The race for California’s 15th Assembly district is one of the most expensive in the state. More than $3.75 million has been spent to support the candidacies of Buffy Wicks and Jovanka Beckles, with spending for Wicks exceeding Beckles by a margin of 4 to 1, a Richmond Confidential analysis of the latest campaign finance reports shows.
The reports reveal that nearly 40 percent of Wicks’ support is coming from outside of California. Corporate executives and business interests are heavily invested in Wicks’ campaign.
Wicks is supported by more industry and trade groups compared to Beckles who draws substantial donations from unions and teachers’ associations. And a higher percentage of Wicks’ donors gave her the maximum legally allowed.
Wicks raised more than $1.4 million in direct contributions to her campaign, nearly three times more than the $500,000 Beckles raised.
In addition, political committees have spent $1,380,600 to promote Wicks, according to the campaign finance reports. That’s far more than the $434,364 spent by political committees behind Beckles’ candidacy.
Prominent individual donors are also supporting political committees running campaigns in support of Wicks and Beckles. By law, these committees are allowed to spend an unlimited amount of money to help candidates as long as they do not coordinate directly with any campaign. More broadly, these committees include independent expenditure groups, such as Political Action Committees — or PACs — whose individual donors can be harder to track.
Powerful healthcare PACs, including the California Medical Association PAC and the California Dental Association PAC, contributed to Wicks by channeling money through a special PAC formed exclusively to support her assembly campaign. It is called the Coalition for East Bay Health Care Access, Affordable Housing and Quality Public Schools, supporting Buffy Wicks for Assembly 2018.
EdVoice PAC, a charter school-supporting political committee, also used the Wicks PAC to route money into the race to support Wicks. Combined, these three PACs directed $857,500 in contributions to the Wicks PAC, which has spent $1,022,434 to support her.
The California Apartment Association’s political committee also supported Wicks’ candidacy through a $100,000 contribution to the Wicks PAC. The association opposes Proposition 10, the ballot initiative that would allow cities to expand rent control, and set up a No on Prop 10 political committee, which has so far spent at least $43 million to oppose it. Wicks also opposes Proposition 10 while Beckles supports it.
Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway also gave $45,000 to the Wicks PAC. Earlier this year, Conway donated the maximum allowable amount to Rep. Jeff Denham, a Republican running in a Central Valley swing district. The race is among a handful in California that could determine party control of Congress.
Members of the Walton family who are heirs to the Walmart fortune have also contributed to political committees that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on behalf of Wicks.
Last week, The Intercept, a nonprofit-supported investigative newsroom, published an analysis of some of the Wicks’ campaign’s backers. Asked to respond, Wicks campaign spokesperson Debbie Mesloh stated that the report contained multiple errors. “Perhaps the most egregious is that Buffy is benefitting from Walmart money. Buffy has taken no money from anyone associated with Walmart, nor has Walmart given to the outside independent expenditure campaign. It is misleading to insinuate that,” wrote Mesloh.
But an heir to the Walmart fortune and the company’s chairman both contributed to political committees supporting Wicks, campaign finance reports show.
Among the major contributors to the largest PACs supporting Wicks are heirs to the Walmart fortune Carrie Walton Penner and her husband Gregory Penner. He currently serves as chairman of Walmart Inc.
Together, they’ve contributed $944,600 to EdVoice and Govern for California political committees that are among the most high-profile spenders in the assembly district race. These two committees have spent $1,088,023 to support Wicks.
Carrie Walton Penner currently serves as the board vice-chair of the California Charter Schools Association, a board member of EdVoice, and is an outspoken advocate for charter schools. Gregory Penner, at the helm of Walmart since 2015, has overseen a company that has defied demands by its workers calling for a $15 minimum wage even as other major chains met similar demands.
The other political committee that the Walton family donates to, Govern for California, is led by David Crane, once the special adviser to former Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. A lecturer at Stanford University, Crane is an advocate for charter schools and curbing spending on public employee retirement. In 2010, he penned an editorial for the San Francisco Chronicle entitled, “Should public employees have collective bargaining?” It questioned the rights of teachers and other state employees to organize for better benefits.
Crane’s Govern for California spent $493,333 on mailings, polling and consulting, among other things in support of Wicks.
Wicks has in the past called for increased accountability for charter schools, but has stopped short of Beckles’ assertion there should be a moratorium on new ones because they are “sucking the lifeblood out of public schools.” Public school teachers’ groups are fighting the expansion of charter schools, arguing that they siphon off the best students and a substantial amount of public money.
On pensions, Wicks has suggested that the state would likely need to bring key stakeholders to the table to address union pension costs, insisting that the state must “honor its commitment to workers.” Implied was that some negotiation could be necessary. Beckles has underscored her support for defined pension benefits and has said she would “fight vigorously to avoid reductions in pensions.”
Mesloh, Wicks’ spokesperson, did not respond to Richmond Confidential’s request for a detailed response to the committee expenditures. Instead, she repeated phrasing that the campaign often uses: “From day one, Buffy pledged to take no corporate money in this race.”
Mesloh also noted that Wicks has in the past explained that she is not in favor of the current system of financing elections that is heavily reliant on political committees spending money in support of candidates. “We need campaign finance reform,” Wicks has said.
In past statements, Wicks has appeared to defer responsibility for the committees’ spending on her behalf, saying, “No candidate wants an independent expenditure out there communicating for or against them without the candidate having control of that.” She added, “It is the reality that we are in.”
