Colton Council Hopefuls Chastain, Mitchell & Zamora Seeking The Future In The Past

Six years after the game-changing 2010 Colton Municipal Election and two years on from the wholesale changing of the political guard in the Hub City, a move is afoot that would return to office three former elected officials and potentially reestablish a reasonable facsimile of a ruling coalition with a different vision for the city than those now in charge.
Vying to make what only a short time ago seemed to be an improbable political comeback are former mayors Kelly Chastain, Sarah Zamora and former councilman John Mitchell.
Kelly Chastain was first elected to the city council as Third District councilwoman in 1996 when she ran at the urging of councilwoman Deirdre Bennett, turning out longtime serving but scandal-plagued Abe Beltran. Almost immediately upon being elected, she formed an alliance with Bennett. A decade later Chastain would run against Bennett and accede to the position of mayor, ruling the roost for four years until she was ignominiously turned out of office as the consequence of the brief political ascendancy of David Zamora.
John Mitchell served on the city council for two terms, representing Colton’s Sixth District. There was a mercurial element to Mitchell’s previous political trajectory. Before he was on the city council he was a close political advisor, friend and associate of councilwoman Deirdre Bennett. With Bennett, Mitchell shared an affinity for Republican, some might say right wing, politics, which was somewhat out of step with the overall trend in blue collar, predominantly Hispanic and Democratic Colton. But Bennett and Mitchell resided in what was and has remained as the lone bastion of Republicanism in Colton, the Fifth District, which encompasses the upper crust residential Cooley Ranch and Reche Canyon neighborhoods.
The political careers of Chastain and Mitchell revolved around that of Bennett. Paradoxically, they initially orbited Bennett as close, virtually inseparable allies; ultimately Chastain and Mitchell’s relationship with Bennett would sour and they would become the most bitter of rivals.
Bennett’s tenure on the council began under then-mayor Frank Gonzales in 1992 and advanced temporarily under the mayoralty of George Fulp, until he was removed from office in a recall vote in 1996. Bennett languished during the scandal-plagued administration of mayor Karl Gaytan, but saw her fortunes advance after Gaytan’s indictment and resignation. Long term council member Betty Cook was selected to succeed Gaytan upon his exodus from Colton politics, but never had the opportunity to actually wield the gavel in any meaningful way, as she was felled by a stroke within days of achieving her position at the top of the Colton political heap.
When Bennett was selected to succeed Cook as mayor, Mitchell was appointed to fill the gap on the council in the city’s fifth district seat. At that point, Bennett and Chastain were already in lockstep. Mitchell’s addition to the council created the nucleus of a ruling coalition that essentially dominated Colton for most of the next six years. Toward the end of that interim events would transpire that would destroy the cordial and mutually beneficial cooperation between the three.
The first of these was the council’s move in early 2006 to hire Mark Nuaimi, the mayor of nearby Fontana whose professional expertise was that of an electrical engineer, to serve as Colton’s assistant city manager. Nuaimi, like Bennett, Mitchell and Chastain, was a Republican. Having established ties with developmental interests in his own city, he established a strong working relationship with Chastain, whose ambition for higher office, such as County Supervisor, was no secret. By the summer of 2006, Nuaimi had replaced Bennett as Chastain’s main adviser and confidant. If Chastain was truly intent on running for supervisor or a state office such as the Assembly, California Senate, or federal office such as Congress, it would be best that she do so from the position of mayor rather than councilwoman. And since Chastain’s Third District council seat was subject to election in a four year cycle corresponding with the presidential elections and the mayor’s race occurred in those years corresponding with California’s gubernatorial contests, she could challenge Bennett for the mayor’s post without risking her council position. Before the mayoral election Chastain procured a $5,000 campaign donation from a Fontana developer David Weiner and several other donors with close ties to Nuaimi. That summer, an opportunity of unparalleled political serendipity presented itself: Councilman Ramon Hernandez, who had become with Chastain and Mitchell a fairly reliable fourth vote on the council to solidify the Bennett-led coalition, was arrested for using his city credit card to pay for local motel stays and phone-sex hotlines. Chastain declared her candidacy for mayor amid the hoopla, and in the course of the campaign it was suggested by Chastain that Bennett, as mayor, had kept a lid on the scandal involving Hernandez by suppressing information about his activity and misappropriations, and keeping the lurid details from the public. Simultaneously, Mitchell sought to assist Hernandez by using his own personal funds to reimburse the city for the monetary costs of Hernandez’s indiscretions. Ultimately, after the election, it would be revealed that Bennett had actually pressed then-city manager Daryl Parrish for an investigation into the Hernandez matter in the weeks and months prior to it becoming public.
