Race and cash in the Assembly 15 campaign: Jovanka Beckles breaks the mold

by June Goodwin and Ben Schiff

Jovanka Beckles and her Richmond City Council colleagues managed to free the city of Richmond, since 1906 home to the one of the largest oil refineries in the world, from a sort of captivity or colonialism as a Chevron “company town.” Despite refusing corporate campaign contributions, supported only by the people, she is widely endorsed and wildly popular, and SHE CAN WIN the race for Assembly District 15!

Two underlying dynamics are at work in the East Bay race to represent Assembly District 15 in Sacramento. One is a contest between a traditional big-money campaign and an insurgent, volunteer-driven, grassroots campaign. The other is a subterranean racial dynamic.

The campaign between out Black lesbian, eight-year Richmond City Council member Jovanka Beckles, 55, and campaign professional Buffy Wicks, 41, is increasingly testy. The Assembly seat was previously occupied by Tony Thurmond. If Beckles is not elected, the East Bay African American community will have no representative in Sacramento.

“We are in this race to win for the people who need help from our state government,” Jovanka Beckles said. “People are suffering, some are homeless, some are hungry, some cannot afford to pay for their health care, some cannot find a job to allow them to prosper.

“We must change the tax system in our country to care for the vulnerable. I’m strong and my supporters are strong. We are gathering in passion and determination! I draw my power from them and from Black women like Nina Turner, who this past weekend spoke with such love to support me. I thank her.”

This fight for the soul of the Democratic Party is in some ways similar to, but also significantly different from progressive campaigns in New York state during the summer. In this one, the policy differences between candidates are significant, especially in the real estate and renters’ realm and in health care.

“We are in this race to win for the people who need help from our state government,” Jovanka Beckles said.

But as, or more, important is the clash between two versions of “grass roots.” The Beckles campaign is staffed by volunteers who are professionals in their fields and operates with a relatively small budget. The Wicks campaign is staffed by high-priced campaign professionals and advised by a professional campaign consulting firm, and it has a lavish, record-breaking (for AD15), war chest.

Wicks was the Northern California director for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. She is running her own candidacy exactly the way she ran Hillary’s, as a campaign professional.

Wicks has never held elective office. Guided by campaign consulting firm 50+1 Strategies, LLC, with major independent expenditures by Govern for California and the California Dental Association political action committees, the campaign’s donor roster is a who’s-who of billionaire investors such as Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer and John Scully.

With maybe 15 percent of Wicks’ totals, the Beckles campaign constitutes an attack on the business-as-usual campaign industrial complex. Beckles has so far raised about $250,000, almost entirely from small donations. There have so far, at least, been no reported independent political action committee expenditures on her behalf.

Beckles’ campaign model is based on the one developed by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) in its fight to take control of the City of Richmond away from oil giant Chevron, and to make the corporation contribute to the community, pay more taxes and reduce its pollution.

The Wicks campaign is staffed in the traditional, mostly-paid fashion. The Beckles campaign is an almost exclusively volunteer outfit, primarily staffed by retired people, RPA stalwarts, activists from Our Revolution and young volunteers from the Democratic Socialists of America.

In the time-honored tradition of mainstream campaigning, the Wicks campaign began back in February using polling to determine how best to position its candidate. (“Community Organizer” and “Advocate for Kids” are the occupational labels it produced as the best way to persuade voters that Wicks is a grass roots candidate who cares about children and families.)

The Wicks campaign is staffed in the traditional, mostly-paid fashion. The Beckles campaign is an almost exclusively volunteer outfit, primarily staffed by retired people, RPA stalwarts, activists from Our Revolution and young volunteers from the Democratic Socialists of America.

After the primary, the Wicks side promptly launched phone push-polls to test negative descriptions that would most damage Beckles. The atmosphere is increasingly nasty, with an underlying current from Wicks’ supporters that Beckles is incompetent.

Comment sections in news outlets, such as Berkeleyside.com, are being invaded by a few people to keep up a steady diet of vitriolic attacks on Beckles, as are neighborhood NextDoor sites. Berkeleyside has also hosted op-ed slurs from Richmond-based Wicks endorsers. They frequently link to the blog postings of Richmond Mayor Tom Butt and his colleagues who, quite simply, hate the RPA and its members.

Wicks has been endorsed by Butt and many of his allies. The Beckles campaign staff expects more of these attacks in the form of flyers and other measures. Beckles’s platform positions are misrepresented, her motives impugned, her record maligned. The vitriol strikes her supporters as following in the path of the racist and homophobic attacks Beckles endured in the past in Richmond, when she was defended by the Anti-Discrimination League, LGBTQ groups and individuals.

“All that we love is on the line in this election,” said Nina Turner, president of the national Our Revolution organization.

