The San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee last night came within a hair’s breadth of removing Chris Robles as its chairman. Robles was able to withstand the challenge largely on the basis of parliamentary maneuvering that tested the bounds of the committee’s bylaws and Robert’s Rules of Order, after Robles entrusted the officiating of the remaining proceedings to one of his closest allies on the committee’s executive board, Mark Westwood.
Twice Westwood failed to recognized motions for a vote of no confidence that had been seconded, as chaotic debate over Robles’ tenure and effectiveness ensued.
Among the several issues that were bruited about during the raucous exchange were the poor showings by party candidates in recent elections and what many charged was the diversion of Robles’ attention from support efforts for party candidates while he pursues his own commercial political consulting work which included efforts on behalf of at least one Republican candidate.
A growing number of Democrats active at both the county and state level have grown disenchanted with Robles in recent years. He was first elected chairman of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee in September 2012, sometime after he had relocated from Los Angeles County, where he was previously involved in Democratic Party politics. Part of Robles’ appeal was that he had experience with a number of campaigns, as a manager, treasurer and consultant. Also, it was believed he would energetically apply his knowledge of the intricacies of fundraising and campaigning across a broad number of races, from ones at the local municipal level, to county contests and those for the state legislature as well as for Congress. Robles’ coordination of party efforts on behalf of Democratic candidates has been, his critics say, lackluster at best. During his tenure, they say, the Democratic Party in San Bernardino County has failed to make gains commensurate with its growing demographic clout.
In 2010, the number of registered Democrats in San Bernardino County surpassed the number of registered Republicans and the Democrats have held a growing plurality among registered voters ever since. That trend appeared to be reflected in the countywide results in the 2012 presidential race when Barack Obama outdistanced Republican Mitt Romney 305,109 votes or 52.55 percent to 262,358 or 45.19 percent. And again in 2016, Hillary Clinton in San Bernardino County outperformed her Republican rival, Donald Trump, by 340,833 votes or 52.64 percent to 271,240 votes or 41.89 percent. Nevertheless, those two races, among a few notable exceptions, remain as rare showings of Democratic political might in San Bernardino County over the last half dozen years. Despite Democrats currently having a registration advantage over Republicans in San Bernardino County approaching a 4-to-3 margin – 360,898 registered voters or 40.2% to 285,015 registered voters or 31.8% among a total of 897,193 voters overall – three of the five members of the board of supervisors are Republicans; two of the county’s five congress members are Republicans, with two of the Democratic congress members having districts in which those portions outside San Bernardino County are heavily Democratic; three of the county’s four state senators are Republicans; five of the county’s eight members of the California Assembly are Republicans; and 17 of the county’s 24 cities have city councils composed of a majority of Republicans. Where the Democrats hold state or federal office in San Bernardino County they hold a commanding registration advantage. In those electoral jurisdictions where the Democrats have close to parity with the Republicans or hold a lead that is substantial but less than entirely overwhelming, they have consistently lost to Republicans. Such is the case in the 40th Assembly District where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 91,615 or 40.4 percent to 76,234 or 33.7 percent, and a Republican, Marc Steinorth, holds office. In San Bernardino County’s Fourth Supervisorial District, where the registration numbers are lopsidedly in favor of the Democrats 71,859 or 43.1 percent to 47,128 or 28.3 percent, a Republican, Curt Hagman is in office, even despite the fact that his opponent in the 2014 election was a then-incumbent Democratic U.S. Congresswoman, Gloria Negrete-McLeod.
While Democrats expected Robles to utilize his electioneering expertise and his connections as a professional political consultant to boost the party’s fortunes, that failed to come about. Indeed, many Democratic candidates report, during party briefings for candidates which dealt with rudimentary and stock campaigning techniques, Robles provided them with his business card, telling them he could offer them further assistance if they were to retain him as consultant or employ him as their campaign manager. Robles is the chief executive officer, chief financial officer and secretary of Vantage Campaigns, Inc., which is based in Chino Hills.
