A Tale of Two Labor Candidates in the East Bay

An East Bay, California, state senate race is between two candidates with past Bernie Sanders endorsements: one with Democratic Socialists of America support who refuses corporate cash, the other who accepts such money.

Vice Mayor Jovanka Beckles speaking with supporters during a recess at the Richmond City Council meeting in Richmond, California, on July 15, 2014. (Carlos Avila Gonzalez / the San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

In late October, 2018, East Bay Democratic Socialists of America (EBDSA) members and other progressives organized a preelection rally at a Berkeley High School auditorium. A wildly cheering crowd of several thousand came to hear Senator Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Welcoming everyone to the event was thirty-four-year old Jesse Arreguín, who was backed by Sanders when he ran for mayor of Berkeley two years before.

On the platform with them was Jovanka Beckles, a former Richmond City Council member then running — with backing from DSA, Sanders, and Lee — for a state assembly seat against a corporate Democrat named Buffy Wicks. As the San Francisco Bayview reported, Arreguín’s “repeated mention of Jovanka’s name evoked prolonged chants and a standing ovation for JO-VAN-KA!”

When the two appear on stage again this fall, Arreguín won’t be leading cheers for Beckles. That’s because they are now competing to represent Senate District 7 (SD-7), covering 850,000 residents of Berkeley, Oakland, Richmond, and smaller East Bay communities.

That contest to replace State Senator Nancy Skinner in a liberal stronghold has already become one of the most expensive in the state. Super PACs funded by Uber, Lyft, PG&E, McDonalds, associations of builders, realtors, and landlords, plus the California Correctional Officers union, spent millions on mass mailings and TV ads to insure Arreguín’s March 5 primary victory.

In an East Bay echo of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Democratic presidential primary race put-down of Sanders, Arreguín attributed his first-place finish to “a track record of not just being a strong progressive advocate, but getting things done. My approach to leadership is to be progressive and pragmatic.”

Richmond — Beckles’s home base — is “the only city in the United States with a DSA-endorsed city council majority,” thanks to twenty years of grassroots electoral work by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA). So EBDSA volunteers joined with RPA, other community groups, Our Revolution, Teamsters Joint Council 7, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192 to build a small-donor-based, grassroots campaign that raised $170,000 for a black working-class candidate who pays dues to DSA.

Labor Candidate Competition

Currently an elected member of the AC Transit Board and a retired Teamster, Beckles placed second in a field of five Democrats and one Republican. (Arreguín got 32 percent of the vote, while she received nearly 18 percent.) Among those who lost were Dan Kalb, a liberal Oakland city councilmember, who raised twice as much as Beckles, and Kathryn Lybarger, a heavily funded first-time candidate little known outside labor circles.

Lybarger is president of the 2.3 million–member California Labor Federation and top officer of a big University of California–system campus workers union affiliated with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The latter spent a reported $1.9 million on her disappointing fourth-place finish, while other American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) unions, along with Service Employees International Union (SEIU), generated nearly $500,000 in direct donations for her. (Despite his own $200,000 worth of building trades donations, Arreguín had the chutzpah to complain about this “special interest” spending on Lybarger by other unions.)

According to multiple sources, Lybarger’s campaign relied too heavily on local union officials, their paid staffers, and a controversial political consulting firm. Its founder is a Sacramento lobbyist who has worked not only for unions but also for Chevron and other foes of California property tax reform. (This move was reminiscent of Wick’s campaign use of a San Francisco consultant whose past clients have included Airbnb and, in 2018, the city’s Chamber of Commerce.)

Beckles’s campaign manager, Otto Pippinger, coordinated a crew of well-trained and highly motivated volunteers. “Progressive campaigns don’t come easy,” Pippinger says. “They depend on tireless outreach — in countless personal conversations at the doors and on the phone.”

A Rematch Against Big Money

The SD-7 primary outcome sets up a rematch between Beckles and some of the same corporate interests whose unlimited spending prevailed six years ago in Assembly District 15, when Beckles lost to Wicks, by 54 to 46 percent margin. A former director of Hillary Clinton’s Super-PAC, Priorities USA Action, Wicks now represents Assembly District 14 and favors Arreguín.