When all of the ballots were counted after the November 2006 election, Chastain had outdistanced Bennett by a mere nine votes and .14 of a percentage point, 3,235 votes or 49.93 percent to 3,226 votes or 49.79 percent.
Chastain’s political career had reached its zenith; she was a Republican mayor in a Democrat city, the beneficiary of a close alliance with Nuaimi. Both were members of the county’s transportation agency, San Bernardino Associated Governments, known by its acronym SANBAG. Both had access to donors willing to back their progress further up the political food chain and both were strong regional political contenders for either county supervisor or state assembly. Chastain had the backing of Mitchell on the council and they were able to count on the votes of council members Vincent Yzaguirre, who replaced Chastain, and Susan Oliva.
By the end of 2007 Chastain’s star had already begun to fade as a series of controversies erupted, many centering around her close personal relationship with Nuaimi, whose involvement in and influence over political developments in Colton even as he was serving as the city’s second-highest staff member. Conflict of interest charges arose due to Nuaimi’s dual roles in the governance of Fontana and Colton, two cities that often had competing interests. Early in 2008, things came to a crisis as it was discovered that Nuaimi and Parrish had sent emails to Chastain referring to Colton citizens as “urban idiots”, “monkeys” and “fools.” When confronted in public, Chastain attempted to brass it out, continuing her stanch support of Nuaimi and Parrish. All this and more led to the 2008 recall attempt against Chastain, which Chastain was able to overcome with the help of $15,000 in campaign contributions from Nuaimi’s Fontana connections.
Meanwhile in the 2008 election, Bennett chased Mitchell from office, gathering 1,341 votes to Mitchell’s 982. A third candidate, Robert Wilson, polled 202 votes.
Chastain’s political stock continued to plummet under the strain of her continuing miscalculations, missteps and the lingering economic downturn that had begun in 2007. Colton is one of only two cities in San Bernardino County that owns its own electrical utility. In an effort to shore up the city financially, the Chastain-led council dramatically raided electricity rates to the point that Colton residents and businesses were paying more than 15 percent above the cost of electricity available in nearby cities from Southern California Edison. This move failed to generate further utility-based revenue for the city, as residential customers responded by discontinuing or decreasing use of their air conditioning units during the summer and a significant number of businesses closed or moved elsewhere. As a consequence, the city saw a resultant reduction in sales tax revenue. As Colton’s continued to slide toward the edge of a financial abyss, in 2009 over 100 City of Colton employees were laid off and both city libraries were closed down. City Manager Parrish left town in the midst of the turmoil and in November 2009 Nuaimi “laid himself off” taking a hefty severance package with him. By 2010, Colton’s one-time general fund reserves had been reduced from $4.5 million to $55,000 and was on the verge of bankruptcy. Chastain’s political demise was sealed when David Zamora ran against her in that year’s mayoral contest.
A Colton resident who had been hired as the city’s community development director when Frank Gonzales had been mayor in the 1980s, Zamora had remained in that key municipal post for more than a quarter of a century, surviving efforts by George Fulp to have him cashiered in the mid-1990s. But with the downsizing the city engaged in during the years following the onset of the 2007 recession, Zamora was forced into retirement by Parrish and Nuaimi early in 2009. 2010 marked Frank Gonzalez’s political comeback, as well.
In 2010, Zamora trounced Chastain 4,896 votes to 3,289. In the city’s second district, Gonzales outpolled Tony Morales, 810 to 747.
