A Billionaire-Backed Democrat Is Facing Off Against a Democratic Socialist in Berkeley. And It’s Getting Rough.

A race in Berkeley, California has become a microcosm of the struggle for control of the Democratic Party.

At left, Jovanka Beckles photographed on Aug. 21, 2018. At right, Buffy Wicks photographed at Oakland City Hall, Calif., on Aug. 21, 2018. Photo: Ben Schiff/Courtesy of Jovanka Beckles Campaign; Courtesy of Buffy Wicks Campaign

The battles within the Democratic Party have played out in high-profile races this year, largely featuring well-heeled establishment figures with years of elected experience challenged by left-wing outsiders running with the support of a national grassroots movement.

Amid this fight, there has been a strenuous effort from party centrists to drain the question of any ideological content. Party leaders are not pushing any particular agenda, goes the argument, but are merely pragmatists maximizing the chances of winning a general election. Elaine Kamarck, a Brookings Institute scholar and political consultant, put it succinctly. “Party leaders have the job of winning nationally; Democrats are painfully aware that not all congressional districts are Berkeley, Calif.,” she wrote in defense of those party leaders.

Party leaders, however, seem to have missed that memo when it comes to the non-metaphorical Berkeley. Thanks to the state’s jungle primary law, two Democrats will face off in November in Assembly District 15, a state legislative seat that includes North Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond.

Here, it is Jovanka Beckles, the candidate endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has the governing experience and the support of leading local elected officials, and it’s the upstart, Buffy Wicks, who has never held office. Wicks is running as a business-backed Democratic operative pushing to disrupt a seat long-held by the progressive left.

In the June primary, backed by a groundswell of money, largely from tech executives and Washington, D.C. politicos, Wicks took the most votes.

The runner-up, Beckles, is the leftist favorite, however. Beckles has served since 2011 on the Richmond City Council, fighting a larger-than-life battle against the oil giant Chevron, which owns the 117-year-old refinery that has long cast its shadow over local politics.

The campaign has piqued national interest, as wealthy donors have inundated the election with independent expenditures casting Beckles as an angry extremist unwilling to support a practical solution to the housing crisis.

The race is another sign of the economic and cultural changes that have utterly transformed the Bay Area in recent years as a result of the long technology boom — changes that are uprooting the traditional, radical political culture of the region, pitting a longstanding leftist power base against an ascendent brand of technocratic, corporate-friendly Democrats.

The tension in the campaign was apparent in one of the first forums of the race, in a Richmond auditorium filled with senior citizens.

Wicks stood up and gave her stump speech, recounting her experience as a young radical, providing a story well situated for a district rich in activist history.

“I was the girl with the nose ring, the lip ring, the multicolored hair, and the bullhorn,” Wicks said, recounting her protest history.

Wicks grew up in the foothills of California, in a trailer home. After college, she moved to the Bay Area to organize rallies against the Iraq War. Her opposition to the war in Iraq led to work with the Howard Dean campaign. Later, she took a union-backed job to pressure Walmart to raise its wages and benefits. At the Richmond event, she explained in heartfelt detail the shock of learning that her uninsured friend had been diagnosed with HIV. That incident inspired her to make a lifelong push for better health care, culminating in her standing beside President Barack Obama to celebrate the passage of the Affordable Care Act, a bill she helped secure as White House aide.

The passionate remarks, however, were met with skepticism from the crowd.

Hand after hand went up, with audience members peppering the candidate about why she isn’t working toward single-payer health care and why she opposes the contentious Proposition 10 ballot measure to enable more rent control in California. For several educators in the crowd, they wanted to know how she could square her recent public criticism of charter schools with the fact that pro-charter groups were spending big money on her behalf.

Wicks rattled off the changes she would seek to charter schools, including increased transparency and accountability, but said that she would respect the choice of parents who send their kids to one. Besides, she added repeatedly, “I haven’t taken any charter school money.” Many in the crowd murmured.

A man stood up to explain that Govern for California, a Super PAC-style independent expenditure group funded by charter school advocates, had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Wicks. “We might know a little bit more about it than you think,” he said.

