A voter fills out a 2016 ballot in a UC Berkeley dorm. Photo: UC Berkeley/Hulda Nelson

Campaign notebook is a regular news feature Berkeleyside is running ahead of the elections.

Democratic socialist site seeks to expose wealthy Buffy Wicks donors

The East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has created a website that highlights the biographies of some of the wealthy donors who have contributed record sums of money to the Assembly District 15 campaign of Buffy Wicks.

Using “biting wit, the site illustrates how hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from wealthy donors with well-known conservative agendas and independent expenditures from PACs finance the Wicks campaign,” said the East Bay DSA in a statement.

The site, called Buffy Wicks Money, uses grainy images of Wicks and other donors, which gives it a secretive feel. The mini-bios emphasize certain donors’ attributes over others. For example, Tom Steyer, who earned his fortune by creating Farallon Capital, is very active in Democratic Party causes and has collected millions of signatures calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Yet the site points out that Steyer invested $90 million in CCA, a private prison company.

This is because there is hardly any difference between high-net-worth Democrats and Republicans, according to East Bay DSA spokeswoman Frances Reade.

“We wanted to understand who these people were, what they wanted and why they are trying to influence the election,” said Reade. “There is really only one ruling class. If you look at the website, you will find Republicans, Trump cronies, and people on boards with Betsy DeVos, but you will also find top Democratic donors. They are all doing the same thing with their money because they all have the same interest, which is to reduce their tax burdens and increase the profitability of their investments.”

The Wicks campaign did not return an email asking for comment.

The site also plays up the idea that Wicks is an outsider. “Who is Buffy Wicks? It’s hard to tell!” reads the site. It mentions that she moved to Oakland in 2016 but leaves out that she was born in California, grew up in a trailer, went to public schools, and went to community college before eventually working for the presidential campaigns of President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Wicks has raised more than $919,000 for the AD15 campaign, according to the Secretary of State’s search tool. Adding independent expenditures in support of her, that figure jumps to $1.4 million, according to DSA. Many of her donations have come from Democrats who worked with her in Washington, D.C. Wealthy families like the Fishers, who founded the Gap, and John Scully, a former CEO of Apple, and his wife, also have donated.

Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor, and his wife Jennifer Siebel Newsom, joined AD15 candidate Buffy Wicks at a campaign rally at her headquarters in mid-September. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The site makes the argument that Wicks has gotten a lot of funding from charter school proponents.

A major spender in support of Wicks is the Govern for California PAC, which spent about $493,000 supporting the candidate. But the expenses were made through an independent expenditure committee. The law requires them to be made without a candidate’s knowledge. The PAC’s founder, David Crane, also individually donated significantly. The website highlights small donors as well, presumably because their political affiliations are ones to which DSA objects.

Wicks’ campaign site addresses those claims. In a post made in May, while she was one of 11 primary candidates, Wicks pointed out that she had gotten donations from 1,291 different individuals, not just a few. (Although less than 10% of her donations in 2017 came from inside the district.)

She said she “will not accept any donations from charter school advocacy organizations. I have not accepted any such donations, and I will not.” She also said that Govern for California “is an organization that supports a wide range of public policy issues facing California, including an increase in more housing (SB827) and the ability to expand midwifery (AB2682). Govern for California is not a pro-charter advocacy organization. Some of the organization’s donors support charter schools, and some of them don’t, but either way, it’s not a factor in their support for me. Regardless, I agree with Govern for California on some issues and disagree with them on other issues. On this, I have been very clear.”

East Bay DSA has seen a surge of enrollment every since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley in a Bronx primary. Since then, a number of other women of color on the left of the Democratic Party spectrum have won elections, which has invigorated many young people, said Reade. The DSA chapter “got a 20% membership jump in the two weeks” after Ocasio-Cortez was elected, and now numbers about 1,200 members, she said.

“Our local chapter used to be a brunch group for 30 people to get together once a month,” said Reade. “Now we have hundreds of people coming to our monthly meetings. We have night school twice a month where people read about socialism and learn together. We send hundreds of people out to canvas every weekend.”

Reade said that the site, called BuffyWicksMoney, is not really about Buffy personally or her biography. DSA East Bay probably would have done this for any candidate put up by the mainstream of the Democratic Party since they are all the same, she said.

The group supports Wicks’ opponent, Jovanka Beckles, who is “a democratic socialist with a long history of fighting and winning for working people in the East Bay.”

[Full disclosure: Frances Dinkelspiel, who wrote this entry, was a member of DSA more than 35 years ago.]

Jovanka Beckles called out for vaccination comment, 2016 incident

Richmond City Councilwoman Jovanka Beckles. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

While some campaigns are just getting off the ground, the sparring has certainly started in others.

It’s not just Beckles’ supporters taking aim at Wicks and her finances. The Wicks campaign and supporters are calling out Beckles for behavior they say makes her unfit for the seat too.

At a Stonewall Democratic Club meeting on Sept. 13, the Assembly District 15 candidates were asked whether they support mandatory vaccinations in schools.