For many San Bernardino County Democrats, Robles crossed the line last year when during the 2016 Ontario City Council campaign, Vantage Campaigns took on as one of its clients Gus Skropos, a former Ontario councilman, former Ontario mayor, former San Bernardino County supervisor and former Superior Court Judge, for the purpose of managing his campaign. Skropos is a Republican.
Armed with documentation in the form of state campaign disclosure documents of Robles’ work, through Vantage, on behalf of Skropos, along with evidence that Robles has also worked on other campaigns in which “hit pieces,” i.e., attack mailers, were prepared against Democratic candidates, a contingent of Democratic Central Committee members confronted Robles midway through the regularly scheduled May 25 Democratic Central Committee meeting held at the rented California Teachers Association main conference room in San Bernardino. Initially, Robles was assailed with complaints about what was said was his less-than-energetic efforts with regard to promoting candidates generally. Prominent members of the anti-Robles contingent were Ron Cohen, Bobbie Chavarria, Tim Prince, Leticia Garcia, Laurie Stalnaker, Debbie McAffee, James Albert, George Alfano, Socorro Cisneros, Ana Gonzales, Fernando Hernandez, and Marvin Sawyer.
They presented a charge sheet which stated that Robles “uses the position of chair to advocate for his personal gain as a candidate consultant,” that he “did not support San Bernardino County Democratic Party endorsement candidates in the 2016 election,” and that in areas of committee concern, he as chair on behalf of the committee “prepared no press releases on endorsed candidates and no press releases on local measures” during past and current electioneering efforts.
Furthermore, according to the charge sheet, Robles “did not do candidate mailers in a timely fashion [and] 2016 endorsed candidate robocalls were not done as advertised and as were promised.”
The charge sheet stated that “2016 endorsed emails were not done as advertised and as were promised. He does not take action in a timely manner when California Democratic Party policies are violated. He seems to have little or no regard for central committee bylaws.” Further, the sheet accused Robles of having gone to the state Democratic Convention while writing off his expenses there as a candidate consultant. It said he was generally unavailable for consultation with party members regarding central committee and state party business.
While there had been sporadic criticisms leveled at Robles earlier in the meeting, it was Cohen, a member of the county executive committee, who made the first full frontal assault on Robles, essentially initiating the challenge of his authority in earnest. Cohen’s point was that the party efforts to support candidates had been woefully inadequate and overall ineffective.
“There was a total of 40 endorsements of Democratic candidates in 2016,” Cohen intoned. “Fourteen were elected. Of the other 26, we lost, some by closer margins than others.” Cohen said he had come to conclusions about where the Democratic strength existed and where the party had to make up ground. He said he disagreed with Robles’ strategy of sending out mailers to high propensity Democratic voters, since the support of those voters for Democratic candidates was a given. Robles had squandered the central committee’s limited resources in that move, Cohen suggested, indicating his belief the money would have been better utilized on efforts to reach the voters who had voted less frequently in the past but had been driven to the polls by the party’s get-out-the-vote efforts. Cohen further chided Robles for the tardiness of the mailings that had been made, saying he had “polled the different areas throughout the county” and that “62 percent voted by mail.” Mailings should have gone out earlier than the arrival of the mail ballots, Cohen said.
While those in attendance had remained relatively sedate through the bulk of Cohen’s statements, the room fairly exploded when Chavarria broached the subject of a no confidence vote against Robles. Robles immediately declared Chavarria’s motion as out of order.
When Robles set about steering the meeting away from the subject of his stewardship of the committee, Tim Prince delivered what was intended to be the coup de grâce, leveling the charge that Robles had worked on behalf of Republican candidates and causes. For a split second the room fell quiet and then burst into an even more deafening cacophony than previously. When Robles offered an initial denial, there were shouts of demand for proof. First vice chair Mark Westwood, one of Robles’ allies, expressed outrage at the irresponsibility of the accusation. This was followed by further demands for proof. References to Skropos were made, followed by the marshalling of a California Form 460 campaign reporting document filed by the Skropos campaign which delineated a $1,850 payment to Vantage for “research,” along with an email from Skropos in which he referred to Robles as his campaign representative.