The extent to which influential Democrats and corporate donors have rallied around Wicks is an indication of how much the election has become a bellwether in the ongoing battle to define the heart and soul of the party.

“If a democratic socialist can knock off an establishment Democrat, you’ll have a slew of Berniecrats challenging mainstream candidates,” warned former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, now a highly paid consultant, in his regular column for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Those establishment Democrats and their allies have closed ranks around Wicks to a degree almost unheard of in a local race like the one in Assembly District 15.

For a relatively small California legislative seat being fought over by two Democrats, huge amounts of money are being spent, largely to elect Wicks. Independent expenditure groups have spent $1,191,389 on pro-Wicks efforts this year and another $244,160 in negative messages against Beckles. On the other side, a labor union-backed independent expenditure group has spent $391,831 in support of Beckles and $7,412 in opposition to Wicks.

In terms of direct donations, the contrast is similarly stark. Beckles has raised $386,887, which pales in comparison to the $1.3 million raised by Wicks.

The East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America launched a research-driven website highlighting the donors to Wicks and her attendant IEs, noting that many of the donors include right-wing billionaires and consultants for special interests. William Oberdorf, a major Republican donor, has given $150,000 to one group backing Wicks. Ron Conway, an early investor in Twitter and other name-brand tech companies, who has used his wealth to help moderate Democrats defeat a slate of progressives in San Francisco, has also given to Wicks.

The fundraising advantage has given Wicks an ability to hire a professional campaign operation, with modern polling, advertising, and an innovative get-out-the-vote operation that utilizes texting to encourage supporters to remind their friends and colleagues to go to the polls. The Berkeley Democratic Club, one of the local groups endorsing Wicks, received $6,000 from her campaign last week to send its endorsement slate mailer to city residents.

From Activism to Professional Advocacy

The testy exchange over Govern for California reflected the growing tension in the race. Wicks is wonky and well-read on the issues, reciting California law and legislative history with ease and intensity. In a recent El Cerrito Progressives questionnaire, the two candidates offered similar answers on most policy questions, though Wicks’s responses were far more detailed and nuanced. But Wicks’s campaign stump speech, repeated regularly on the trail and by her supporters, belies a career as an operative for business-friendly elements of the Democratic Party, a transformation that coincided with her rise through the political ranks.

Wicks started her career as a left-leaning critic of the political establishment. Archived images show her on stage with a communist-aligned protest group in 2003. Another video from a few years later, from the early days of the Obama presidential campaign, shows Wicks discussing her own struggles to identify with a political party that would support catastrophic war.

“I got disillusioned with the Democratic Party pretty quickly,” Wicks said, seen in the video clutching a mic.

“Seeing Dick Gephardt, the leader of our party in Congress, sitting in the Rose Garden with George Bush, talking about what a great idea it was to go to war in Iraq, and I thought, ‘This just does not speak to me at all,’” she continued.

But those days, notably, are behind her. Sitting in a cafe in south Berkeley, Wicks provided a far more subdued view of the Iraq War, and her critiques of the Democratic Party seem to have changed dramatically over the last decade.

“I got in so much trouble for that,” she said, when asked about the clip of her criticizing the Democratic Party’s rush to support the Iraq War.

Left unmentioned from Wicks’s current campaign stump speech is her more recent résumé, which includes two stints managing Priorities USA Action, the Democratic Super PAC that went on to spend nearly $75 million in support of Obama in 2012 and $190 million in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, as well as work consulting for other independent expenditure efforts. Emails disclosed by WikiLeaks show that she was recruited to the Super PAC by senior Clinton campaign supporters.

Wicks worked as a senior adviser to Rahm Emanuel’s campaign for Chicago mayor. In 2015, Wicks moved back to California to manage the Clinton campaign state effort, helping extinguish any chance for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to clinch the Democratic nomination. Her office featured a poster titled, “Buffy the Bernie Slayer,” a nod to her work. She also worked for a time at AKPD, the prominent political and corporate consulting firm.

Asked if she was troubled by Clinton’s steadfast support for the Libya war, or her backing for Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen, or her vote to launch the war in Iraq — the original issue that once moved Wicks as an activist — Wicks demurred.

“I was very excited about the idea of having a woman president. We’ve never had that,” she said bluntly.

But the call for diversity in leadership — wouldn’t that apply more to Beckles, a black lesbian and immigrant from Panama, over Wicks, a white woman? With the move by Assemblyman Tony Thurmond to run for state Superintendent of Public Instruction, there could be no black representatives from the entire Bay Area in 2019, should Wicks prevail in the race.

Wicks pivoted, noting that the “power structure is dominated by white men — no offense.” (When told that both reporters interviewing her are mixed race, she apologized.) 

The other elephant in the room has been big money. Several outside groups have formed independent expenditure committees and PACs to spend on behalf of Wicks, flooding the district with mailers and advertising. 

Wicks makes clear that she would prefer a world without such big money, but stops short of directly condemning the groups. “They can do whatever they wish,” she said, when asked if she would call for shutting down the pro-Wicks outside independent expenditures. “I don’t take corporate money,” she added.

Govern for California, one of the groups backing Wicks, is financed in part by one of the heirs of the Walmart fortune, an irony that somewhat blunts her campaign story of once doing battle with the retail giant.

One of the other groups, formed last month, is the “Coalition for East Bay Health Care Access, Affordable Housing and Quality Public Schools, supporting Buffy Wicks for Assembly 2018.” The group is principally funded by the two powerful health care lobby groups, the California Medical Association and the California Dental Association, as well as EdVoice, a charter school PAC.

Chevron, the longtime nemesis of the district’s environmental and economic justice movements and of Jovanka Beckles in particular, also appears to favor Wicks. Local lobbyist Eric Zell, who has worked for years to influence local government on behalf of Chevron, recently sent an email to his contact list urging them to vote for her. In a sign of how malleable the term “progressive” has become in the Bay Area’s current political culture, the word was used in the email six times. “In the East Bay, we are united behind a progressive agenda,” the email from the oil lobbyist proclaims.

But it is the lawyers that registered and administer the Wicks IE that may raise eyebrows even more than its donors.

The group is run by attorneys from Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk, a notoriously right-wing law firm that serves lobbyists and the Republican Party. The firm provided consulting work for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, as well as many of the most conservative California Republicans, including Darrell Issa and Dana Rohrabacher.

Ashlee Titus, the partner whose name appears on the IE’s filing, is a board member of the California chapter of the Republican National Lawyers Association and the president of the Sacramento Federalist Society. Her name appears on an October 3 letter advocating the swift confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. (Titus did not respond to a request for comment.)

The issue of campaign money has been raised relentlessly by the Beckles campaign, who points to her own lack of a big money outside group, and her own direct donors, most of whom have provided small dollar donations and live in the district.

If Wicks was once a radical, storming the barricades of the plutocracy, Beckles never left that role. There’s a reason the business interests that are funding Wicks’ independent expenditure campaigns are determined to keep Beckles away from the seat. She is a strident supporter of Medicare For All, backs a moratorium on charter schools, and she proposes increasing the minimum wage to $20 per hour and reducing the work week to 36 hours.

Little surprise, then, that her candidacy has inspired private health care interests, the charter school industry, and the Walton family to pour cash into IEs cutting six-digit checks in support of her opponent.

“Buffy Wicks is funded by billionaires,” said Keith Brown, president of the Oakland Education Association. “The forces causing the education crisis and the housing crisis are the same forces that are supporting Buffy Wicks.”

Wicks is not entirely without supporters on the labor-aligned left, however. Jim Araby of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, one of the few unions outside of the building trades that has endorsed Wicks, acknowledged Beckles’ embrace of the interests of workers. But he prefers Wicks nonetheless.

“Jovanka would make a fine representative, but there’s a difference between being a good vote and being a champion for our issues,” Araby told The Intercept. “Buffy understands the unique work our members do and the challenges that face them.”

Of the perception that Wicks is less progressive than Beckles, Araby said, “This is another one of those fights based not on reality but on myth.”