A seemingly new day had dawned. With the mandate he had obtained, together with his institutional knowledge of City Hall and the community garnered from 26 years overseeing the city’s growth and function, Zamora appeared ready to escort Colton into a new era. Susan Oliva, who had voted pretty much in accordance with the Chastain coalition since she had been elected to the council in 2006, was narrowly returned to the council. But in the face of the political juggernaut that had swept Zamora into office, Oliva had little choice but to go along with the trends afoot. Through strength of personality, Zamora had virtually eradicated all vestiges of Chastain’s political hold. But the Zamora era was short lived. In July 2011, while returning to City Hall from his lunch break at home, Zamora suffered a massive coronary attack and drove his car into a power pole. He did not survive the crash. With him the Political Pax Colton he had forged expired. The bereaved community convulsed at the death of the mayor and in a fit of sympathy and in an effort to sustain the unifying force he embodied, appointed his widow, Sarah, who had previously served on the city council for nearly four years in the aftermath of the indictments of then-mayor Karl Gaytan, former councilman Abe Beltran, then-councilman Don Sanders and then-councilman James Grimsby, the latter of whom Sarah Zamora replaced.
With the disappearance of David Zamora as the city’s unifying gravitational pull, the centripetal political force grew centrifugal, and the council’s various personages – Bennett, Gonzales, Oliva, Sixth District Councilman Isaac Suchil, Vincent Yzaguirre, and Sarah Zamora immediately embarked on an effort to achieve an ascendancy none could achieve because of their individual and collective dearth of political skill. While a veneer of cordiality remained amongst the council, Sarah Zamora voted and acted in ways that were demonstrably at odds with her late husband’s approach to governance. In 2014, the council appeared hell bent on a painful reckoning; Gonzales declared his intention to run for mayor, 20 years after he had departed that position. In the face of Gonzales’s challenge, Sarah Zamora opted against remaining in the mayoral position. One-time council member Richard DeLaRosa reemerged to seek the mayoralty as well. Meanwhile, Summer Zamora Jorrin, the daughter of David Zamora and Sarah Zamora who had been a member of the city’s parks and recreation commission, declared her candidacy for the District 2 council seat.
Jorrin won but Gonzales lost.
In the immediate aftermath of both Frank Gonzales’s and Sarah Zamora’s departures from the Colton City Council, the newly composed council as it first order of business enacted a host of ethics reforms that included a nepotism prohibition to prevent the council from appointing family members to city commissions and likewise banning city employees from sitting on city commissions and committees. The ethical reform package passed very narrowly, on a 4-3 vote, with councilman Frank Navarro being the most passionate advocate of the policy change. Navarro asserted that Colton had built up an “unsavory reputation” of favoritism to relatives of city officials. “We need to promote a sense of honesty, integrity and transparency,” Navarro said, suggesting that the city start the reform process by preventing those with familial connections exercising undue influence at City Hall.
Almost two years later political ghosts are returning to haunt Colton. In the last three days of the filing period, Sarah Zamora, John Mitchell and Chastain resurfaced as hopefuls in the upcoming election, qualifying their candidacies.
Of note is that Bennett, due for reelection, will not run, having pulled out because of what she said are “health” reasons. But she, or at least her specter, remains as a touchstone of the election, with five of this year’s candidates having a past or current connection to her. Running in her place is her husband, Bruce. Also vying for the Fifth District council position are two of her appointees to the planning commission, Kirk Larson and Jack Woods. Also running in the Fifth District is her erstwhile advisor and ally and now dire political enemy, Mitchell. The fifth political entity in this year’s race once connected to Bennett is Chastain.
The Colton Fifth District match-up makes for interesting handicapping. Bruce Bennett enjoys the advantage of the name recognition and identification he has as a consequence of his wife’s incumbency. Bennett also has previous experience as a Colton Planning commissioner prior to Deirdre Bennett’s ascendancy to public office. Also accruing to him is the political data at his wife’s disposal and her connections. Mitchell possesses a leg up from the standpoint of his having run successfully for office in Colton in the past and having previously advised on or managed Deirdre Bennett’s campaigns. Kirk Larson and Jack Woods bring to the table their respective experiences on the city commissions. Larson, who was close to Bennett and was appointed to the commission by her, was also closely associated with Mitchell when he was on the council.