Robles sought to defend himself, explaining that he had worked in 2016 on behalf of Sam Crowe, a Democrat running for the Ontario City Council. It was Crowe’s decision, Robles said, to run in tandem with Skropos, a Republican. He had merely worked on a joint mailer between the two of them, Robles said.
“I have a corporation that does campaign work,” he said. “My contract was with Sam Crowe. Sam Crowe decided he was running with another candidate and he did some joint mailers.”
“Did you get paid for those?” someone in the crowd shouted.
“Yes, I got paid for the mailers that were jointly done,” Robles conceded. “That was done between him [Skropos] and Sam. I never endorsed him [Skropos]. I never supported him. They did a joint mailer. I received reimbursement.”
“But Skropos named you as his consultant on the reporting form,” someone in the crowd challenged Robles.
“I never endorsed him,” Robles repeated. “I worked for Sam Crowe. My contract was with Sam Crowe. He decided he wanted to run with someone else.”
It was pointed out that one of the mailers in question referred to Skropos as “the Democratic choice.”
To that, Robles offered no denial, but asserted, “We actually put out a hit piece on the Republican incumbents.”
At that point, Westwood leapt into the breach, seeking to defend Robles by interpolating that working as a political consultant was Robles’ occupation.
“Someone can have an occupation and be paid for that occupation,” Westwood said. “That doesn’t mean that is an endorsement. I manage and work for a radio station. If I have a Republican on the radio, that doesn’t mean I am endorsing Republicans. I am paid for my work by the corporation. That is my job. Chris works in an industry that does mailers and campaign mailers. The money didn’t go to him. It went to Vantage Campaigns. There isn’t a connection.”
That provoked Chavarria, who said she was “not going to sit quiet while you sabotage the Democratic Party.”
Leticia Garcia stated that when Robles learned that Crowe was endorsing a Republican, Robles should have withdrawn from Crowe’s campaign.
Appearing weary, Robles muttered “I should have quit, perhaps.” He said that now that he had become the subject of discussion, he should not officiate over the proceedings and called upon Westwood to take on that role.
With Westwood in charge, a motion was heard from the floor for a no confidence vote in Robles. It was immediately seconded. Westwood refused to recognize that the motion had been made.
Leticia Garcia assailed Robles for having misrepresented and minimized the nature of his work on behalf of Skropos. She called upon him to step down as county party chairman.
Judy Briggs and the committee’s parliamentarian, Carol Robb, attempted to mount a defense of Robles. Briggs maintained that her knowledge of Ontario, Ontario politics and Sam Crowe, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat and longtime fixture in that city as a former councilman, former city attorney and current school board member, left her inclined to believe that he would have formed a coalition with Skropos, who is now, like Crowe, a former city insider who is currently an outsider. She stated her belief that deposing Robles for his involvement in that circumstance was forgivable.
Prince asserted that the central issue was the conflict of interest between Robles’ role as county party chairman and as a political consultant at large in which he is a hired gun to the highest bidder.
When another motion for a vote of no confidence was made followed by a succession of seconds, Westwood again ignored it. When he was pressed about the grounds for his suspension of protocol, Westwood said, “I am not prepared to take a motion on this because this is something that has to take place with due process.” Noting that it was already 9:38 p.m. and that the party was authorized to use the meeting hall only until 9 p.m., Westwood sought to use that as a pretext for concluding the meeting. “I probably am going to have to revisit this issue,” he said. “We are jeopardizing this meeting space and we have to have a meeting space.” Sensing, however that there was tremendous sentiment in the room with regard to the issue that had been raised, he called for an immediate debate on the spot, saying he would allow three individuals on either side of the issue to hold forth for three minutes apiece.
