Bernie Sanders, Barbara Lee and Jovanka Beckles at a rally at Berkeley Community Theater on Oct. 27, 2018. Photo: Luke Thibault

The courtyard of Berkeley High School on Saturday looked like a mini-campaign headquarters for Jovanka Beckles. As thousands of people lined up to hear Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speak, Beckles volunteers entered the premises early to set up tables with campaign literature and position lawn signs for people to take home. A large “Jovanka Beckles for Assembly District 15″ sign was propped up, right next to a handmade banner reading “Beat Buffy the ‘Bernie slayer,’” a reference to Beckles’ opponent, Buffy Wicks.

And when Rep. Barbara Lee and Mayor Jesse Arreguín, both of whom have endorsed Beckles, expressed their support for her from the stage, the approximately 2,500-3,500 people in the audience spontaneously chanted (twice) “Jovanka! Jovanka! Jovanka!”

In some ways, it was a moment of triumph for Beckles, 55, who has served on the Richmond City Council for eight years. A black lesbian immigrant from Panama who works as a Contra Costa County children’s mental health specialist, Beckles calls herself the people’s candidate, “part of a movement to fight corporate greed.” She was a vigorous proponent of enacting rent control in Richmond; she fought for a $15 minimum wage by 2019, pushed for higher taxes on Chevron, and has made single-payer healthcare and building more affordable housing centerpieces of her campaign. She backs Proposition 10.

Yet Sanders, the man who has come to represent the left wing of electoral politics, whose 2016 run for president galvanized millions of people disaffected by what they consider the corporatization of the Democrats, did not mention Beckles during his 45-minute speech in front of an adoring crowd. He talked about all the issues that are the bedrock of Beckles’ campaign, but he did not take the extra step, like many expected him to, of endorsing her. Beckles sat in the front row on the stage, the only other elected official besides Lee, suggesting Sanders backed her, but that connection was not explicitly made — then.

On Monday, Sanders did endorse Beckles.

“While in Berkeley, I had the chance to meet with Jovanka Beckles, and I was impressed by her commitment to progressive values,” Sanders wrote in a press release distributed by her campaign. “In the State Assembly, she will fight for Medicare for all, a living wage for all California workers, environmental justice and criminal justice reform. I’m proud to support Jovanka Beckles in the 15th Assembly district.”

A volunteer for Jovanka Beckles offers lawn signs to people leaving an Oct. 27 Get Out The Vote rally with Bernie Sanders. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

While Sanders’ non-endorsement on the day of the rally probably stung, it did nothing to quell the enthusiasm of Beckles’ supporters, which include SEIU Local 1021, the National Nurses United union, the American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees, many Teamsters locals, Our Revolution, the Democratic Socialists of America, and others. As people streamed out of the event, they were invited to canvass immediately for Beckles. Signs were handed out and people were encouraged to take buttons and flyers laying out Beckles’ positions.

“We know that in AD15 this is a proxy war,” said one volunteer handing out Beckles campaign literature. “It’s Bernie versus Hillary all over again.”

The battle to replace Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, who is giving up his seat to run for the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, has become one of the most watched — and most heavily funded — state races. While the winner will become only one of 80 members of the Assembly, the competition between Beckles and Wicks has taken on larger significance since it reflects the spasms that are rocking the Democratic Party.

Wicks, who is more moderate than Beckles, has the backing of many prominent Democrats, including President Barack Obama, for whom she worked in the presidential campaigns and in the White House for six years, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, who is poised to become governor. Former Washington, D.C. friends and colleagues have contributed heavily to Wicks’ campaign, giving her almost $1.4 million to spend, according to campaign finance reports. Independent expenditure committees are spending $1.19 million on Wicks’ behalf and have mailed out some very nasty flyers about Beckles. All of those factors, plus the fact that Wicks ran Hillary Clinton’s California primary campaign in which she defeated Sanders, have led Beckles and her supporters to dub her the corporate candidate, or “Buffy the Bernie Slayer.”

