Dissent & Accommodation: The Political Maturation Of Mark Steinorth

(November 24)  The next stage in Marc Steinorth’s maturation as a political entity will ensue next month when he is sworn in as the new assemblyman in the 40th District.
Steinorth’s political climb has been one of the most dynamic and rapid upsurges by a local elected figure in memory. In 2010, he made his first foray into the political fray, when he sought to replace Rancho Cucamonga Mayor Donald Kurth, who had chosen not to run for reelection. An established businessman whose primary political attribute was that he represented the private sector in what was at heart a philosophical battle with the public sector for the control of the reins of government, Steinorth was the most articulate political outsider in the race, which featured incumbent councilman Dennis Michael, the representative of the other side of the philosophical/political divide.
Michael was a creature of the public sector. He had worked his entire career as a public employee, a firefighter with the Foothill Fire District, the forerunner of the Rancho Cucamonga Fire Department, rising to the fire chief’s position by the time the district was subsumed by the city. Michael retired as Rancho Cucamonga fire chief in 2004, having qualified for a comfortable pension, and had then run successfully for city council. In the 2010 election, Steinorth made a strong showing, giving voice to the discontent and anger brewing within the public over the perception that public employees had it too good, with high salaries that bettered those of many similarly ore even more skilled employees in the private sector, as well as benefits – meaning health coverage and pensions – that dwarfed those provided to most workers in private industry.
Steinorth relished his place as the opposition candidate, one who questioned and held up to scrutiny and even ridicule the incestuous relationship between elected officials, whose major campaign contributors were public employees unions, the members of which would in turn then benefit from the votes of incumbents elected with the assistance of union money. Michael, himself a pensioner paid by the taxpayers, made an attractive target. When the 2010 polling was finished, Michael failed, barely, to capture fifty percent of the vote, pulling down 19,978 votes or 49.52 percent. But two other non-establishment candidates were in the race – Robert Ledbetter and Bill Hanlon. Ledbetter polled 3,048 votes or 7.55 percent and Hanlon garnered 2,779 votes or 6.89 percent. Steinorth registered 14,541 votes or 36.04 percent, a more than respectable showing for a first time candidate in a four- way race that involved an incumbent office holder with considerable name recognition, but not enough to win.
Despite that loss, Steinorth had made an indelible impression on the community. With the economy continuing to stagnate four and then five years after the 2007 recession, more and more of the public was becoming receptive to the message being put out by the spokesmen of the private sector, mainly that government overregulation of businesses and the burden being borne by those enterprises that survived the economic downturn in propping up the government bureaucracies and the growing numbers of welfare recipients were crippling the most economically dynamic component of the community.
In 2012, Steinorth’s stock was on the rise, as he was widely seen as one of the more effective, charismatic and eloquent of the private sector’s representatives. That year, he tested the political waters once more and this time prevailed convincingly, outpolling by a significant margin both of the incumbents in the six candidate race for Rancho Cucamonga City Council.
Steinorth claimed 21,935 votes or 26.44 percent, well ahead of the second place finisher, incumbent councilman Sam Spagnolo, who garnered 17,840 votes or 21.5 percent. With his strong showing, Steinorth displaced long time councilman Chuck Buquet, who finished third with 14,626 votes or 17.63 percent.
Steinorth’s victory did not herald a radical departure from the public employee dominated ethos at Rancho Cucamonga City Hall, but rather a subtle change. Three of his council colleagues – Michael, Spagnolo and Bill Alexander – were retired firefighters pulling comfortable taxpayer-paid public pensions. Moreover, as Steinorth himself pointed out, 34 percent of all of the households in Rancho Cucamonga had at least one government employee living within them.
If many of those who had supported Steinorth’s candidacy were hoping that he would embark on a reformist agenda that would result in the reduction of city employee salaries and benefits, and many did, they would be disappointed. The simple truth of the matter was that Steinorth lacked the political muscle – on his own – to effectuate anything close to the change he or his supporters envisioned. Indeed, at the meeting where Steinorth was sworn in and seated upon the council for the first time in December 2012, the atmosphere was something like that depicted in the sixth chapter of the Book of Daniel. Steinorth, cast in the role of Daniel, tread somewhat gingerly into a chamber of Lions. For their part, the council was every bit as wary of him.