Danny Glover, who can be counted on to come down on the right side of every issue, shares a hug with his choice for AD15, Jovanka Beckles, at a campaign Sunday brunch on Sept. 23. – Photo: Ben Schiff

Turner came to the East Bay to support Beckles in a rally Sept. 22, along with actor and activist Danny Glover, former Golden State Warrior Adonal Foyle, and the four major primary candidates who endorsed Beckles after she came out in second place to the well-financed Wicks. Oakland City Council member Dan Kalb, Berkeley School Board member Judy Appel, El Cerrito Council member Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto, and East Bay Municipal Utility District commissioner Andy Katz praised Beckles and pledged support of her candidacy.

The next afternoon in the Berkeley Hills at a fundraiser on Sept. 23, Nina Turner delivered an unplanned speech that plumbed the depths of the racial dynamic here and across the U.S.

When Nina Turner found out (from Jovanka Beckles’ campaign manager and wife Nicole Valentino) how Jovanka has been smeared and attacked – by Wicks supporters currently and over the past years as a Richmond City Council member – she reflected passionately upon what Black women politicians have to endure as public figures.

“All that we love is on the line in this election,” said Nina Turner, president of the national Our Revolution organization.

Turner expressed empathy and fury that brought some in her spellbound audience to tears. The September gathering included Danny Glover, former Berkeley mayor and Democratic Party Unity Reform Commission member Gus Newport, attorney Walter Riley and other local notables.

Backstage at a big rally on Saturday, Sept. 22, are former Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport, Danny Glover, Jovanka Beckles, Nina Turner of Our Revolution and former Warrior Adonal Foyle at Jovanka’s Saturday, Sept. 22, rally. Nina, a former Ohio state senator who won national fame as a leader in Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, is president of Our Revolution, which is backing grassroots candidates all over the country and winning race after race. – Photo: Luke Thibault

“You know, Sister Nicole and I … had a moment to really talk about what Sister Jovanka and her family have endured on the campaign trail. All of us in this room, or some of us in this room, especially those of us who have ever run for elective office, you do understand at a certain level what it takes, the audacity, to be able to get out there, to put yourself out there, for causes that are bigger and greater than yourself. But not all of us understand what it’s like to walk in a Black woman’s shoes. …

“It’s not about your political affiliations. It’s about your integrity. You see, she’s not running against a Republican. She’s running against a Democrat. Someone who claims to uphold values of humanity. And for anybody to think that it is OK to malign people personally, and to cut deep at their core …

“Sister Nicole shared with me, and I was trying to keep my emotions in check – but I’m an ink-Black woman and I’m proud of it – that she has been depicted as a monkey. And if there’s anybody in this room Black or white, who does not understand the legacy and the message of stereotyping to dehumanize a whole group of people generation after generation after generation and even after all our ancestors have endured, their legacy in the 21st century still has to endure those stereotypes.

“So, accomplished as she is, that is not enough. And as brilliant as she is, that is not enough. We have receipts for her record as a City Council woman, and even that is not enough.

“Some of us in this life have a smooth surface. And some of us have to surmount a rocky path. And others of us have to jump hills. But then there are those of us who are mountain jumpers. But to our brothers and sisters who may have a smooth surface, we need you. And people who have a rocky path, we need you. To those of you who have surmounted hills, we need you. We need you to understand that some of us were born to already have to jump mountains. That is her experience.

“And if you have ever run for office as a Black woman, I can relate to you being called an Aunt Jemima, being called the ‘N’ word. Being called a dark-skinned turd. We are here.

“So, Bay Area, I said last night [at the rally] that all that we love … This is bigger than her.

“This is about the next Jovanka Beckles that dares to be genuinely who she is. Whether she decides to wear her hair bone straight or locked. Who she is. But just know that even all of her accomplishments and her fancy titles don’t protect her from people who want to be vicious and malign her integrity.

“We can handle a debate on the issues. But don’t try to tear down who she is. And in this one gathering we can’t solve all these problems, but I hope that for those of you who don’t quite understand because you don’t have a lived experience but you have the empathy and the compassion to try to understand as closely as you can what it’s like to be in her skin.

“Her dark, brown, beautiful skin, her locked hair, the way she approaches life, the way she communicates. The Black woman has it hard, harder than most. Yes, as women we have a lot in common. And as women of color we have a lot in common, but to be a Black woman, to be a dark-skinned Black woman is hard as hell.”

At the end of this campaign on Nov. 6, the Democratic Party will probably not be the same. This Assembly race will either show the viability of a people-powered, corporate-money-free politics represented by Jovanka Beckles, or it will remain the domain of the corporate billionaire-powered “moderate Dems” such as Buffy Wicks, employing the campaign industrial complex to stay in power. Hillary Clinton’s legacy continues to roil the party.

Jovanka Beckles’ and Buffy Wicks’ policies compared (Click to enlarge.)

June Goodwin is a retired journalist for the Christian Science Monitor and Reuters News Agency. Ben Schiff is a retired professor of politics at Oberlin College. They live in Oakland and are volunteers for the Jovanka Beckles for AD15 campaign. Contact them via the campaign, at @JovankaBeckles or https://www.jovanka.org/