Beckles, cut off for time, did not finish her answer to the question. She said she received mandatory vaccinations growing up in Central America, and nobody had to worry about those diseases spreading among kids and teachers. But she indicated that she questions what has changed since that era with today’s vaccines or policies.

“That’s one of those issues that…keeps us fighting each other,” she said before the 30-second timer went off.

In response to the same question, Wicks said she supported mandatory vaccinations in schools.

The next day, the Wicks campaign put out a press release “calling on” Beckles to clarify her stance on vaccines, “a public health issue.” Others weighed in, including former Berkeley City Councilman Laurie Capitelli, who tweeted that Beckles had recently said vaccinations should be optional.

On Sept. 14 as well, Beckles released a series of tweets, saying, “As a mental health professional for Contra Costa County, I take public health very seriously. And that includes making sure everyone’s kids get the vaccines they need.” She said she supports the California law that ended exemptions for parents personally opposed to vaccinations.

“Bottom line: the debate is over. Vaccines are safe, and they work,” she tweeted. Beckles did not, however, specify whether she supports mandatory vaccinations in schools, the original question asked at the Stonewall forum.

Events that occurred at a Richmond City Council meeting in 2016 have also been resurfaced in the past couple of weeks.

Vinay Pimple, then a council colleague of Beckles’, wrote an op-ed in Berkeleyside on Sept. 19, saying the candidate mocked him for being blind at a 2016 meeting. Pimple also reportedly raised the issue from the audience of a candidate forum on disability rights in San Leandro on Sept. 18 as well.

At the 2016 Richmond meeting in question, Beckles called Pimple, Mayor Tom Butt and another council member “disgusting” after they voted against a proposed moratorium on rent hikes and no-cause evictions. It was a heated meeting, where some members of the public told the council they were facing eviction by landlords anticipating the November 2016 vote on rent control, which ended up passing in Richmond. Pimple opposed rent control, which Beckles supported.

According to Pimple, Beckles shouted at him, and repeatedly said she’d tell him “about the things you can’t see,” reading aloud a sign in the audience that said, “Vinay is a pimple on Tom’s Butt.” Pimple said he felt he was being taunted for having a disability, and in the op-ed compared the candidate’s behavior to President Donald Trump’s.

Beckles later said her reaction was “an expression of pain and anger,” and said Pimple had previously asked her to read signs to him at meetings.

When Pimple brought up the incident this month, the Beckles campaign criticized the Wicks campaign for engaging in “dirty tricks.” In a Sept. 19 release, the Beckles campaign wrote that Pimple had attended the San Leandro forum with Wicks’ staffers. The campaign accused Wicks of “engineering the airing of a personal grudge” against Beckles.

Women candidate forum starts a discussion about gender inclusivity in election

District 7 candidate Aidan Hill (center, with scarf), pushed the Chamber of Commerce to expand gender definitions at a women candidate forum. From left: Rashi Kesarwani (D1), Mary Behm-Steinberg (D1), Hill, Margo Schueler (D1) and Ces Rosales (D7). Photo Natalie Orenstein

The women running for City Council woke up early enough last Thursday for a breakfast forum hosted by the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce — specifically its Women Entrepreneurs of Berkeley program — on the La Note Restaurant patio on Shattuck Avenue.

The election-talk was minimal, though: The eight candidates were given just one question to answer. They went down the line speaking about the challenges they’ve faced as women in their fields, or where they’ve seen gender-based discrimination.

Some talked about the unique challenges of working as a woman of color or a woman with disabilities. Others mentioned resources, like lactation rooms, that could eliminate common workplace barriers. Some said the attacks coming from Washington, D.C. are the biggest threats.

For the rest of the breakfast, female entrepreneurs in the audience took turns introducing themselves and their businesses. Some told the prospective representatives what they could do for female business owners.

The Women Entrepreneurs program is new, so the candidate forum was a first. The chain of events leading up to that morning gave some insight into how new cultural norms and conversations are playing out in electoral races in 2018.

The Chamber of Commerce initially only invited a handful of candidates, which was “a simple, innocent oversight,” said CEO Kirsten MacDonald, who said the forum was never meant to be comprehensive. Berkeleyside initially, incorrectly reported that all women candidates had been invited, then contacted MacDonald when we learned about the omissions and provided her additional names.

When Aidan Hill, candidate for District 7, heard about the event, they criticized the Chamber for failing to be inclusive. Hill is non-binary and questioned how the organization was defining “women.”

Hill said the event should be open to “everyone affected by the patriarchy.”

The candidate, who is running against Ces Rosales and Rigel Robinson, contacted MacDonald to ask for a seat on the patio. By both of their accounts, they had a fruitful chat that resulted in an invitation to Hill, and a decision by MacDonald to distribute an information sheet on gender equity at the breakfast.

MacDonald said her talk with Hill was “illuminating.”

“I believe it makes our discussion more rich to have them there,” she said. “We’re all stuck in our own personal perspectives. We’re getting an opportunity to look outside that.”

In total, eight City Council candidates spoke at the breakfast forum. From left: Lori Droste (District 8), Kate Harrison (D4) and Mary Kay Lacey (D8). Photo: Natalie Orenstein

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...