By Mark Gutglueck
The leadership crisis in the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee has extended into 2018, seven months after it began in earnest in May 2017. While two-thirds of the central committee members have given indication that they have lost faith in the guidance of Chris Robles, who has been central committee chairman since 2012, through a series of parliamentary maneuverings and administerial parrying, Robles since July has staved off two separate votes taken by a quorum of the committee to depose him as chairman. Relying upon his connection with California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman as well as a tightly knit circle of supporters within San Bernardino County, Robles has thwarted efforts by a determined cadre of local Democratic Party activists to force him into either surrendering the reins of the local Democratic Party or to make an accounting of the Democratic Party’s failure, despite its consistently widening voter registration advantage over Republicans countywide, to undo the Republicans’ domination of the county in terms of the number of local and state elected office holders.
Meanwhile, committee business, including preparations for the efforts to support the candidacies of Democratic candidates in 2018, has languished as Robles has postponed or outright cancelled meeting after meeting of the central committee over the last three months, in most cases upon learning that what appears to be a clear majority of the committee’s members were primed to force him to recognize their calls for votes of no confidence in him or motions calling for him to step down from his leadership post.
Last month, after Robles called for a previously scheduled central committee meeting on December 7 to be cancelled, a contingent of members, constituting a quorum of the entire central committee, went ahead with the meeting, at which a motion to replace Robles was made, seconded, voted and recorded as having passed by a vote of 20 yes votes with two abstentions. Thereafter, a second December meeting of the central committee was scheduled for December 28. At that meeting, again without Robles present, a quorum of the members participated and voted to install Ron Cohen as chairman, James Albert as first vice chairman, Tim Prince as parliamentarian and deferred until a later date appointing or designating other officers. Robles, who along with his remaining allies in the central committee had boycotted the December 7 meeting, in advance of the December 28 meeting asserted that he was yet chairman, and declared the December 28 meeting to be unauthorized. Robles appealed to the State Party hierarchy, which declared both of the December meetings inoperative.
In the meantime, the Democratic Party in San Bernardino County has been at a virtual standstill. With the initiation of the 2018 election season, the Republican Party is quietly outhustling its rivals on all fronts.
At the basis of the widespread discontent with Robles within the party has been the consistent poor showing of a majority of Democratic candidates in San Bernardino County in the 2012, 2014 and 2016 elections, corresponding to Robles’ tenure as central committee chairman. Beginning in the 1960s and throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and until 2009, San Bernardino County was dominated by the Republicans, who consistently bettered their Democratic counterparts in terms of registering voters, achieving turnout of those voters and, except in a few jurisdictions that were Democratic strongholds such as blue collar Colton, Fontana and Rialto, electing Republican candidates to municipal, county, state and national offices. Republican ascendancy hit its high water mark in the first decade of the Third Millennium, when Bill Postmus was chairman of both the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee. But in 2008, Postmus was consumed by political scandal and the following year, for the first time in over three decades, Democratic voter registration countywide eclipsed that of Republicans, and the scales, in terms of the sheer numbers of registered voters, have tipped consistently more and more in favor of the Democrats ever since. At present, the Democrats hold what appears to be a commanding advantage over Republicans countywide in San Bernardino County, with 357,511 of the county’s registered voters, or 40.1 percent affiliated with the Democratic Party and 279,169 voters or 31.3 percent identifying as Republicans. Nevertheless, the GOP has continued to reign over San Bernardino County, where 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.
During the May 25, 2017 San Bernardino County Central Committee meeting, a group of dissident central committee members, chaffing at Robles’ leadership and believing the party could do much better than it was, sought to lodge a vote of no confidence in him. Once the direction the membership was moving in became clear, Robles handed the officiating of the meeting off to the committee’s first vice chair, Mark Westwood. Westwood, perhaps Robles’ most faithful ally within the central committee, responded to the chaotic debate over Robles’ tenure and effectiveness with steadfast indifference, and twice refused to recognize motions for a vote of no confidence that had been seconded. To a cacophony of protests, Westwood managed to stand down those challenging Robles, largely on the basis of his physical presence and parliamentary maneuvering that tested the bounds of the committee’s bylaws and Robert’s Rules of Order.
