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The California Democratic Party no longer accepts donations from the oil industry, viewing that as politically unsavory for a party pushing to curb climate change. But that hasn’t stopped oil companies from spending millions to help California Democrats win.

Instead of giving money to the party, oil companies are donating directly to Democratic candidates and pouring huge sums into outside groups that campaign for a mix of Democrats and Republicans.

The petroleum industry has put at least $19.2 million into California politics in the 2017-18 election cycle, according to a CALmatters analysis of campaign finance data. Much of it is helping Republicans, including $2 million to the California Republican Party. The industry also gave roughly $14 million to independent committees supporting some politicians from both parties.

But the oil money helping California Democrats is significant. It includes:

  • More than $853,000 in direct contributions to 47 Democrats running for Assembly and Senate—including powerful leaders of both houses of the Legislature—and to the campaigns of Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra and a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Ed Hernandez.
  • More than $2.8 million on an independent campaign to help Democrat Susan Rubio win a Los Angeles-area state Senate seat.
  • More than $343,000 on an independent campaign supporting the re-election of Democratic Assemblyman Rudy Salas of Bakersfield.
  • Nearly $160,000 to a committee that campaigns for business-friendly Democrats.

In addition, oil companies and other business interests are pooling funds on campaigns supporting other Democrats running for the Legislature: Tasha Boerner Horvath of Encinitas, Sabrina Cervantes of Riverside, James Ramos of San Bernardino, Bob Archuleta of Pico Rivera, Vanessa Delgado of Montebello, Freddie Rodriguez of Pomona and Sydney Kamlager of Los Angeles.

It’s all part of a broader push by business interests in recent years to shape the type of Democrats who hold power in the state Capitol. As the Republican Party has diminished in California, and progressive activists nudge the Democratic Party leftward, big business has helped foster a cadre of more-conservative Democrats in the Legislature. This “mod squad” amounts to a bloc that can kill or water down environmental legislation.

“For years, I would have to convince the business community every election cycle that a moderate Democrat is good for them—not as great as a Republican who would do everything they tell them to, but better than a liberal Democrat,” said David Townsend, a political consultant who runs a business-backed political action committee that works to elect Democrats.

“I don’t have to make that argument anymore. It’s patently clear,” he said. “Now it’s a question of who is a mod, and how much can (business) help?”

Chevron, Valero and Phillips 66 are among the businesses working to elect Democrats through Townsend’s PAC and others like it. The companies are members of the Western States Petroleum Association, which doesn’t give political donations, but lobbies in Sacramento.

“We’re focused on bringing the conversation around energy back to the middle and away from the polarized extremes,” Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the petroleum association, said in a statement.

But many environmentalists see this kind of centrism as anathema to Democratic party principles. The California Democratic Party’s platform calls for a moratorium on fracking and a new tax on fossil fuel extraction—ideas that have failed in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

“Our fear is that if oil companies are pouring money into candidates even before they’re elected, if they are elected, what will be their moral compass when there are issues with the refineries or natural gas power plants?” said Diana Vazquez, a policy manager with the California Environmental Justice Alliance.

The group ranks legislators every year on their environmental records. One of the low-scoring Democrats this year is Salas, the Bakersfield assemblyman benefiting from big spending by the oil industry, a major employer in his oil-rich region.

The environmental group gave an even lower score to Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio—the sister of Susan Rubio, who is running for state Senate with more than $2.8 million in support from petroleum. Environmentalists are supporting Susan Rubio’s opponent, Mike Eng, also a Democrat.

Susan Rubio’s spokesman touted her work on parks funding and other environmental issues as a Baldwin Park council member, and said her sister’s track record doesn’t indicate how she’ll vote.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said that despite campaign support from Big Oil, Democrats have passed environmental measures that oil companies opposed—including legislation to curb offshore drilling and expand renewable energy.

“Does it influence individual members? I’m not sure,” Rendon said. “But as a body, I think we have a good record of standing up to oil.”

Yet Big Oil’s influence in the state Capitol is why the chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus pushed the party to ban oil-company money at the end of 2016. (The Democratic National Committee followed suit earlier this year, but, facing blowback from labor unions that rely on oil industry jobs, quickly reversed course and overturned the ban.)

RL Miller, the party’s state environmental caucus chair, said she’s not surprised the petroleum industry has found other channels for spending on California Democrats this year.