Marshall Ganz, one of the masterminds behind Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers in the 1960s and one of the architects of Obama’s 2008 organizing strategy, vouched passionately for Wicks, in an interview with The Intercept, calling her a proven leader “capable of building broad support.” Ganz, who knew Wicks from her early days as an activist and on the Obama campaign, conceded, however, that he was not familiar with Beckles’ record and did not endorse Wicks’ more recent work for the Clinton campaign.

“Sometimes we have conflicting values. I don’t think Buffy’s a perfect person more than any of us are, but in this particular setting I think she will do a terrific job,” he said.

Campaign Gets Heated

In opinion columns and in social media, supporters of the Wicks campaign have portrayed Beckles as an unstable radical, someone who can’t be trusted to effectively represent the district.

In 2015, Beckles authored a resolution, based on a bill introduced in Congress by former Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, against the militarization of outer space, an idea that quickly turned into tabloid fodder.

“It is imperative that Richmond adopt this resolution in an effort to stand in solidarity with residents who claim to be under assault from space-based weapons that should be outlawed by the Space Preservation Act,” Beckles said at the time.

After the resolution was reported in the news, the city received dozens of calls from people around the world who claimed to be under attack from mind-controlling weapons in outer space. Wicks’ supporters have pointed to this vote and others to say that Beckles has “turned the city of Richmond into a punchline.”

In February, the Wicks campaign conducted a poll to test themes for the campaign this year, including positive and negative messages about most of the candidates in the first round of the race. “Opponents say she won’t be able to get things done because she lacks the experience and skill to work with people of different beliefs,” was one of the statements about Beckles the poll tested. For several Beckles supporters, the survey appeared to be a “push poll” designed to plant negative ideas about the candidate as abrasive and inattentive, attacks that some felt played to racial stereotypes about black women.

“There’s a lot that goes into a racialized message. It would be my strong hope, anything I would push for, not to racialize this race at all. Period,” Wicks said, responding to the charge.

Campaign fliers have swamped the mailboxes of district residents, claiming that Beckles has missed votes on the city council, played video games on her phone during council votes, and ignored the housing crisis. Records show she has missed a number of council votes, but her campaign says her full-time job as a mental health care social worker prevented her from staying late at council hearings.

In one recent mailer, Beckles is quoted stating that, “We don’t suffer from a housing shortage crisis.” But the quote is cropped, leaving out her following statement, “We are suffering from a housing affordability crisis.”

The quote reflects a roiling debate taking place throughout California and particularly in Silicon Valley. Soaring rents and home prices have become epidemic in the Bay Area, as the rise of the tech industry has transformed nearly every aspect of the region’s economy. Affordable housing activists have bristled at the new wave of high income earners flocking to the region, claiming that unrestricted growth has fueled displacement. Meanwhile, the YIMBYs, a pro-development housing activist movement that emerged from the Bay Area’s tech workforce, advocate deregulation of the real estate market as the way out of the housing crisis.

Beckles opposed the contentious legislation put forth this year by State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and championed by the YIMBYs, to prevent local municipalities from blocking dense, largely market-rate housing development near public transit. Many California communities have placed onerous restrictions on new housing developments, even as job growth far outpaces the the creation of new housing stock, exacerbating the crisis. But affordable housing activists criticized Wiener’s bill, which they viewed as a supply-side approach that favored developers and that would only further fuel displacement of the poor. Beckles, in an interview, claimed that Wiener’s measure took “away the rights of communities to be able to say what’s in their best interests.”

Beckles and Wicks also differ on California’s Proposition 10, which would restore the ability of local jurisdictions to expand rent control. Beckles favors the proposition; Wicks worries it will exacerbate the housing crisis by inhibiting new development. The YIMBYs found no consensus on the initiative.

Beckles’ positions on housing have earned her the ire of the YIMBYs, who have endorsed Wicks. One of the leaders of East Bay For Everyone, a YIMBY group, accused Beckles of “siding with segregationists” for opposing policies that might allow for new development in affluent neighborhoods. East Bay For Everyone’s name also appeared on the mailer that took Beckles’ comment on the housing crisis out of context.

The barrage of attacks is nothing new for Beckles. She has fought for years as part of a grassroots effort called the Richmond Progressive Alliance to reshape the political reality in her community, which has long been dominated by politicians loyal to the interests of Chevron.