At the June 22 San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee meeting, both Robles and those intent on his removal as chairman flooded the meeting hall at the California Teachers Association’s San Bernardino office with their supporters. When the meeting commenced, Robles found himself under fire and unable to direct the proceedings to even the vaguest semblance of order, and proved unable to get the collective to allow a vote on considering the agenda for the night’s proceedings, as he was besieged with calls to amend the agenda with the question of his removal. When he called for the approval of the minutes of the executive committee meetings, Robles was confronted by Laurie Stalnaker, the committee’s finance director, who assailed him over his failure to provide her with the minutes of previous meetings so she could reconcile expenditures made out of the committee’s bank account with their authorizations and complete the audits of the committee’s finances over the three previous years. Over this and other issues the meeting descended into bedlam, and at 8:27 p.m., Robles abruptly adjourned the meeting and called in the county sheriff. Four law enforcement officers arrived to herd the group out of the room. None of the remaining items on the agenda was discussed.
At the central committee’s July 27 meeting, chaos again descended onto the proceedings and after just 18 minutes, without action being taken on any of the items on the agenda, Robles adjourned the meeting without calling for a vote to confirm that motion and left along with most of his supporters, calling the police in as he did so. More than 20 central committee members remained, however, moving onto consider the agenda in Robles’ absence. When the police arrived, Ron Cohen, the second vice chair of the central committee and the highest remaining ranking member of the central committee as well as the more exclusive executive committee, was at that point chairing the meeting. Cohen convinced the police that a quorum of the central committee was present and that the members were conducting committee business at a regularly scheduled meeting. With two police officers remaining on the premises of the California Teachers Association suite of offices, the meeting proceeded, during which consideration of the removal of Robles as chairman was added to the agenda. Following the discussion of that item, a motion to remove Robles as chairman was moved by Debbie McAfee, seconded, and the vote was counted by raising credentials. Chris Robles was removed upon approval by the aye votes of 27 with two abstentions and zero no votes.
Robles and his supporters disputed the legitimacy of the action taken by members of the central committee after he had called for the adjournment of the meeting. The California Democratic Party’s Compliance Review Commission took up the matter. On August 23, the commission found that all of the actions taken after Robles adjourned the July 27 meeting were out of order and that Robles was still county party chairman.
A further effort to dethrone Robles was made at the September 28 central committee meeting, but Robles used his control of the proceedings to thwart that. The dissidents then sought to have Robles removed as a member of the central committee, which they said would by extension end his chairmanship. That too failed. In the fall, with election year 2018 approaching, little was accomplished at the central committee level. In December, with the number of dissidents on the county central committee growing, the second vote to remove Robles was taken. As noted, Robles succeeded in having the state party invalidate that as well as the initial steps taken to appoint new officers at the December 28 meeting. In doing so, however, the state party and its chairman, Eric Bauman, responded to the dissidents’ lodging of protests against Robles, and a letter of admonishment, signed by Bauman and dated January 9, was sent to Robles this week. That letter scored Robles for working, in his professional capacity as a campaign consultant, on behalf of non-Democrat, i.e, Republican, candidates; failing to follow California Democratic Party bylaws; and failing to facilitate the state party’s endorsement of county Democratic candidates supported or endorsed by the county central committee on a timely basis.
The letter of admonishment does not appear to have placated those who are seeking to have Robles removed as county party chairman. They are citing the admonishment, along with the drift in the party as grounds for taking Robles’ authority from him. The 2018 California Democratic Party Convention will take place on February 23, at which the state party endorsements of Democratic candidates are to be voted upon. Pre-endorsement meetings of party functionaries are to take place on January 27 and 28, at which the recommendations for endorsement submittals are to be arrived at. Robles’ critics are saying that he has made no effort toward readying the central committee for those pre-endorsement proceedings, and that failing, given the similar issue cited in the letter of admonishment, is another plank in the platform for removing him as chair. They stand ready to renew the drive to bring in a county party chairman who can unify the central committee.