There lingered an air of animosity between him and the mayor, a residual effect of what had transpired in the election two years previously. For the first several months of what turned out to be his 24-month tenure as a Rancho Cucamonga city councilman, Steinorth endured what appeared to be a role of isolated relegation. But then, at first slowly and in time at near blinding speed, Steinorth made a totally unforeseen transformation into a team player at the municipal level. With casual aplomb, the man who had invented himself as a political dissident clamoring for makeover in the way government – in particular local government – carried out its mission so as to purge its ranks of self-serving public employees more interested in riding the gravy train than looking after the best interests of the taxpayers, refocused his reformist vision away from local government and instead toward Sacramento.
Government’s betrayal and exploitation of its citizenry remained as a central tenet of his appeal to his constituency. The traitors to the cause of good governance, Steinorth now propounded, were not those manning the municipal stations of duty, but rather the bureaucrats, legislators and staff functioning at the state level who had commandeered the ways and means – the precious tax revenue provided by the governed – for its own large scale, big government purposes and goals, leaving the cities and counties without the ability to provide the services closest to the people and most responsive to their actual needs and necessary for the betterment of their quality of life.
Steinorth’s reorientation was seamless. Moreover, it was in keeping with his partisan political orientation, which had always been and remained a total identification as a Republican. Whether by coincidence or accident or well-thought-through design, Steinorth’s basis of operations, Rancho Cucamonga, is a Republican stronghold. Indeed, San Bernardino County as a whole remains one of the few remaining GOP bastions in the state, where Republican office holders seriously outnumber their Democratic counterparts. Rancho Cucamonga joins Redlands, Chino Hills, Upland, Yucca Valley, Yucaipa, Big Bear, Twentynine and Apple Valley as the county’s cities or incorporated towns where Republican voters overwhelmingly outnumber registered Democrats. And while party registration in cities such as Fontana, Colton, Rialto, San Bernardino, Needles, Montclair, Barstow, and Adelanto strongly favors Democrats over Republicans, such that countywide registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 324,898 or 38.2 percent to 294,028 or 34.5 percent, Republican vote in far greater numbers both by turning out at the polls as well as by mailing in absentee ballots.
Thus, In San Bernardino County, Republicans on the county’s 24 city councils outnumber Democrats 59 to 37, three to two on the county board of supervisors, and four to three in the State Senate. In the Assembly San Bernardino County has sent four Republicans and four Democrats to Sacramento.
By setting his sights on Sacramento and the monetary black hole it has come to embody, Steinorth quite naturally targeted the Democratic Party, which until the prosecution of two Democratic State Senators and a single Democratic member of the Assembly earlier this year resulted in their resignation, suspension or removal from office, held a supermajority in the state capital in both houses of the legislature, not to mention possession of the governor’s office.
Steinorth, who never surrendered his branding as a conservative and staunchly pro-business Republican, vied in the geographically dispersed 40th Assembly District, which runs from Rancho Cucamonga in the west and then spans the narrow and virtually unpopulated swath across the I-15 Freeway into the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, then down into a portion of the city of San Bernardino, and then through all or most of Redlands, Highland, Loma Linda and Grand Terrace. The district was and remains almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. At the time he declared his candidacy, the Democrats boasted some 700 more registered voters in the district than did the GOP. But a Republican registration drive redressed that slight disparity, and just a few weeks prior to the election Republicans had swelled their ranks to outnumber Democrats by 101 voters. Of the 219,214 registered voters in the district, 77,771, or 37.0 percent, are registered Democrats. Republicans claimed 77,872, which is statistically likewise pegged at 37.0 percent.
