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Inland Empire election sees flurry of spending by oil, labor groups

Cheryl Brown and Eloise Reyes vie to represent the Inland Empire in Sacramento.
Candidate Flickr pages
Cheryl Brown and Eloise Reyes vie to represent the Inland Empire in Sacramento.

As Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton battle for the White House, races further down the ballot in California are getting heated — and expensive.

Outside groups are spending millions in local races to help their favored candidates reach Sacramento. This year, no state race has seen more outside spending than the 47th Assembly District in the Inland Empire.

There, outside groups have thrown more than $3.7 million into the election, with more than $1.4 million of that coming since the primary. Oil industry and labor groups have been the biggest spenders.

This working class, largely Latino and African-American area includes Colton, Fontana and San Bernardino. The election pits two Democrats against each other, attorney Eloise Reyes and incumbent Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, who was first elected to the seat in 2012.

Their contest hinges on economic and environmental issues. "The region desperately needs jobs, but it also has significant environmental concerns that need to be addressed," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, who teaches political science at the University of California, Riverside.

He noted that the Inland Empire suffers from some of the worst air pollution in the state, and that the housing market hasn’t bounced back since the last recession. Ramakrishnan said voters in this election are essentially being asked to choose between environmental concerns and jobs.

Those issues came to a head last year, as a bill pushed by environmentalist Democrats sought to cut gasoline use in half by 2030.

At the time, Cheryl Brown said she agonized over the legislation, called S.B. 350. She told CalMatters last year, "I know God wants us to have clean air, but I also know he wants people to go to work."

Brown then played a key role in eliminating the cuts to gasoline use. That change was widely seen as a victory for oil companies and pro-business Democrats, and defeat for environmentalists, including Gov. Jerry Brown.

Her action on the bill has shaped this year's race, and experts say it likely fed into the flurry of outside spending.

Cheryl Brown's campaign did not respond to KPCC's multiple requests for comments. 

Outside spending becomes election issue

Earlier this year, a labor-backed website popped up dubbing the incumbent "Chevron Cheryl." The site pulls no punches, claiming "the Inland Empire has [the] dirtiest air in the county, and the dirty money just keeps flowing to Cheryl Brown."

At issue are donations made by oil companies to a political committee called the Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class, Including Energy Companies who Produce Gas, Oil, Jobs and Pay Taxes.

The group has received millions from energy companies, including two million apiece from oil giants Chevron, Tesoro and Valero.

The money the coalition receives and spends is separate from Cheryl Brown’s own campaign. But the coalition has spent heavily in her favor. 

They’ve also spent more money attacking a candidate since the primary than any other outside group in the state, with nearly half a million dollars. One mailer sent out by the group says “don’t Reyes your taxes,” claiming that Eloise Reyes and her allies are pushing new taxes on gas.

FAQ: What we talk about when we talk about campaign finance

Why so much spending by the oil industry group?

"So much of their business is up for regulation by the state government," said  Thad Kousser, University of California, San Diego professor. "So it’s absolutely worth the millions they pour into races."

He said the spending is all about trying to return a business-friendly candidate to Sacramento, rather than to swing her to their side. “This is someone who’s already on their side,” Kousser said.

Karthick Ramakrishnan agreed. "Interest groups back people who are going to go to the mat for them," he said. "That's what you're seeing in this instance."

The coalition has already spent north of $1.1 million in the Inland Empire Assembly race. That’s larger pot of money than either of the candidates has raised.

Labor groups spending in opposition 

Another outside group — Neighbors United for a Stronger Middle Class — acts as a counterweight to the oil industry money, spending to support Eloise Reyes. Neighbors United’s contributions come largely from labor groups.

Voters reading the fine print might be confused by the two group’s names, which both promise to uplift the middle class.

Neighbors United put up the "Chevron Cheryl" website during the primary. But lately, the group has spent to support Reyes, paying for consultants, polling and campaign literature.

At half a million dollars since the primary, Neighbors United's spending is in the same ballpark as the energy group's. Both groups are spending to define Reyes in voters' minds: Neighbors United to support her, and the coalition to defeat her.

A website funded by Neighbors United touts Reyes’ background as the daughter of immigrants and her record supporting environmental causes. Those themes are similar to the ones Reyes’ own campaign sounds, but as "independent expenditures" they’re not coordinated with the campaign.

"Certainly they’re not trying to buy a vote," Reyes told KPCC regarding the outside groups working to elect her. "I can’t imagine very many issues where my vote would be against the working men and women."

Reyes drew a sharp contrast between outside spending on her behalf and that for Cheryl Brown.

"Special interests like big oil had good results with Cheryl [Brown] on voting in their favor," she said. "The one way that they’re trying to get these votes is by using the one means they have. And that’s money."

Spending flurry highlights new politics

Environmental concerns have long been pitted against jobs and the wishes of oil companies in California and beyond. But the clashes within the Democratic Party are part of a new era ushered in by the top-two primary system.

With top-two, the leading vote-getters from the primary advance to the general election, regardless of party. In blue California, that means many races pit Democrats against one another, such as in this year’s U.S. Senate contest.

That’s shifting the state’s political fault lines.

Analysts say a coalition in the California Legislature of Republicans and pro-business Democrats, including Cheryl Brown, may be enough to halt certain bills. The fight over S.B. 350 was a prime example.

“This is the payoff that has come from California business groups in some way abandoning Republicans,” said UC San Diego's Kousser. “They’ve instead invested their money in supporting moderate Democrats, and that’s paid off on some important bills, like last year’s major climate change legislation.”

The Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class has spent money in nine separate California contests this year, at a total cost of $2.7 million and rising.