progressive politics that’s real, not just rhetorical. Her name is Jovanka Beckles!

Steve Early is a Richmond resident and the author, most recently, of “Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City,” now available in paperback from Beacon Press. He can be reached at lsupport@aol.com.

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3 thoughts on “Jovanka vs. Buffy: In Assembly District 15 race, it’s a choice between local roots and outside money

  1. AJ Benham

    I can't help wonder how many of Jovanka's supporters are aware that she failed to carry her own city – where she serves as a council member – in the primary. I'm only one of many Richmond progressives who voted for Jovanka in the past and who are actively supporting Buffy Wicks for Assembly. Please feel free to contact me to hear specifics, but basically we've been stunned by Jovanka's inability to grasp the basics of public finance; disrespect or lack of understanding of the mechanics of governance; and her inability to work with anyone who disagrees with her viewpoint. With no disrespect for the other public servants pictured above, I strongly recommend you talk to some Richmond residents before casting your vote for Jovanka.

    Reply
  2. Jessie West

    AJ, you said it beautifully.

    I wish that the people Jovanka has charmed with her native charisma (when she isn’t raging at, snubbing or stonewalling those she disagrees with) — and with the help of her handlers (who make her sound more articulate and thoughtful than she actually is) — could be privy to the last few years of posts about her on Nextdoor by Richmond residents who have observed her at work and have been sadly and terribly disappointed in her.

    Trust us when those of us who worked hard to help her get elected to our City Council tell you we now know the real, unvarnished Jovanka, and there is no way we want her in any public office ever again.

    I actually think she is being exploited by the ideologue-branch of the progressive movement who know she’s not up to the job, but want a candidate who checks all the boxes to give them an opportunity to press their platform.

    Reply
  3. John Knox

    Beckles and her RPA buddies try to cast Buffy Wicks as being controlled by big business and “outside money”, conveniently failing to mention that they owe their political existence to one very powerful and interested organization, the SEIU. As a city concilmembers, Beckles votes on multimillion dollar contracts with her benefactor, and if, God forbid, she got into,the Legislature, she would have many more opportunities to influence legislation as directed by the SEIU. When a candidate is that beholden to one special interest, they simply cannot be independent and represent the greater community. It is true that Buffy has enjoyed broad support of many people, some of them wealthier than others. Most of that is by dint of her hard work for President Obama and the many friendships and supporters she garnered from those years. Good for her, I say. The is no one interest group or donor to her campaign that represents such an overwhelming portion of her support as the SEIU does with Beckles.

    Reply

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