For the Republicans and Steinorth, the outcome was never truly in doubt. Given the greater Republican voter turnout at most elections – consistently running at six to eight percent – and the reliable pattern of voters who decline to state a major party affiliation voting in equal numbers for Democrats and Republicans, the actual contest in the 40th this year was between the three Democrats – Art Bustamante, Kathleen Marie Henry, Melissa O’Donnell – in the race for second place in the June primary to see which of those would capture second place and the honor of losing to Steinorth in November.
Steinorth, nonetheless, did not assume victory or rest on his laurels but aggressively campaigned all the way in the November 4 final against Henry, running as if he were five percentage points behind.
Along the way, Steinorth picked up the endorsements of a veritable who’s who of political figures and associations. Notable among them were those of Mayor Dennis Michael, his first political opponent, as well as the Rancho Cucamonga City Employees Association and the Rancho Cucamonga Firefighters Association.
All of Steinorth’s hard work and diligence and that of his team paid off. The tallying of the votes after the polls closed on November 4 showed that Steinorth outpolled Henry by better than ten percent among the 70,602 of the district’s 219,214 registered voters who participated in this year’s balloting. Henry captured 31,306 votes or 44.34 to Steinorth’s 39,296 votes or 55.66 percent.
Steinorth’s accomplishment was an extraordinary one by any measure. Few San Bernardino County politicians since the inception of the county in the 1850s had risen from such political obscurity into the halls of the statehouse so rapidly. A mere four years after his maiden political venture in which he had failed to gain election as mayor of Rancho Cucamonga and just two years after Steinorth claimed his first electoral victory by acceding to the Rancho Cucamonga City Council, he is an Assemblyman-elect. In his run to victory he was endorsed by the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, the San Bernardino Sun, the Press-Enterprise, the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the San Bernardino County Safety Employees’ Benefit Association, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the California Small Business Association, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Associated Builders and Contractors of Southern California, the Inland Empire Taxpayers Association, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the Association of California School Administrators, the San Bernardino County Farm Bureau, the Association of California State Supervisors, the California Republican Party, the California Republican Assembly, the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, the California Young Republican Federation, the Inland Valley Young Republicans, the San Bernardino County Young Republicans and the Inland Empire Black Conservatives His energy and intelligence, his experience as a businessman, his charisma and eloquence, not to mention the variety of his political associations and contacts mark him as the political newcomer of the year in Sacramento.
Yet for all of the potential seemingly spread out before him, Marc Steinorth will walk into the lower chamber of the California Legislature next month in much the same way he took his place at the dais in the Rancho Cucamonga City Council two years ago, something like the way Daniel walked into the lion’s den.
A pro-business Republican, he is headed for a city – Sacramento – currently dominated by Democrats. The owner of the team is a Democrat. The team manager is a Democrat. The team captain is a Democrat. The squad leaders are Democrats. Will he be able to play ball in this unfamiliar stadium?
Most likely, given the assets he possesses and the Republican-friendly turf from which he hails, Steinorth can successfully vie for reelection again in 2016 and 2018. Given the new term limit restrictions that allow one politician to serve up to 12 years in a single house, he can perhaps seek and obtain voter recertification in 2020, and 2022 and 2024. But will he be effective in terms of achieving the ends that his supporters elected him to achieve? Or will he, to reach his own definition of political success and pass legislation, need to shift what he is advocating, come to an accommodation with his more numerous Democratic colleagues, compromise on the goals he currently has in mind? As a die-hard advocate of the business community in a chamber full of politicians who have been given their charters because they are advocates of those who desire an overarching welfare state, will his eloquence prevail in an argument that overregulation must cease, that the fetters have to be removed from businesses so that the economic engine of California can get in tune, with all eight cylinders firing in sequence, so the state’s financial vehicle can hum down the highway pulling everyone along? Or will he need to make concessions, as he did in Rancho Cucamonga, on issues of principle and orientation, a move that endeared him to the political establishment and advanced his own standing as a political entity but which forsook the issues that brought him into the political arena to begin with?
At this stage, with one foot planted in Rancho Cucamonga and the other reaching toward the banks of the Sacramento River, Steinorth does not see the world in same stark terms he did four years ago. He has softened, by some standards, though he maintains he has actually been toughened, hardened by political reality.