At present on the council, there is a loosely knit affiliation between council members David Toro, Frank Navarro, Dr. Luis Gonzalez (no relation to Frank Gonzales) and Deirdre Bennett, with the mayor, De La Rosa and Isaac Suchil often lining up with that coalition, depending on the issue at hand. Summer Zamora Jorrin remains something of an outsider.
Yet, there is a prospect that Zamora Jorrin’s status as one on the outside looking in could shift if the political ambitions of her mother, Mitchell and Chastain advance.
Chastain is challenging Navarro in the Third District. Navarro has been on the council since 2012, when he ousted the incumbent, Vincent Yzaguirre, by polling 845 votes or 56.74 percent to Yzaguirre’s 645 or 43.26 percent.
Navarro has gained further momentum and strength since coming into office. He is the City of Colton’s representative on SANBAG, San Bernardino County’s Transportation Agency, as well as the Inland Valley member on SCAG, Southern California’s Regional Planning Agency, on which he represents Colton, Grand Terrace, Redlands, Yucaipa and Loma Linda. The Third District’s demographics favor Navarro, with nearly 80 percent of its registered voters being Hispanic. In 2006, the last election Chastain won, she failed to carry the Third District in that race for mayor against Bennett, despite the consideration that she had thrice gained electoral victory there, in 1996, 2000 and 2004. Chastain, on the other hand, has won three elections in the Third District in the past and previously had the support of the city’s public employee unions. Chastain is a member of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee. As a member of the GOP, however, she is out of step with Colton overall and the Third District in particular, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of more than two to one.
In the Fifth District, Mitchell will need to put several demons to rest if he hopes to get back into office. With the Ramon Hernandez scandal now a decade in the past, he might be able to avoid having too many of his district’s voters hold him accountable for his effort to both literally and figuratively bail Hernandez out. When it became known that Hernandez had used his city issued credit card to download images from gay pornographic websites and to pay for local hotel rooms where he engaged in homosexual trysts with dozens of young men, Mitchell sought to defuse the situation by reimbursing the city on Hernandez’s behalf, working behind the scenes to keep the matter under wraps and then working in league with Chastain to make it appear that it was Deirdre Bennett, who was then mayor, who was the party responsible for the cover-up. Bennett did not forget what had occurred and came after Mitchell, her former right hand man, with a vengeance in the 2008 election, unseating him. It seems unlikely that Deirdre Bennett’s husband, Bruce, who in 2008 was involved in the effort to recall Chastain as mayor, will have forgotten what occurred in 2006, either. Still the same, Bruce Bennett has never won an election on his own. Neither has Kirk Larson nor Jack Woods. Mitchell thus appears to stand a slightly better chance at regaining his former position on the council than his ally, Chastain.
In the Sixth District, Sarah Zamora is challenging incumbent Isaac Suchil, who was first elected to that position in 2004, served four years and narrowly lost reelection to Alex Perez in 2008 and then convincingly defeated Perez in 2012. Her effort to unseat Suchil appears less focused on her opponent than on her effort to redeem her political reputation. While she enjoyed a honeymoon, of sorts, in the two year aftermath of her husband’s untimely death, Sarah Zamora saw her political reach diminish in the last year-and-a-half she was in office. At that point, a council majority stripped her of her appointments as the city’s representative on the county transportation agency and Southern California’s largest and most prestigious regional planning forum, SCAG, the Southern California Association of Governments.
For many observers, Sarah Zamora’s effort to re-immerse herself into Colton politics is curious in that her last political sally, riding as it were on her deceased husband’s coattails, she appeared to mar her family’s legacy rather than burnish it. She floated the idea, late in her tenure as mayor, to repeat Chastain’s policy of enhancing the city’s revenue picture by raising electrical rates, despite her husband having moved to reduce those rates after he came into office. Sarah Zamora was unable to convince the council to go along with making that increase. As her tenure in office ended, a move to curtail political dynasties in Colton was launched. The anti-nepotism rules that went into the city code appeared to be aimed at both her and Frank Gonzales, who, according to legend once had 32 of his family members on the city payroll. There had been some discomfiture, as well, back in the early 2000s, when Sarah Zamora was a city councilwoman and her husband was the city’s top planning and land use official. Before leaving office, Sarah Zamora opposed the proposed ethics package. When that anti-nepotism provision came up for a vote in December 2014, Sarah and David Zamora’s daughter, Summer Zamora Jorrin voted against it.