Since 2003, the RPA, as it is known, has worked to push back against Chevron influence in Richmond. They have fought Chevron’s efforts to skirt local taxes, called attention to flaring from the refinery, and demanded greater fines for the routine pollution that has sickened local residents.

That activism has sparked years of increasingly bitter political fights. In 2014 alone, the oil giant poured more than $2.9 million into an account used to smear RPA supporters, including Beckles, a shocking sum to influence a working class municipal race. A campaign consultant was hired to launch a blog mocking Beckles, falsely accusing her of dining excessively on city taxpayer money and not showing up to meetings. Chevron even hired a public relations expert to launch an entire news publication, the Richmond Standard, complete with bona fide coverage of local events, as a portal to advance political attacks on RPA politicians including Beckles.

Incredibly, the RPA has largely prevailed, despite some setbacks. The coalition, including Beckles, has won reforms in city policing and a $15 minimum wage, among other policy changes. Chevron-backed candidates have repeatedly lost close elections to RPA’s slate. Many of the RPA-backed ideas were eventually defeated, such as a radical proposal to use eminent domain to save homes from foreclosure and an effort to combat obesity through a soda tax.

Closing Ranks

The current legislative race has recast many of the old charges hurled at RPA candidates like Beckles: Too out of touch, too extreme. In past years, the establishment Democratic Party in Richmond used the wider network of party figures to tip the scales, with California Treasurer Phil Angelides and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., among others, working to help the Chevron-backed moderates campaign against the insurgent RPA.

The same strategy appears clear in the current race for Assembly District 15. Wicks has touted an impressive list of supporters. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom; and even Obama himself have endorsed Wicks. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has personally donated to her campaign, and former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., attended her launch party (Wicks’ husband is a former Giffords aide).

The roster of Wicks donors is filled with names of former Obama campaign alumni and former Democratic staffers, many of whom followed a similar path of gaining government experience, then going through the revolving door to work for industry. More than one in seven in her contributor roll list Washington, D.C., home addresses.

Wicks donor Drew Goesl, for example, worked for years for a number of Democratic lawmakers, before settling into a job as as a lobbyist. For much of the last year, he was paid to represent the private prison conglomerate Geo Group. Lauren Aronson, another Wicks donor and former Emanuel staffer, similarly worked for Obama in the White House, playing a pivotal role helping to pass the Affordable Care Act. She now lobbies for a variety of corporate interests, including Walmart, Verizon, Humana and Chevron.

In many ways, the race also reflects the fast moving shift of national-level Democratic operatives who have beaten the path from the campaign trail, to the Beltway, to the booming Bay Area after serving in the Obama administration.

Wicks’s fellow travelers include, most famously, Obama’s former campaign manager, David Plouffe, who took a lobbying job with Uber in San Francisco in 2014 and is now at the for-profit foundation of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan. It also includes former assistant press secretary and National Security Spokesman Tommy Vietor, who moved to San Francisco to speech write for startup CEOs; former Obama Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, who joined GoFundMe; and former White House advisor Tom Reynolds, who was hired by Facebook, among many others. Plouffe, Vietor, Pfeiffer, and Reynolds are all Wicks donors.

“The generation of Obama staffers, their ideology was always kind of loosely defined in these non-ideological, aspirational ideals,” said Shant Mesrobian, who worked on the Obama campaign’s digital team in 2008 and who lives in San Francisco.

“When you define your politics so broadly about ‘doing big things,’ non-ideologically like that, it’s easy to see why you can make this transition to Silicon Valley, the Mecca of ‘doing big things.’ When you don’t define your politics by specific things like fighting inequality, corruption, things you can be held accountable to, at the end of the day you can justify anything.”

But supporters of Beckles hope to make voters aware that the vast amounts of money represent a wider power struggle in politics.

“The fact that Buffy Wicks is getting so much money from groups such as Govern For California’s IE, which represents the charter industry, this is all like new corporate money that’s coming in that attempts to change the face of the Bay Area, driving out people of color, working class people,” said Keith Brown, from the Oakland Education Association. “This wave is creating communities such as what we see in Oakland and Richmond between the haves and the have-nots.”

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