Pundits from Politico to local commentator Steven Tavares agree that, in the latter’s words, Beckles “faces an uphill battle against Arreguín, who will have nearly every aspect of a campaign on his side — endorsements, fundraising, powerful IEs, and most unions.” By that Tavares means more conservative labor organizations affiliated with state and local building trades councils and the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council. They’ve already spent heavily on Arreguín, along with employers in their industry.

The Berkeley mayor comes with his own family ties to organized labor, via the United Farm Workers (UFW). He is the son of farmworkers and was mentored, as a ten-year-old, by legendary UFW leader Dolores Huerta (who has endorsed him). By age twenty, Arreguín was an elected member of the Rent Stabilization Board in Berkeley. Four years later, he was elected to the city council. At age thirty-two, he beat a business-backed candidate for mayor by portraying her as someone “in the pocket of developers, real estate interests, and landlords.”

Ironically, that’s how local critics view Arreguín today. As Jack Kurzweil, a retired engineering professor at San Jose State and member of Berkeley’s Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club told me: “Jesse’s become an obstacle to everything pushed by the progressive community. After getting elected, he did a 180-degree turn on development and housing. He went from extremely conservative NIMBY [Not in My Backyard] politics to becoming a conservative YIMBY [Yes in My Backyard] in the blink of an eye.” (Arreguín prefers not to use such “pejorative acronyms,” he told Business Insider  three years ago when interviewed about his evolving views on housing.)

A Fighter From Richmond

Working in Beckles’s favor, Tavares believes, is the fact that she’s “a fighter and hands down more progressive than Arreguín.” Ten years ago, running for a second term on the Richmond City Council, Beckles and her fellow RPA candidates (one of whom is now mayor) overcame $3 million in corporate spending against them and in favor of a pro–Big Oil slate.

That media blitz was funded by Chevron, the city’s biggest employer; its right-wing building trades allies; and the Richmond police and fire fighters’ unions — a story told in my book Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City.

As part of Big Oil’s preelection onslaught against Beckles, she was repeatedly gay-baited and harassed by old guard black politicians and their supporters in Richmond, which is a 80 percent non-white city of 115,000. They claimed she wasn’t a “real African American” due to her background as an immigrant woman of color from Panama.

After the SD-7 primary in March, Beckles was endorsed by former state assembly member Sandré Swanson from Oakland, the only other African American in the race. In early April, she won the backing of US representative Ro Khanna, a House champion for labor law reform, Medicare for All, and the Green New Deal, who is a leading critic of corporate PAC influence in politics. On her website, Beckles reminds voters that she is a “proud queer spouse, mother, and grandmother,” with endorsements from the LGBTQ Victory Fund and Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club.

Within labor, Beckles is seeking to expand her base of support by signing up more small donors, volunteers, and individual endorsers. She is also wooing the county central labor bodies and local unions that backed Lybarger in the SD-7 primary or, in the case of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), remained neutral. These same local affiliates of SEIU, California Teachers, United Auto Workers, and Communications Workers of America, plus the California Nurses Association, backed Beckles during her general election fight against Wicks six years ago.

Lybarger’s own AFSCME Local 3299 was among those labor allies then. At the time, she hailed Beckles as someone “strongly aligned with our values and so representative of our members. . . . We are utterly confident that she will continue to fight for us when she gets to Sacramento.” So far, neither she nor AFSCME has yet to make a similar postprimary endorsement of Beckles in this year’s senate race. (Lybarger did not respond to several email requests seeking comment for this story.)

An Underrepresented Working Class, White or Black

The two working-class candidates in the SD-7 primary took different routes to electoral politics. Lybarger was a left-leaning University of California Berkeley gardener and rank-and-file reformer when she made her original run for AFSCME local president. She later became a top leader of the AFL-CIO in California and continued to get arrested for causes like marriage equality.

Beckles spent her entire public sector career as a rank-and-file child protection worker for Contra Costa County. After hours, she worked her way up the traditional ladder of local politics through her engagement with a neighborhood council, Richmond city commission work, and then two terms on the city council, before trying to become a state legislator.