At this juncture, Sarah Zamora wants back onto the council. If she is successful, she will create a situation in which the image that has long plagued Colton – that of a backwater hick town in which cronyism and nepotism has interfered with good governance – will be resurrected. Handicapping the race between Sara Zamora and Suchil offers some degree of delight. The most charitable way to characterize Suchil is to say that he is mercurial. His political foes call him inconsistent. Certainly there are paradoxical elements to his approach. He is well known for making statements which auger he is leaning in one direction and he will then vote opposite of his presumed commitment. In carrying out what appears to be a sincere analysis to augment the deliberative process, he often applies a logic that is peculiarly his own. Professionally, he is a sheriff’s deputy and as such is already eligible to draw an extremely generous pension upon retirement, one that will give him three percent of his highest salary as a sheriff’s deputy times the number of years he has been employed with the sheriff’s department. This puts him squarely in the camp of public employees targeted as the villains by those engaged in an effort to effectuate public employee salary reform. Yet Suchil himself has labeled public employees, and those employed in Colton in particular, as overpaid. Some see in this an admirable frankness. Others, in particular public employees and the public employee unions, see his attitude in a less favorable light. Whether those public employee unions will seize the day and link up with Sarah Zamora, who is a recipient of fifty percent of the generous pension allotment provided to her husband while he was still living for the rest of her life, is an open question. If Sarah Zamora can capture hefty union support, she will perhaps be able to continue the electoral pattern that Suchil has established so far: win election (2004), lose the race for reelection (2008); win election (2012). If this pattern holds, Suchil is scheduled to lose in 2016. Whether he can break that pattern will be decided by the voters in November. Even though Suchil joined with Summer Zamora Jorrin in voting against the ethics reform package that contained the anti-nepotism clause, Suchil appears well-positioned to capitalize on the crest of anti-nepotism sentiment that could assist his candidacy, in that a victory by his opponent would put a mother and daughter on the council together.
Councilman David Toro, who has the luxury of not having to stand for reelection this year, not surprisingly, is supporting the two incumbents running this year. Toro called for Frank Navarro’s reelection, saying he “has made a major difference to the city.” Conversely, he dismissed Chastain’s mayoralty as one during which “the city and council was divided at its worst in Colton history.”
Of Suchil, Toro said, he “has helped to make a lot of improvements in his district and helped bring unity and positive momentum to the city as a whole.” Sarah Zamora’s tenure leading the city, Toro said, was plagued by “lack of knowledge and poor decisions.” He said that at one point several Councilmembers had became so discontented with Sarah Zamora’s conduct that she was “asked to resign as mayor.”
Toro offered no direct endorsement of Bruce Bennett, Kirk Larson or Jack Woods, though he said Bennett would carry on in the tradition of his wife if he were elected. Toro made clear he was no supporter of John Mitchell, saying he was “part of the divisiveness” of the Chastain era.
That Toro has swung his support to his current colleagues may or may not auger well for them. Some years, Colton voters have been very supportive of incumbents and the status quo. At other times, they have made radical house cleanings, and incumbency and the support of the establishment has proven more of a hindrance to the city’s politicians.
In the meantime, former council member Susan Oliva appears to be working behind the scenes in an effort to further the candidacies of Chastain, Mitchell and Zamora. Word has reached the Sentinel that she has made phone calls looking to drum up support for the three challengers.
An obvious question is how active the city’s public employee unions will be in this race. A major issue for those unions is keeping a relative stasis in terms of employment and the avoidance of layoffs. Last December the city council was on the brink of declaring a fiscal emergency. This June, however, the city’s voters approved Measure D, to increase the electric utility general fund transfer by an overwhelming margin with 5,161 votes in favor, or 76.2 percent.
At this point the city appears to be at relative peace, and the city’s employees are not likely to be subject to layoffs and may even continue to see some modest pay raises in the future. To make a pointed stand in supporting challengers against incumbents in the upcoming council races may not be in those employees’ long term interest.
–Mark Gutglueck

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