In the run-up to the 2014 Richmond City Council election, voters couldn’t turn on their TVs, check their mail, or drive down San Pablo Avenue without seeing Chevron-backed political advertising—either pushing candidates the refinery favored, or denigrating those it opposed.
This year, that is not the case.
Two years after spending more than $3 million only to see each candidate it backed lose, Chevron and its political action committee, Moving Forward, have been notably absent from the 2016 election cycle.
“It might simply be that they think the investment is not worth it,” said Robert Smith, a Richmond resident and political science professor at San Francisco State University.
In 2014, two weeks before the election, Smith told Richmond Confidential that Chevron’s aggressive bid for influence could “offend people’s democratic sensibilities” and cost its candidates the election.
Now, Smith said, it is clear he was correct.
“I think it did. I thought it was overkill,” he said. “I think for a lot of people, it appeared to be unfair and it appeared to be what it was: big corporate money trying to influence their local election.”
A spokesperson for Chevron confirmed that the oil giant is abstaining from Richmond elections this year, but said this decision was not a reaction to the negative publicity generated during the last cycle.
“Chevron has decided not to participate in the 2016 local Richmond election, as we are focused on keeping the refinery running safely and partnering with the city and the community on the modernization project,” spokesperson Leah Casey said in a statement.
Mike Parker, a leading member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance—the left-leaning faction that has been a target of much of Chevron’s opposition spending—has a different theory about the company’s absence from airwaves and mailboxes.
“We stood up to it,” he said, referring to Chevron’s 2014 spending blitz. “We used it against them, went head to head and they lost. We deprived them of that method.”
The RPA backed three candidates that year, all of whom were subject to attack ads paid for by Moving Forward, and each won a council seat.
A city council hopeful this year, Uche Uwahemu said that, he, too, thought Chevron’s campaign contributions actually aided RPA efforts in 2014.
“I think their involvement in 2014 impacted the outcome in a way that many people did not expect,” he said. “No one was expecting the RPA backed candidates to sweep the election.”
Uwahemu, who ran for mayor in 2014 against Chevron-backed Nat Bates, said the refinery is doing the smart thing by staying out of the race.
“This time around I think they are doing a good job staying out,” he said. “I’m hoping that that will continue.”
Though Casey said Chevron will not spend this year, Smith said the company could be using other tactics to skirt the public eye, such as having individual employees contribute directly to candidates’ campaigns.
“I think it’s possible they’re using less overt means of having an influence,” he said. “And I think that we would probably not know that until after the fact.”
Casey, however, said that Chevron is not directing its employees to contribute.
“Employees are encouraged to be active in their community however they chose,” she said. “We do not encourage employees to independently give to individual campaigns.”
Chevron’s Moving Forward PAC—which was set up specifically to lobby in Richmond—is still active, with nearly $30,000 in the bank, but its most recent filing shows that it hasn’t spent on behalf of any campaigns this year. Casey said Moving Forward is “still active for logistical purposes although we are not participating in the 2016 election.”
Spending or not, Parker said Chevron still wields massive power in Richmond. The company’s deep pockets allow it to curry favor with local nonprofits and community leaders, he said. The refinery also has influence over the local media landscape, Parker said, pointing to Chevron-backed community news sites Richmond Standard and Radio Free Richmond. (Radio Free Richmond editorial board member Don Gosney said via email that Chevron “has never funded” the site, although its site states that BMWL—a public relations firm hired by Moving Forward in the past—provided the “initial programming of the website.”)
“Let’s be clear, the power in a town is not decided by who is on the city council,” Parker said. “Chevron by virtue of its economic status in the town is a huge, huge influence.”
In her statement, Casey said that Chevron will work with the city council elects.
“We are excited about Richmond’s future and will continue to partner with local elected officials to advocate for policies that allow Richmond to grow and thrive,” she said.
This is progress, Parker said.
“Nobody should think that we’ve fundamentally changed the relationship of the town on the whole,” he said. “But we have changed it in that the government is no longer in their hip pocket.”