During that exchange, in which Joe Britt served as the timekeeper, Linda Baker cautioned those assembled against precipitously jettisoning the central committee’s elected leader, saying divisiveness was highly destructive. “If you don’t get together, this party is going to fall apart,” she said. “He did not sabotage this party. We need to get it together. If we don’t, we are going to lose the elections in 2018 and 2020.”
Chavarria said, “As Democrats, we can’t stand for incompetence and conflicts of interest. We cannot let this continue unchallenged. Why is he out working for candidates when he has not made any of the appointments to our committees? When he is dealing with our party candidates, he has approached them, saying, ‘By the way, I am a consultant. I can help you.’ What he did was present and promote his business that way. That is unacceptable. As Democrats we have to stand on pride and ethics. This business as usual is unacceptable. This is so wrong on so many levels. I think Chris should resign.”
Westwood then brought the meeting to a close by conceding that “What we have seen tonight is that some pretty serious accusations have been leveled. My recommendation is that you [Robles] take all this into consideration and write a letter and explain yourself to any and all of your accusers. He should have that chance to do that. That is the fair thing to do.”
As the meeting closed out and the crowd exited the California Teachers Association offices, one of the central committee members sized the circumstance up in this way, “It looks like they have the votes to remove him as chairman. The question is whether they will be able to get a forum to make the vote.”
Reached today, Robles told the Sentinel he has no intention of stepping down as county party chairman.
“There are no grounds for removal,” he said. “The faction of those who came after me supported Kimberly Ellis in the race for state party chair. I was very vocal in my support of Eric Bauman in that race and this was a continuation of the party infighting that took place in Sacramento this past weekend. They have no substantive grounds for any of their charges, so from here on it is going to be business as usual.”
Robles said the relatively poor performance of Democratic candidates in San Bernardino County in 2016 “has nothing to do with the party. It had to do with the candidates themselves. We do not run the candidates’ campaigns. We endorse on behalf of the party. We run an informational campaign with the voters and let them know which candidates fall within the party’s platform. Whatever support we offer in addition to that is up to each candidate and each race. We don’t have a lot of assets to apply countywide but we have done a good job of supporting candidates with what means we do have.”
Robles said, “In terms of my company’s work on campaigns, I never had a contract with any Republicans. I have worked for Democrats. That is the simple truth. These are more of the negative tactics that were used at the state party level and it is ridiculous. I have had 15 calls before noon today from people who were in attendance at last night’s meeting and they were appalled at the negative tenor of those attacking me. They were shocked at the behavior of many of the people there and many of them told me that they don’t want to take part in anything like that.”
Also this morning, Friday May 26, the Sentinel received a packet of documents from central committee members who are yet intent on seeking Robles’ ouster as party chairman. Contained within that packet were the two documents referenced Thursday night, a California Form 460 document filed by the Skropos 2016 campaign dated July 15, 2016 and date/time stamped by the Ontario city clerk’s office at 9:08 a.m. on July 20, 2016 and an email sent from Skropos to Laurie Stalnaker of the AFL-CIO at 8:46 a.m. on September 13, 2006. In the Form 460 document, the Skropos campaign reports paying $1,850 to Vantage Campaigns. In the email, Skropos seeks the AFL-CIO endorsement in his run for city council, stating, “I am running for one of two council seats in Ontario. I would love to be endorsed by the AFL-CIO in my effort to win one of those seats,” and then adding below that “My consultant is Chris Robles, should you wish to work with him.”
A second California Form 460 document filed on behalf of the Skropos campaign bearing the date January 30, 2017 to cover campaign financing activity between October 23, 2016 and December 31, 2016 and date/time stamped by the Ontario City Clerk’s office at 3:39 p.m. on January 31, 2017 shows that $6,147 was paid to Vantage Campaigns for “consulting.” –Mark Gutglueck