Steinorth told the Sentinel this week that when he took up his position on the city council in 2012, “What I experienced was as much of an education as what I tried to teach. I learned that public employees, the people who comprised staff at City Hall were all regular, normal people trying to perform their jobs as best as possible with the resources available to them under tremendous pressure.”
He grew understanding of those he had been critical of in the past, Steinorth said.
“In the private sector we look at in a way where we see the public system perhaps as giving its workers opportunities with job experience unavailable to traditional private enterprise, private sector employees.”
But Steinorth intimated that what many people consider to be generous or overly generous pay checks and benefits provided to public employees are in some way justifiable.
“Private sector employees know what is expected of them,” Steinorth said. “If I’m a car salesman, my job is to sell cars and I can see how many cars I need to sell per month to be successful. In the public sector the benchmark is forever changing. Running a city efficiently with great senior programs, youth programs, paving roads, landscaping neighborhoods and parks, providing public safety with the police and fire departments is not one job. There are multiple parts and multiple approaches to their jobs. They also have to work with the public and public opinion can be fickle. What I saw when I came to the city were a lot of really hard working people who were not always sure they were appreciated for the hard work they were doing. When you have a city that is well run you are tempted into saying it can run itself but what I learned is it was quite the opposite. It took a tremendous amount of effort to make it look easy. As we say in the private sector, you need to make commitments with your people for them to achieve the talent level you need for success. I think the city of Rancho Cucamonga has been very successful in growing the next generation of talented employees. That stewardship from the city managers- Jack Lam and now John Gillison – has been tremendous. I may not agree with every decision John Gillison makes, but I have to recognize his desire to make the best decision for the benefit of the city. When I joined the Rancho Cucamonga City Council, the other city council members and the mayor were not sure how we could best work together, but within a very short period of time we were able to form a relationship to determine our common goals and work as a team.“
Looking back at what he originally conceived of as a clash of two world views, Steinorth said turned out to be a fruitful exchange of differing but ultimately reconcilable perspectives.
“I was able to tell the about the way I used to think before about the way government operates,” he said. “I still think government does not understand how much of the private sector works. On the private sector side, we don’t have much interaction with the government and we do not have an understanding of what government is really doing. Since I have been in office, I am able to share with others what I have learned, since I have worked within government, and I see what it is about.”
Steinorth said he will go to the state capitol as a facilitator rather than a dissident.
“I intend to represent our region in Sacramento with that same optimism I had on the city council, to achieve results,” he said. “Some of my ambition may not be shared by my future colleagues, but most people recognize there is some commonality among all of us. We need to find those areas where we agree with one another and create cooperation among all of us.
“If you analyze it,” Steinorth continued, “The Republicans and Democrats disagree on sixty percent of the issues. That means we can work with each other on forty percent. With the new term limits being implemented, one person can stay for up to 12 years in one house. This allows a much greater opportunity to build relationships with each other and work together regardless of whether there is an R or a D next to your name.”
Steinorth gave further indication that he would be prepared to dispense with strict partisan affiliation in favor of creating alliances with Democrats to achieve ends that would benefit their constituencies in common.
“Speaking about this region, in the freshman class we have myself, the current mayor of Big Bear, Jay Obernolte, and Chad Mayes, who was supervisor Rutherford’s chief of staff and Ling Ling Chang. Coupled with sophomores Cheryl Brown and Christopher Holden, we represent the Inland Empire. Larger than the Inland Empire is the inland regions and as a unit we have more in common than we have differences in opposition. I am really optimistic and truly encouraged at what we are going to be able to achieve in the next two years.”
Steinorth, who yet owns an advertising agency which is based in Rancho Cucamonga, said he, for one, was not in danger of becoming a creature of Sacramento, who would grow out of touch with his district.
“During the orientation they had for us, I heard that some of the new members are looking at purchasing homes there,” Steinorth said. “I’m looking at buying better luggage. I’m the guy who will be traveling a lot on Southwest.”


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