In the 2016 general election, Beckles voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, rather than Democratic nominee Clinton.

Beckles has not raised as much money as Wicks: contributors have donated $635,000, and independent expenditure committees, backed heavily by SEIU, have spent $391,000. The East Bay Democratic Socialists of America, a group to which Beckles belongs, has put up a tabloid-style website, Buffy Wicks Money, that attempts to link the politics of Wicks’ donors to her. (Both candidates have refused corporate donations.)

In a district as large as AD15, which stretches from Oakland, Piedmont, Albany, El Cerrito in Alameda County north to Richmond and western Contra Costa County, it is hard for a non-incumbent to have name recognition. Wicks has never held elective office, but her large campaign chest allowed her to blitz the area with ads during the primary. Wicks bested 11 other candidates, getting 31.6% of the votes to Beckles’ 15.7%. Wicks even took the city of Richmond, Beckles’ home turf, by 167 votes, although Beckles won more precincts.

While Wicks entered the general election with a primary-vote advantage, most of her primary opponents swung their support to Beckles. If voters take their advice, Beckles will come to the Nov. 6 election with a larger base than Wicks’.

For residents of AD15, this has translated into a huge amount of campaign mail. Every day, it seems, there are mailers from both Beckles and Wicks and from the independent expenditure committees fighting on their behalf. The two candidates have also appeared on the radio and at numerous candidate forums. Since the two are both left-leaning Democrats, the debates are really where their differences show up. Wicks is clearly immersed in the details of policies, and solutions to problems roll off her tongue. Beckles isn’t the same kind of policy wonk, and in some written questionnaires has responded with one-liners compared to Wicks’ paragraphs. But Beckles knows how to stir a crowd and she often gets people cheering with her talk of “taxing the rich,” and the well-known catchphrase “the rent is too damn high.”

Berkeleyside wanted to follow Beckles on the campaign trail, much like we did for the profile we ran of Wicks. On Sept. 26, Beckles personally promised me she would be open to an interview and gave me her cellphone number. On Oct. 19, Berkeleyside reached out to arrange a date. Neither Beckles nor her campaign made her available, despite a flurry of emails and a call.

Jovanka Beckles at an event in Berkeley’s Civic Center Park earlier in the campaign. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Beckles’ background provides a clue as to why she positions herself as someone with the ability to challenge the status quo. She was born in Panama and moved to Florida when she was nine, leaving her with a love and longing for tropical, humid weather, she told San Francisco Bay View.

“My story is the story of many Californians,” Beckles writes on her campaign website. “I am an immigrant. I was born in Panama City, Panama and came to the U.S. with my parents as a child. I attended Florida A&M on a full basketball scholarship, graduating cum laude. Basketball taught me collaborative values and teamwork skills. My devotion to people who need help led me to my career in mental health and social work.”

Beckles identifies as a Black Latinx or a Latina American since she was born in Central America. She married Nicole Valentino, her longtime partner in 2013, and they have a young adult son.

Beckles was prompted to enter politics after her family was traumatized in a home invasion robbery, according to an interview she did with her union, Teamsters Local 856.

“One night, my wife and I were returning from a wedding in Napa where I was the DJ, so we got home late,” according to the interview. “As we were pulling in, two young men walked up our driveway. They pulled out a gun and we were then victims of a home invasion. Our 17-year-old son was in the house and didn’t hear any of this, as the men walked around with a gun to my chest with my wife sitting in the living room. It was the most traumatic event of my life. By the time they got to our son’s room, they put the gun to his head and demanded to know what gang he was in and if he had any drugs. He didn’t do any of that. He had his guitar and his video games, that’s it. The men looked around my son’s room and said, ‘It must be nice to be loved.’ At that time, I told them you got money and laptops, you can turn around and walk out now… It was at that moment I realized that even though both my wife and I worked in mental health helping young people, young people needed more than we could give. I decided what they needed more of was legislation that leveled the playing field to give them opportunities.”

