Mike Spence, whose political skill was offset by a seemingly intractable affinity for intoxicants, was found dead yesterday under circumstances officials say suggest he had overdosed.
Having cut an impressive swathe through politics and government in Los Angeles County, Sacramento, and San Diego, Orange and San Bernardino counties, Spence last November saw his upward trajectory as a politician curtailed when he failed to gain reelection to the West Covina City Council.
Spence’s sordid end came as he lay unresponsive on the floor of an Ontario motel room, a final unraveling that followed a series of implosions that had disrupted his promising career.
A larger than life figure, the 6 foot 3 inch 285 pound Spence in 2014 moved into a pivotal position in San Bernardino County politics when he engineered the election of Curt Hagman as Fourth County supervisor and then took on the position of his chief of staff, a post which he occupied until he was overtaken by scandal in 2016.
A 1984 graduate of Edgewood High School, where he was student body president, Spence thereafter attended and graduated from UCLA with a degree in political science. While yet in his twenties, he was elected to the first of six terms on the West Covina Unified School District Board of Education, was a founding board member of the California Virtual Academy-L.A. High School, and acceded to the presidency of the East San Gabriel Valley Regional Occupational Program/Technical College where he served 18 years as a board member. In 1989, Spence found employment as a legislative staffer in Sacramento.
Spence was an anti-tax advocate who had long crusaded for paring back the bureaucracy of government and alleviating the financial burden on taxpayers. In 1998, the city of West Covina unsuccessfully sued Spence over his opposition to a multi-million dollar tax increase that would have imposed several hundred dollar-per year assessments on homeowners. Spence prevailed in the lawsuit and the tax proposal failed.
His career as a legislative staff member advanced, and he rose to the position of chief of staff for then-assemblyman Joel Anderson (R- El Cajon). When Curt Hagman, who had formerly been Chino Hills mayor, was elected to the Assembly in 2008, he was brought on to serve as his chief of staff. Hagman’s occupancy of what was from 2008 to 2012 the 60th Assembly District and then from 2012 to 2014 the 55th Assembly District brought Spence into Republican circles in both Orange and San Bernardino counties.
In 2013, Spence was elected to the West Covina City Council, and was selected thereafter by his council colleagues to serve as mayor.
In 2014, Hagman was obliged by California’s term limits to leave the Assembly. With Spence as his advisor and then his de facto campaign manager, Hagman maneuvered to strengthen himself by engineering what was essentially the ouster of Robert Rigo as chairman of the San Bernardino Republican Central Committee and them commandeering the post for himself, essentially seizing the local GOP machinery. He induced the Republican then holding the position of Fourth District San Bernardino County Supervisor, Gary Ovitt, to opt out of seeking reelection, setting up a toe-to-toe slugfest with Gloria Negrete-McLeod, an incumbent Democratic Congresswoman who that year, like Hagman moved down the political evolutionary chain to run for supervisor.
In that race between the assemblyman and the congresswoman, Spence and Hagman engaged in some bare-knuckled tactics, as Negrete-McLeod was portrayed as soft on crime and an advocate of policies that are unfavorable to business interests in hit pieces which originated with the Hagman campaign.
Despite the Democrats having a healthy voter registration advantage in San Bernardino County Fourth Supervisorial District, Hagman eked out a razor-thin victory over Negrete-McLeod in the 2014 race.
When Hagman left the Assembly in Sacramento to become the supervisor representing Chino Hills, Chino, Montclair, Ontario and Guasti in San Bernardino, he brought Spence along to serve as his chief of staff. This put Spence, who would soon assume the mayoralty of West Covina westward across the San Bernardino/Los Angeles county line, at the forefront of politics and governance in Southern California, and a force to be reckoned with in San Bernardino County. Spence was widely recognized as an efficient managerial and administrative operator at the government level, one who understood the issues facing civic leaders and was seemingly capable, with phone call, text message or email, of prompting action from whatever level or department of county government that was appropriate to redress those issues or problems. Simultaneously, he was sought after as an insightful and reliable advisor to Republican office holders or office hopefuls, and his guidance placed the reins of power into the hands of many members of the Party of Lincoln, who by extension became fast and faithful allies to Hagman.