Successful candidates for that body in California and others states tend to have professional, managerial, or ownership class backgrounds, with accompanying personal affluence or ties to others with greater wealth. They leverage their law, business, consulting, or incumbent office-holder connections to build big campaign war chests, filled with contributions from industry associations, corporate PACs, and wealthy individuals. With far greater ease than any blue-collar or service sector worker, they can take time off to campaign, particularly if they’re already on the public payroll as an elected official (like Mayor Arreguín).

Only 116 out of 7,400 state legislators in the entire country come from working-class backgrounds, according to a recent academic study. Just 2 percent of the Democrats and 1 percent of Republican legislators “currently or last worked in manual labor, service industry, clerical, or labor union jobs.”

Amanda Litman, who recruits young progressives to run for office, says this data confirms “it’s really hard for people who aren’t already rich — or already independently wealthy, have rich partners or rich families — to enter politics. And the gatekeepers at the state level have typically recruited candidates who were safe bets, which is a candidate who can independently raise money.”

Uber’s Safe Bet

Business-backed front groups — with names like JobsPAC, Housing Providers for Responsible Solutions, and the Keep California Golden Ad Hoc Committee — definitely view Arreguín as their safest bet in Sacramento. While these corporate funders were demonizing and drowning out Lybarger’s pro-worker message, some also paid for unauthorized mailers touting Beckles, based on the assumption that she would be a weaker general election opponent against their best boy from Berkeley.

According to Tavares, a veteran political reporter in the Bay Area, Arreguín’s corporate funders conducted “a master class in negative campaigning that bordered on character assassination.”  One of their main smears against Lybarger involved public safety. A glossy mailer from the JobsPAC, a “Bi-Partisan Coalition of California Employers,” painted her as “too extreme” for the East Bay because she “put the community at greater risk” by “calling for defunding local police.”

According to this hit piece — paid for by Uber, McDonalds, the California Building Industry Association, and other big donors — Arreguín has a “blueprint for safety” that involves “work[ing] with law enforcement to keep families safe” and better reflects true “progressive leadership.” Anti-union Uber alone spent at least $250,000 on pro-Arreguín messaging like this, while buying $800,000 worth of negative ads and mailers against Lybarger, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

To counter a similar propaganda offensive against her this fall, Beckles will try to shift the debate to voter concerns about health care and housing (which Arreguín cites as his “number one issue”). To make medical coverage universal and more affordable, she has long supported a single-payer system. Arreguín is backed by the Political Action Committee of the California Medical Association, which does not favor replacing job-based medical insurance with a government-run universal health care program of any type.

The candidates are also likely to clash over rent control, given Arreguín’s backing by the California Apartment Association and California Association of Realtors. The Berkeley Tenants Union, which endorsed Beckles in the primary, argues that the mayor is “a danger to tenants, affordable housing, and every progressive issue.” In contrast, Beckles will have the chance to champion a ballot initiative that would, among other reforms, abolish current state-wide restrictions on the ability of cities like Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland to expand the scope of their existing rent control measures. (Arreguín did not respond to an email request for clarification of his position on this topic.)

In early April, Beckles joined housing activists at a two-day strategy session in Los Angeles that included Sanders, Khanna, LA mayor Karen Bass, and Michael Weinstein, whose AIDs Healthcare Foundation (AHF) helped get rent control expansion on the ballot again. (It was defeated in 2018 and 2020.) “There are 17 million renters in California — that’s 45 percent of the population,” Weinstein reminded the group. He called the Justice for Renters campaign “a battle for the poor and working-class people” who find housing in the state increasingly unaffordable.

Beckles is also the candidate most opposed to the Biden administration sending billions of dollars to the Israeli military, at a time when there are so many unmet social and economic needs in the East Bay. Throughout months of turmoil on the Berkeley City Council, Arreguín has blocked passage of a pro-cease-fire resolutionquite a departure from the city’s many past, progressive official stances on controversial foreign policy issues.

Looking ahead to November, Beckles sees the general election in SD-7 as a contest “between a corporate-free and a corporate-funded candidate” — with her campaign being labor’s only hope of stopping big business from buying another seat in the legislature. It will be up to Beckles’s supporters who belong to unions — which bet heavily on Lybarger and lost badly — to remind their leaders that the fight is not over. Otherwise, organized labor in the East Bay will be handing a second-round victory  to archenemies like Uber.