Shortly after that, Beckles ran for the Richmond City Council as a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a group that doesn’t accept corporate donations and fights to limit the influence of Chevron Corporation. Beckles repeated a speculation in one interview when she said that the oil and gas company used to have a desk set up outside the city manager’s office. That is a rumor that has long swirled around Richmond, according to Steve Early, the author of the 2017 book about Richmond, Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City. While it may or may not be true, it reflects the huge influence Chevron exerted over Richmond, an influence that was chipped away in the past decade by environmental groups, the RPA, Mayor Tom Butts, and others, including Beckles, he said. Beckles fought to pass a utility and oil tax and pushed to have Chevron contribute $90 million in community benefits as part of its modernization plan, among other proposals, he said. Beckles’ stance prompted Chevron to pour $3 million into an independent expenditure campaign to defeat Beckles and former Mayor Gayle McLaughlin in 2014.

“If she wasn’t that effective, Chevron wouldn’t have spent so much money,” said Early, a Beckles supporter.

Beckles prides herself on listening to the people in her district and shaping her legislative agenda accordingly. She calls her approach a “people-first vision of government.”

“I have a long record working locally to discover people’s needs, responding in a caring and creative way, and developing innovative solutions to our problems,” Beckles wrote in a Berkeleyside op-ed.

Listening to her constituents was one reason Beckles put forward a controversial measure in 2015. After hearing from a woman who believed she had been individually targeted by space-based weapons, Beckles introduced a resolution, which passed on a 5-2 vote, stating that Richmond “supports the Space Preservation Act and companion Space Preservation Treaty, to ensure that individuals will not be targets of space-based weapons.”

Beckles indicated that she did not necessarily completely believe her constituent, but supported her anyway in documents she included to support the resolution. She wrote: “We will not ignore, but support those who suspect they have been exposed to these types of inhumane attacks with the intent to cause them great emotional and bodily harm.”

Opponents have brought up the space weapons resolution to suggest that Beckles peddles in conspiracy theories. The vote also made Richmond the object of scorn from people around the country, as well as from her fellow council members.

Critics have also suggested that Beckles can take extreme stances and can be disrespectful of others who do not agree with her. Vinay Pimplé, (pronounced Pim-Play) her former colleague on the council, is blind and claimed in a Berkeleyside op-ed that Beckles disparaged his disability during a heated meeting about evictions and rent control, which Pimplé opposed. Beckles has not denied she read out loud a sign held by a protester that read “Vinay is a pimple on Tom’s Butt,” referring to the mayor, but she has said she regrets the incident.

“’You’re disgusting,’ Jovanka screamed into my face,” according to the op-ed. “’I want to tell you about the things you can’t see,’ she kept yelling in my face, and repeating the message on the signs.”

Some of Beckles’ language is strident and is clearly meant to appeal to one sector of the electorate, rather than bridge the divide. She comes across as anti-business with her repetition of the phrase “greed,” in connection with all developers and corporations. She repeatedly talks about the “billionaire class.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than when Beckles talks about housing. Unlike Wicks, Beckles is not in favor of approving market-rate housing, with its requirement that developers either build affordable housing on-site or put money into a housing trust fund. Beckles does not support the construction of that kind of housing. She says that she only supports building affordable housing and has a “Housing for All” plan that will lead to the creation of “several hundred thousand units of new affordable social housing” in 10 years through “a mixed-income, high-quality public or not-for-profit model.” She has not been more specific on where those funds will come from.

Those comments reflect her belief that the system must be fundamentally changed. It is a message that resonates with a large cross-section of people, especially now when income inequality is stark in the Bay Area, where rents in new apartment complexes go for $3,000+, where being in the middle class seems to be an oxymoron.

Jovanka Beckles rallies with UC Berkeley workers fighting for higher wages in September. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

At a September rally for UC Berkeley workers, Beckles told the crowd that workers have created this country’s wealth and it was time that those in power shared the wealth more equitably. Her remarks brought on cheers.

“Enough is enough,” Beckles said. “I’m here to tell you I’ve got your back.”

She sure sounded a lot like Bernie.

Avatar photo

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...