David vs. Goliath: How One Mayor is Fighting an Oil Corp’s Outsized Influence in His City

It’s been more than a decade since the US Supreme Court greenlit unlimited election spending by corporations. Corporate influence has mushroomed just as local media has flailed, leaving a dearth of independent fact-checking and accountability when citizens need it most.

In the small town of Benicia, the convergence of these phenomena has produced an unscrupulous political environment. The town’s largest employer, San Antonio-based Valero Energy Corp., has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get its preferred candidates elected to the city council — and to keep anyone critical of its actions away.

Valero spent a handsome sum to prevent Mayor Steve Young from taking his seat. The corporation funded campaign mailers that Young says distorted his record and cast dark shadows on his face to make him appear more sinister. It didn’t work. In 2020, Young was elected mayor with overwhelming support. Now he’s fighting back with a plan to blunt Valero’s influence in the city.

Young and Vice Mayor Tom Campbell have spearheaded an ordinance that would ban digital manipulation of ads (like the darkening of Young’s face). It is set to go before the city’s Open Government Commission. Young has also asked the local Benicia Herald to begin fact-checking political advertisements. 

Whatever it takes, Young intends to push back against the outsized influence of large corporations in politics, starting in Benicia.

“I understand that it’s legal,” Young told the Los Angeles Times. “I understand the Supreme Court said it’s OK. But it’s not right. And in my view it’s not democratic.”