Echols and Thurmond debated each other in Berkeley on Oct. 7. Photo: Lance Knobel
Echols and Thurmond debated each other in Berkeley on Oct. 7. Photo: Lance Knobel

Big outside money is playing a large role in California legislative races this year, and the East Bay is not immune to the trend.

Independent Expenditure committees have donated $265,600 so far in support of State Assembly District 15 candidate Tony Thurmond, a former Richmond city council member and $150,775 to his opponent, Elizabeth Echols, the regional administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Petroleum and cigarette interests are two of many contributors to the independent expenditure groups backing Thurmond, prompting  Echols to send out mailers warning voters about the “Big Oil,” tobacco, and “predatory lenders” backing Thurmond.

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But a firefighters union, the AFL-CIO, PG&E, and pharmaceutical and real estate groups have also been giving to the vaguely named independent expenditure (IE) committees that have been spending generously in support of Thurmond. Since the start of the year, the Alliance for California’s Tomorrow, A California Business Coalition (ACT) has reported spending $202,516 in support of the candidate. Keep California Strong has spent $63,084 and he has also received outside support from the nurses union PAC.

Thurmond has denounced the outside spending, insisting that he was shocked to discover these groups were supporting him.

“I took a public pledge that I wouldn’t take money from cigarette groups. These are groups that acted independently and I have not coordinated with them,” he told Berkeleyside earlier this month. “It’s certainly ironic to me that these groups would be supporting my campaign when, as a city councilperson, I voted against oil and I voted against cigarettes,” he said, referring to votes against Chevron refinery renovations in Richmond and to ban smoking in multi-unit residences.

The candidates, both Democrats, are competing to fill the seat being vacated by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, who is termed out.

The PACs could not be reached for comment. Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, which has contributed to ACT and Keep California Strong, said the PACs, not their contributors, decide which races to support.

“Our contribution is not earmarked for AD 15,” Zierman said in an email.

A spokesman from Philip Morris, which has also contributed generously to ACT, said the company would not comment on its contribution or on the race in particular.

Echols has also received over $150,775 in support from independent expenditure groups, including from the Professional Engineers in California Government PAC, the California Dental Association PAC, and groups that support female candidates. She is also being backed heavily by solar energy groups.

Elizabeth Echols' campaign sent out this flyer warning voters about the political committees supporting Tony Thurmond's campaign. Photo from a Berkeleyside reader
Elizabeth Echols’ campaign sent out this flyer warning voters about the political committees supporting Tony Thurmond’s campaign. Photo from a Berkeleyside reader
Elizabeth Echols’ campaign sent out this flyer warning voters about the political committees supporting Tony Thurmond’s campaign. Photo from a Berkeleyside reader

IE spending in Assembly races is a fairly recent but not entirely new phenomenon, said Pamela Behrsin, communications director at MapLight, an organization in Berkeley that tracks money in politics.

“It happens and it’s frequent,” Behrsin said. “I know personally from conversations with legislators that it does come in, and they don’t ask for it.”

IE support was prevalent in 2012 in California, and in a state where the average winning Assembly seat costs $750,000, the extra help was often appreciated, Behrsin said. But it comes at a cost.

“After a legislator is elected, there is no doubt that he’ll hear from the interest that gave the money,” she said.

In direct contributions, Echols has slightly outraised Thurmond. Her campaign has brought in $427,885 and Thurmond has raised $412,281.

The solar energy industry has been a major backer of Echols throughout the race, with groups like the Alliance for Solar Choice, California Solar Energy Industries Association, and Solarcity Corporation collectively contributing thousands of dollars to the candidate. The CEO of SunRun, Lynn Jurich, also donated to her campaign; as did David Hochschild, a member of the California Energy Commission, a Berkeley resident, and the son of author Adam Hochschild.

The solar companies decided to back Echols in large part because Skinner endorsed her, said Walker Wright, director of policy at Sunrun and spokesman for the Alliance for Solar Choice. Skinner has been a “champion” for the solar industry, so her word means a lot, Wright said.

“It’s really important to members of the solar industry that she got such a strong endorsement from Nancy Skinner,” he said.

Echols’ experience as director of the northern California chapter of the US Green Building Council and her knowledge of the private sector further confirmed that she was the solar candidate, he said.

Another major supporter of Echols is the candidate herself. According to MapLight data, Echols has given $15,000 to her own campaign, making her its third largest contributor.

That’s not unusual, Behrsin said, but in this case Thurmond has pledged not to self-finance his campaign. At a debate in Berkeley on October 7, he said he would support legislation that outlawed self-funded campaigns. Thurmond is listed on Election Track as giving $4,000 to his own campaign in June 2013, but that was a loan and he has since reimbursed himself, said Kate Maedor from his campaign.

At the Berkeley debate, both candidates criticized Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that set the stage for the current PAC activity.

“I am an advocate of clean money and an advocate of transparency,” Echols said.

Thurmond said he’d go a step further if elected and support legislation that would ban legislators from voting on any bills that could have an impact on an interest group that had previously supported the legislator.

District 15 encompasses Berkeley, Emeryville, El Cerrito, Albany, Richmond, Pinole, Hercules, San Pablo, North Oakland, Piedmont, El Sobrante, and Kensington. The winner of this race could represent the district for 12 years, due to recent modifications to term limits.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated when additional IE spending in support of Echols was reported. 

Op-ed: Big Tobacco and Big Oil have no place in Berkeley politics (10.16.14)
Once-courteous 15th Assembly campaign turns negative (10.10.14)
Assembly race: Echols, Thurmond to debate in Berkeley (10.06.14)
Berkeley’s influence on Assembly race takes a twist (06.02.14)

Berkeleyside’s second Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas runs Oct. 24-25 in downtown Berkeley’s Arts District. Details of the program are on the Uncharted website, where you can also see the full roster of speakers and watch a 1-minute video about the festival.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...