Unknown or unrecognized by virtually everyone but a handful of those closest to Spence was that his boundless energy stemmed from his discrete use of stimulants – amphetamines, cocaine and methamphetamine augmented with vitamin and mineral supplements– to boost his intensity and focus to meet the demands placed upon him. His use of the illicit substances was functional rather than recreational, initially involving taking amphetamines orally or snorting cocaine or methamphetamine. To leaven the effects at the end of the day so that he could sleep and recharge, he would pound three or four shots of whiskey or vodka just before bedtime. Later, he found it every bit as efficacious to simply snort a smidgen of heroin so he might lay down and nod out. In time, Spence graduated to using syringes to at first “skin pop” the drugs in minute dosages. After an interim, he was injecting the narcotics directly into a vein or artery.
There was a fierce contradiction at play in Spence. He was a conservative Republican who maintained that society should have a no-nonsense approach to eradicating crime. He decried the liberalism of the Democratic Party and its tolerance for the use of marijuana as well as the advocacy by many of that party’s members for the legalization of the drug. He insisted that Republicans held a position of moral authority over the Democrats, who were pushing an agenda that was eroding the discipline and work ethic that embodied America’s standing as the preeminent nation on Earth. Simultaneously, he had grown into a voracious user of controlled substances.
In recent years, the toll those drugs were having on his body was beginning to show, and he took on a haggard aspect, despite his corpulence.
On June 12, 2016, a Sunday, Spence was driving in neighboring Covina when he either fell asleep at the wheel or lost control of his car, slamming into a utility pole near the intersection of Azusa Avenue and Cypress Street. He broke his hip, femur, back and ribs. A toxicology screen on a blood sample taken from him at the hospital showed the presence of methamphetamine in his system. He was charged by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office with driving under the influence of drugs.
Spence, then 50 and yet undergoing extended hospitialization, acknowledged he had a past problem with both alcohol and drugs. He did not admit to being under the influence at the time of the accident, saying he had blacked out entirely and did not remember what had happened. It was publicly revealed at that time that Spence had a 1998 conviction for driving under the influence in San Bernardino County. While he was yet hospitalized, Hagman said he would not take any action regarding Spence’s employment status with his office until Spence had made a recovery from the injuries.
On November 23, 2016, after Spence was released, Hagman announced he would not renew Spence’s employment contract.
Two weeks later, on December 7, 2016, Spence pleaded guilty before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Stacy Wiese to driving under the influence of methamphetamine. He was sentenced to three year’s probation, fined $2,047, and ordered to enroll in a alcohol program and attend 26 meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or Crystal Meth Anonymous.
Despite the travail and calls for his resignation, he hung onto his council position and in November 2017 was rotated into the mayor’s post.
Six months later, Spence had boarded a bus to travel to the California Republican Party Convention in San Diego, but elected to lay over for the evening at the Holiday Inn Express on Newport Boulevard. While there, Spence fell unconscious, appeared to have stopped breathing and appeared to be having seizures. A woman called 911 to summon help and reported that there was a syringe nearby which she believed Spence had used to inject heroin with. Paramedics and law enforcement personnel responded and after he was revived, he was transported, against his will, to a nearby hospital. Drug paraphernalia was recovered from the scene. A report was forwarded to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, which did not file charges against Spence. The event garnered publicity. As a consequence Spence was removed from the largely ceremonial mayor’s post in West Covina. Spence publicly maintained that he was not using drugs.
When he sought reelection to the West Covina City Council last November, Spence was defeated.
Over the last five months, Spence, 52, had sought to drum up business for Citadel Campaigns, a political consulting firm he has been associated with since 2007 that in large measure dealt with slate mailers promoting political candidates during electoral races. His intention was to handle a multitude of local, state and federal campaigns, exclusively for Republican candidates, in 2020.
Yesterday, at 5:37 p.m., Ontario Police and Ontario Fire Department paramedics responded to a call from the Folk Inn at 204 N. Vineyard Avenue in Ontario regarding an unconscious man in one of the motel’s rooms. Paramedics who rushed there to give the victim medical aid found him completely unresponsive. They were unable to revive him and he was pronounced dead at the scene. The deceased was identified as Spence.