Wicks’ comments suggest that she has accepted a necessary evil, but in statements she has stopped short of rejecting corporate expenditures on her behalf.
Beckles, meanwhile, has said she would not accept these corporate expenditures.
While corporations themselves have not contributed directly to Wicks’ campaign, corporate executives are among the funders of the $1.38 million spent through various committees working to get Wicks elected. At least 20 corporate executives have also donated the maximum amount to Wicks’ campaign directly.
In defending expenditures on Wicks’ behalf, Mesloh noted that Beckles had also benefitted from political committees spending on her behalf.
A political committee called the East Bay Working Families has spent $342,914 in support of Beckles, according to the analysis of her latest campaign finance reports. The organization derives most of its funding from local chapters of the Service Employee’s International Union as well as the union’s statewide PAC.
Beckles’ campaign spokesman Ben Schiff responded that the committees supporting her not only gave far less money, but that their contributors were almost all unions rather than business interests and corporate executives.
“That’s not the same as the sources of money for Buffy’s PACs which are decidedly anti-union and not local,” he said.
Wicks’ individual donors also gave her campaign more money, on average, than Beckles’. Almost seven percent of Wicks’ donors gave her the maximum amount — $4,400 for individuals and $8,800 for political organizations. Less than three percent of Beckles’ contributors gave the maximum.
Wicks received direct campaign contributions for the maximum $8,800 from the California Real Estate PAC, the Northern California Council of Laborers PAC and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California PAC, among others.
The real estate PAC is one of many supported by the California Association of Realtors. Using a series of similar political committees, the association has routed $8 million into the campaign against Proposition 10.
Beckles’ campaign received the $8,800 maximum donations from big state unions and associations, including the California Nurses Association, the California Teachers Association and SEIU United Healthcare Workers.
SEIU spokesperson Sean Wherley cited Beckles’ support for local healthcare workers who he said are fighting the outsourcing of more than 100 jobs at Kaiser Permanente facilities throughout the East Bay.
The Permanente Medical Group, Inc., the regional parent organization for local Kaiser facilities, gave $562,018 to California Medical Association committees that would eventually contribute $111,500 to the Wicks PAC. A spokesperson for The Permanente Medical Group didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Speaking on behalf of the California Teachers Association, Claudia Briggs said the teachers supported Beckles because of their experience with students in the classroom. “They know the needs and the challenges their students face every day, and they make their recommendation accordingly,” she said.
The association’s decision to contribute to Beckles’ campaign underscores their shared opposition to the statewide expansion of charter schools.
Notable individual contributors to Wicks’ campaign include David Axelrod, former Obama strategist; George Soros, billionaire philanthropist; Jeremy Stoppelman, chief executive for Yelp Inc.; Michael Bloomberg, chief executive for Bloomberg L.P.; Reid Hoffman, founder and chairman of LinkedIn Corp.; and Alejandro Cabrera, senior vice president at McDonald’s. All gave the maximum-allowed $4,400.
Among the individual contributors who gave the maximum donation to Beckles’ campaign were three owners of marijuana dispensaries in Richmond. They include Zeaad Handoush, owner of 7 Stars Holistic Healing Center; Rebecca Vasquez, the owner of Holistic Healing Collective and William Koziol, the director of Richmond Patient’s Group.
In an interview, Handoush cited Beckles’ roots in Richmond and support of cannabis as reasons for backing her candidacy. Handoush’s collective is among the handful that have obtained permits to operate in Richmond in recent years after Beckles played a central role in shaping the city’s marijuana regulations.
Thirty-seven percent of Wicks’ donors were from outside of California while four percent of those giving to Beckles listed out of state addresses, according to the latest candidates’ campaign finance filings.
Schiff, Beckles’ spokesperson, said almost all of her money came from California donors because of her long history as an elected official in the Bay Area.
“Those tend to be working people and local residents who like most people aren’t fabulously wealthy, so those contributions tend to be small and they tend to be here in the East Bay,” he said.
Asked about the higher proportion of out-of-state money flowing into the Wicks campaign, her spokesperson Mesloh noted that some of her contributors from other states supported the progressive movement nationwide.
She emailed a quote from Wicks in which she said, “All of my donors who have donated to my campaign have donated to people like Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris and other great Democrats up and down this state.”
The latest campaign finance reports list 2,141 contributions to the Wicks campaign. There is no indication that all or most of Wicks’ donors have indeed contributed to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Senator Kamala Harris, as Wicks has insisted.
Wicks’ campaign also went on the attack, noting that one of the political committees supporting Beckles drew support from corporate donors.
That committee, the California African American PAC, supports the election of African American candidates across the state of California, according to its campaign finance reports.
The PAC spent $45,830 in support of Beckles, according to its most recent campaign finance filing. The filings show that the money was spent on a poll and literature in support of Beckles.
The PAC draws support from Tesla Inc., Facebook Inc., as well as Chevron’s Policy, Government and Public Affairs division. But the PAC maintains a broad range of contributors who also include Native American tribal councils and labor unions. The PAC didn’t return calls seeking comment.
Beckles, who has campaigned as a candidate who rejects corporate donations, sought to distance herself from the PAC’s spending on her behalf.
In a press release on Nov. 1, she said she appreciated “the PAC’s goal of electing more African Americans to higher office in California,” but could not, “condone any spending on my behalf by corporations and individuals who are actively opposed to our agenda to put people over profit.”
Barbara Harvey contributed to this report.