Of note is that Robles was a faithful supporter of Bauman in his defeat of Kimberly Ellis in last year’s contest for state party chair. Some of those targeting Robles for removal as county party chairman believe that Bauman is now in the position of having to show loyalty down the chain of party command toward Robles, which has made him reluctant or resistant to accommodating them in their effort to remove Robles. They are gearing up to make a demonstration not only to Bauman but other state party officials such as vice chairs Alexandro Gallardo-Booker and Darika-Larimore-Hall, party secretary Jenny Bach and party controller Daniel Weitzman, that Robles is a liability to the party who has critically diminished the performance of Democratic candidates in San Bernardino County in the past and that keeping him in place threatens the current Democratic game plan of reestablishing supermajorities in both houses of the California legislature in 2018, as well as making inroads into or overturning the Republican majority in the U.S. Congress.
Robles works as a professional political consultant through his company, Vantage Campaigns. Numbered among his clients have been Republicans. This has led to accusations by some of his critics that he is a Republican sleeper agent who wormed his way into the Democratic Party, has risen to the top in San Bernardino County, and from that vantage has engaged in efforts to weaken the party he is leading. Most of his other opponents express grave doubt that he is covertly working for the GOP. Nevertheless, some say that his skill and competence as a political consultant is significantly lower than had been previously touted when he used that as a selling point to gain election by the central committee as chairman. It is his ineffectiveness in this regard, they say, that justifies removing him as central committee chairman. Others, still, do not question his capability as a political consultant, but argue that his engagement with his clients in that regard is monopolizing him and leaving him with inadequate time, energy and focus with which to carry out his duties as county party chairman, resulting in neglect of issues that are putting the Democrats in San Bernardino County at a disadvantage to Republicans.
Cohen, who is the leader of the faction so dissatisfied with Robles that it has twice undertaken votes to remove him as party chair only to see those votes invalidated by the state party, said those on the central committee absolutely dissatisfied with Robles’ leadership have grown to an overwhelming majority and that further attempts to convince both Robles and the party hierarchy in Sacramento that Robles’ time as chairman in San Bernardino is past are coming. He said that Robles has backed himself into an untenable corner within the party and has rendered himself incapable of advancing the Democratic Party cause because he cannot muster the troops to head out into the political fray. “We’re not holding meetings anymore because he’s afraid to face the committee’s members,” Cohen said. “It’s as if he’s hiding. The party is wandering aimlessly under his leadership.”
For his part, Robles has vectored vitriol at Cohen, attacking him with greater fervor than he has aimed at Republicans.
Directly and through the central committee parliamentarian he installed, Mario Alfaro, Robles has characterized Cohen as a “little man” who has engaged in fraud. Alfaro said “Mr. Cohen’s interpretation of the bylaws and the election’s code (sic) in calling the December 7th meeting either demonstrates material misrepresentations to the body of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee or a failure to understand both. Mr. Cohen’s attempt to remove Chris Robles is improper and invalid. The State Party expressly ruled against Mr. Cohen’s request to remove Mr. Robles. The San Bernardino County Central Committee Executive Committee voted down Mr. Cohen’s request to remove Mr. Robles. The body voted down Mr. Cohen’s attempted appeal of the executive committee’s decision. The California Democratic Party Rules Committee voted down Mr. Cohen’s appeal of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee’s vote. In short, Mr. Cohen has been rebuffed at every level in his attempt to remove Chris Robles and take the reins of the Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee for himself.”
Robles said that Cohen is involved “in an attempt to take over our party. His statements and actions are at odds with the most basic notion of fairness and due process. Make no mistake, this is nothing more than a coup to make himself chair.”
A complaint to the state party orchestrated by Robles says, “For almost a year Ron Cohen has held the SBCDCC hostage in a personal vendetta against Chris Robles. Mr. Cohen’s conduct is not limited by ‘pesky’ facts; he is more than willing to simply lie to anyone who cannot prove him wrong.”
Jim Gallagher, the third vice chair in the San Bernardino County Central Committee, is counted upon by Robles as one of the 22 members of the central committee remaining in his camp.
Gallagher indicated that there “are grounds for complaints” but he said that much of the criticism of Robles had been oversold. To say that Robles had done nothing is not accurate, he said.
“When it comes to candidates, we have supported them,” Gallagher said. “The party can only do so much. We have done mailers, email blasts, press releases. We also encourage boots on the ground, charter clubs to get out there and support individual candidates. Being face to face with the public is what wins elections. We have been allocated a budget and spent money on supporting local elected officials.”
Gallagher acknowledged the Democrats are yet lagging behind the Republicans in San Bernardino County. “The people challenging his chairmanship have blamed Chris personally for that,” Gallagher said. “That’s unfortunate.”
Gallagher said he did not buy the suggestion that Robles “pulled strings in Sacramento” to have the votes to depose him voided. “Chris is a little bit at odds with Eric Bauman’s timing of his admonishment letter,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher said he personally believes that Robles “should address their [the dissidents’] concerns and then let’s move on and start getting our candidates elected.”
Gallagher said that much of the Democrats falling short in San Bernardino County had to do with poorer Democratic voter turnout than that of the Republicans. “In the end, we’re still not getting them to turn out for the smaller elections,” Gallagher said. “There is an attitude of ‘Who cares about the water board?’” But that was a general attitude and not one that could be laid at Robles’ feet, he said. Moreover, Gallagher pointed out, the Republicans were proving to be more effective, he said, with what he called “last minute attack ads” and “nasty ads” which landed in voters’ mailboxes in the closing days of campaigns, which in some cases swung those races in the favor of Republicans. That was not something, Gallagher suggested, which Robles could be blamed for.
Gallagher said that in the most recent consolidated election on November 7, 2017, the party had some success. “We got three Democrats elected on the San Bernardino City Unified School District board,” Gallagher said. “Some want to say we didn’t do enough in favor of the Democratic candidates in that election, but we did press releases to the major newspapers and sent mailers to the high propensity voters in mixed households [those with both Democrat and Republicans living under the same roof], which sometimes reaches Republican voters and get votes we might not otherwise get. The results were somewhat good.”
Gallagher emphasized that the party apparatus cannot do all or even most of what a candidate must do for him or herself. “We can’t make the voters vote,” Gallagher said. “The candidates themselves need to walk the districts and knock on doors.”
With regard to the hardening lines of opposition within the San Bernardino County Central Committee, Gallagher said, “Calmer heads need to prevail. We need to get back to the business of electing Democrats.” He said he believed that Cohen was sincere in wanting to advance the party and that “he has made some good points” but that he also detected “some personal ambition on his part.” Gallagher said that months ago he counseled both Robles and Cohen that they “need to sit down and talk this out. I told them ‘You need to talk about these differences you have and work this out.’ Nobody did it.”
Gallagher said that to some “This conflict seems petty on the surface, but it encompasses deeper issues. It has gotten to this point that it is embarrassing to us. This disruption is terrible.”
Gallagher was skeptical of the report that the number of central committee members ready to see Robles removed had grown to 42. Nevertheless, he said, “I personally think Chris is going to have a tough time in the next election for central committee chair.” He said that it was indeed true that Robles is so engaged with his professional career that “He needs to delegate better. The solution is for us [the executive board of the central committee] to carry more of the work. The executive board needs to tighten itself and work better as a team. We have tried to form committees to go off and work on campaigns and fundraising. Those have not been as effective as they could have been because, face it, we are all volunteers and it is hard to get volunteers to go one hundred percent no matter how passionate they start off as being.”
Despite the formula he is advocating for discussing their differences and coming to a consensus and working cooperatively, Gallagher expressed the belief that Robles and his opposition will remain at loggerheads and challenges to Robles’ leadership will continue. “I have seen the latest iterations of those challenges,” Gallagher said. “The CDP [California Democratic Party] already rejected that. The state party reviewed all of the challenges. He [Robles] was at the will of the state party. The challenges had some merit but they were not sufficient to remove him as chair. When they reviewed his action, the most they got out of it was an admonishment. They [state party officials] didn’t like the appearance of him supporting candidates who are not in the Democratic Party and they also expected him to abide by the CDP bylaws and he needs from now on to make sure that the candidate endorsements by the county central committee are sent to the CDP. At this point, they need to find new grounds to remove him. If they are going to be successful, they are going to need to look for something else, because what they have tried so far has not worked. So, why don’t they try to focus on the work of electing Democrats instead?”
By Mark Gutglueck