“I’ve always known that it would be a long road,” she said. “Getting the party not to take the money is a step, but the end goal here is to remove their influence in Democratic politics.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California’s policies and politics.

Published in Politics

Rob Purdie is an upbeat guy. You can hear it in his unfailingly positive statements, his voice tinged with a Central Valley twang from a life spent in Bakersfield.

You wouldn’t guess this is a man with a reservoir surgically built into the top of his skull, and that he spends one full day a month with antifungal drugs pumping directly into his brain.

Purdie has valley fever, or coccidioidomycosis, a disease he caught in 2012 that’s caused by an airborne soil fungus. In his case, the fungus gave him meningitis, a swelling of the membranes that line the brain and spinal cord. The pain in his head has been intense, and the monthly drug injections are even more excruciating, he said.

“It sounds horrible, and it is,” Purdie said. But “lucky for me, Valley fever meningitis can be treated.”

The number of reported valley fever cases set a record in California in 2016, with more than 6,000 infections. That number jumped to 8,103 in 2017, an increase of more than a third—and many experts link that growth to climate change.

This year could be the worst yet. Most cases surface between September and November, but through August of this year, more than 5,000 cases were already reported in California, putting the state on pace for a new record. Here in Riverside County, 177 cases had been reported through August.

“We’re seeing a huge increase in new cases in the past 2 1/2 years. It’s striking,” said Ian McHardy, co-director of the Center for Valley Fever at UC Davis. “We’re seeing double and triple the cases. It’s a catastrophic change, and it’s getting worse.”

The fungus typically infects the lungs after spores are inhaled; it is not contracted person-to-person. This leads to a persistent cough, chest pain or other flu-like symptoms that can require months of treatment. In some cases—like Purdie’s—it can spread. Valley fever can be hard to diagnose, because it can mimic those of other ailments, and in many people, symptoms fade away on their own.

Gov. Jerry Brown this month signed three bills into law to help combat valley fever. The current state budget includes $8 million for research and education, to keep more Californians from catching the infection and to foster better diagnoses so symptoms can be treated accurately.

But despite the state response, experts say the disease likely will continue to expand, with more people getting it in more areas of the state.

One big reason, McHardy said, is climate change. A growing number of dust storms in California have spread the fungal spores far beyond the Central Valley, where the infections traditionally have been concentrated.

“We know there’s a direct correlation between these dust storms and valley fever, and we know climate change is increasing the extreme weather patterns here, including the dust storms,” he said.

Valley fever is no longer strictly a valley phenomenon. It has spread north to Sacramento and west all the way to the coast.

“(In places) like Monterey, Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo counties, where we don’t expect to find it, it’s becoming much more common,” McHardy said.

Democratic Assemblyman Rudy Salas Jr. of Hanford wrote the three valley fever bills the governor signed. He said the infection has been reported in 53 of California’s 58 counties, and he has family members and friends who have contracted it.

The state’s health care costs have spiraled higher with the increase in infections, he said. “The costs to our health care system … were around $2 billion” in a 10-year period ending in 2011, Salas said, citing the most recent state cost study. “And we have only seen an increase in cases since then.”

The $8 million is “the largest allocation in our state’s history specifically targeting valley fever,” he said. About $3 million of it will go toward expansion of the Valley Fever Center in Kern County and its research on why some people who inhale the fungus get sick, and others don’t.

Because valley fever can resemble the flu, many physicians outside of the Central Valley don’t consider it in their diagnoses, even though the blood test to identify it is inexpensive and simple.The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated there are about 150,000 undiagnosed cases a year, and McHardy said he thinks the number is higher.

The most dangerous manifestation is meningitis, he said—“and by the time they go to the hospital, it’s too late, and I think a lot of people die from it without ever being diagnosed,” McHardy said.

The California Department of Public Health doesn’t regularly track deaths from valley fever but did compile statistics in one study. Officials concluded that 1,098 people died of the disease in California from 2000 to 2013, averaging about 73 deaths a year statewide.

The downside is obvious and can be terrifying, Purdie said. But he circled back to the bright side, saying that educating both patients and physicians to better recognize the infection could make a huge difference. Once people figure out they have valley fever, especially in the earlier stages of the infection, he noted, it’s treatable.

And “fortunately,” he added, “most people won’t get it as severely as I did.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues