By Carlos Avalos
For many, the upcoming November 8 looms as one of the most important and significant presidential elections in recent memory. There is also a perception that there has not been a recent presidential election where the set of candidates running for the president of the United States could be further from each other ideologically when it comes to the direction they envision for the United States.
Something akin to that applies to the local 47th State Assembly District race, where two candidates are battling it out for the right to represent a significant portion of the Inland Empire in Sacramento. The 47th Assembly District consists of Bloomington, Fontana, Rialto, Colton, Grand Terrace, Muscoy, and parts of San Bernardino. Cheryl Brown is the incumbent and Eloise Gomez Reyes is the challenger. Just like the presidential race, one is a career politician and encompasses everything that embodies the political establishment, which is fueled by money, power, and friendships that make navigating the political landscape and winning more easily attainable.
In every country, state, and local city when someone decides to run for office, there are usually a few constants that typify political races, no matter how big or small. Politics is messy and often serpentine; and the winner of any race usually has more money and political clout. Hand in hand with this is the nepotism and cronyism that too often defines politics.
Ideally, the best man or woman or candidate wins. Ideally, the cream rises to the top. But that is the ideal. It is a truism that many times the person who gets elected is not the better candidate. And often, if by whatever standard the person who does get elected can be deemed to have been the best person for the job, the rigors of representation and the pressure of conflict can result in the office holder losing sight of what it was that drove him or her to run for public office in the first place. The ideal of serving the public to the best of one’s ability and representing the needs of constituents is routinely compromised by or becomes secondary to the power, notoriety, and prestige that accompanies the political office. The exalted status of public official too often proves blinding, intoxicating, mind- and decision-altering.
The Los Angeles Times reported in August of this year that the state’s ethics watchdog agency has issued a warning letter to Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown (D-San Bernardino) for violating a requirement to report the disposal of a personal asset. The enforcement division of the Fair Political Practices Commission launched an investigation after receiving a complaint that alleged Brown reported a business entity that raised concern about a potential conflict of interest. It was found that in 2012 Brown transferred ownership of her business, Brown Publishing, to an adult child but erroneously continued to report that economic interest, on an annual statement of economic interests. Elected officials are required to report when they dispose of an asset, according to the Political Reform Act. Brown’s actions violated that act because she continued to report an interest in Brown Publishing on a subsequent annual statement. Brown later corrected her public documents.
The confusion that ensued raised these questions: Does the assemblywoman still own the publishing concern? Does she still have a financial interest in it? Is it, perhaps, now no longer her possession? Will she stand, later, perhaps after she is no longer in public office, to reassume ownership of that publishing business? Will it have grown in value during her hiatus from her ownership of it?
It is, of course, possible this was an honest mistake made by Mrs. Brown or her accountant or her legal representative. But as a seasoned State Assembly member and as the publisher or former publisher of a newspaper that monitors the behavior of public officials, Assemblywoman Brown has opened herself to a serious round of questioning.
Other publications, such as the Fontana Herald News, have questioned Brown’s voting record, not taking issue, per se, with the votes she has cast, but rather with the votes she has missed by not showing up to important voting sessions which involved gun reform laws.
The most serious criticism leveled against Assemblywoman Brown pertains to votes she did make, in particular a 2013 vote in favor of SB 4 and a more recent vote in favor of Senate Bill 350.
Senate Bill 4 began as an aggressive legislative effort to regulate hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, which is a technique of oil or natural gas well stimulation in which rock is fractured by a pressurized liquid, the high-pressure injection of a ‘fracking fluid’ into a wellbore to create cracks in the deep-rock formations through which natural gas and petroleum will flow more freely. While this can force oil to the surface in significant amounts, many environmentalists have reservations over the technique because it can cause the contamination of the water table by forcing petroleum and other substances into the water at varying depth levels and potentially result in geologic instability. In 2013, Brown voted against legislation that would have imposed strict conditions on and regulations for handling and monitoring fracking wastewater, voted against legislation that would have imposed a moratorium on fracking until regulations were in place and she withheld her support of Senate Bill 4, which would have provided the more comprehensive legislation intended to regulate fracking that environmentalists wanted, until many of its original provisions were weakened to the point that the oil and gas industry had ceased its lobbying against the bill.
In 2015, Senate Bill 350 was proposed, a far-reaching environmental law requiring that California get half of its electricity from renewable sources, primarily solar panels, solar-based heat/steam generators and wind plants, by 2030, that the energy efficiency in buildings be doubled in the same 15-year timeframe and that there be a corresponding reduction in petroleum use in California to match those goals. Once again, Brown took a lead in resisting the passage of that bill, finally agreeing to support it only after the specific petroleum use reductions were removed from it. Overall, Brown garnered a reputation of opposing any environmentalist-oriented legislation dealing with energy use until that legislation underwent a reduction in its scope and character that came into compliance with the goals of energy companies.
Chevron then used one of its political action committees, which goes by the awkward label Keeping Californians Working, Dentists, Housing Providers, Energy and Insurance Agents, to make a $1 million independent expenditure in support of Cheryl Brown in her run for reelection this year.
San Bernardino County once was, along with Orange County, a bastion of Republicanism. Indeed, even as the voter registration trends in the county have changed to the point where they in fact favor the Democrats, Republican voters still evince greater turnout at election time, such that the county is still one of the only counties in the state where Republican office holders outnumber Democrat office holders. As of this week 358,288, or 40.3 percent of the county’s 890,115 registered voters were registered Democrats. At the same time, 284,638 or 32 percent of the county’s voters are Republicans. In the 47th Assembly District, the registration advantage the Democrats enjoy over the Republicans is even more pronounced, with 91,539 or 50.5 percent of the district’s 181,108 voters registered Democrats and 36,664 or 20.2 percent of its voters registered as Republicans. The 47th Assembly District stands as one that is safe for Democrats, with little prospect that a Republican can win there. Thus, Brown finds herself opposed in this year’s election not by a Republican, but another Democrat, Eloise Gomes Reyes.
Brown’s embracing of big oil companies and their embracing of her, paired with her rejection of what many in her party consider to be progressive energy and environmental legislation, has resulted in her having fallen from favor with a key element of the Democratic constituency, environmentalists. She has been lambasted as “Chevron Cheryl.” Hakan Jackson of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice Action, said of the incumbent assemblywoman, “Brown’s record puts the profits of polluters above ensuring clean air and drinking water for the people of our district.”
Leo Briones, an Eloise Reyes consultant stated in July that “Brown can have every Sacramento politician and special interest group; but she is still a legislator that does not represent the progressive values of her district when it comes to issues of working families, of consumers, of guns and public safety and the environment.”
Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips believes that Brown “is a nice person, but a bad law maker.” Phillips said, “Brown has collected too much money from the oil industry and let that guide too many of her votes.”
Brown, her critics charge, is driven by the money given to her rather than by her party’s principles or the dictates of her own conscience. By her own words, Brown has given the members of her own party, who now oppose her, ammunition to attempt to shoot her down politically.
In December of 2015, Brown was at her alma mater, Cal State San Bernardino, where she was talking to students. When a member of the student body asked her why she had in the past abstained and voted against important environmental legislation, Brown responded by saying “The utility companies give me so much money.” The Sierra Club called her out on this and gave her a failing grade of 67 percent, which was tied for third worst in the California Legislature. The Clean Water Action organization gave her a D grade, which put her in a ranking along with most of her Republican Assembly colleagues.
Equality California, which is a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group, withdrew its endorsement of Cheryl Brown and five other Assembly members on September 20 of this year. Equality California is now endorsing the challenger in the 47th Assembly District race, Eloise Reyes. The reason for Equality California’s pulled endorsement was Brown’s abstention on Senate Bill 1146, which requires religious universities to disclose whether they have applied for an exemption to federal anti-discrimination laws. Equality California Executive Director Rick Zvbur stated that his group endorses legislators that demonstrate a “one hundred percent voting record” and support for his group’s priority legislation. Zvbur said he and Equality California would nonetheless still be open to working with candidates like Brown in the future.
Senate Bill 967, the so-called “Yes means yes” legislation relating to sexual assault on California’s college campuses, makes it standard practice to require that colleges engage in sex assault preventative education during student orientation, with increased access to counseling resources and training for adjudication panels. This makes all three parties – the school and the two people who potentially could be involved in unwanted sexual advances and/or sexual assault – more accountable. Cheryl Brown voted no on this bill.
On Saturday October 1, there was an informational candidate forum for Assembly districts 40 and 47 at the Sacred Heart Catholic Parish in Rancho Cucamonga. This forum was hosted by Inland Congregations United for Change, known by its acronym, ICUC. Cheryl Brown and Eloise Reyes were both invited to attend. Brown was a no-show. The Sentinel reached out to ICUC for comment about why Brown did not attend the forum. A spokesman for the group was unable to give the Sentinel comment about this, but it is rumored that Brown told ICUC that she would not be attending because it was outside of her district. This is, in fact, accurate; this specific forum that was held was about the walking distance of five hundred feet outside of her district.
This year, the California League of Conservation Voters placed Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown on a list of “most anti-environment” state candidates nationwide. Brown is distinguished to be the first Californian named to the list. The reason why Brown was placed on this list is because of her environmental voting record in the legislature. The League of Conservation Voters noted that six thousand people die annually in the region due to the air that they breathe, that is, nineteen people a day. In the recent legislative session, there were two major environmental bills that Brown refused to vote for. SB 1000 would require an environmental justice element and general plans that would recognize long forgotten communities and require cities to develop plans to address their pollution and lack of services. AB 1387 would have added two environmental justice seats to the state’s Air Quality Management Districts, ensuring the people most heavily burdened by pollution have a say in decisions.
Brown’s supporters say that in her professional capacities as a newspaper publisher and as a planner for the County of San Bernardino, as well as in serving as a planning commissioner for the City of San Bernardino, she has developed a comprehensive knowledge of the district, her constituents and their needs. She is, they maintain, sensitive to the need of keeping the existing businesses in the area flourishing, while attracting new ones. While she has demonstrated an ability to compromise and work across the aisle to make things happen in Sacramento, her supporters point out that she is at heart a Democrat, committed to the party and its ideals. She was endorsed by the statewide Democratic Party in her reelection bid.
In a mailer sent out to voters in the 47th Assembly District, one that was funded by the independent expenditure committee funded by the Chevron Corporation, Brown’s voting record on environmental issues as a legislator was lauded. In that mailer, Brown was celebrated as “an environmental champion for us all. Cheryl Brown voted for the strongest renewable energy bill in California’s history, which will double California’s renewable energy requirements. Cheryl Brown worked to pass a law that the California Environmental Justice Alliance called, ‘The biggest solar bill in the nation’s history’ for low income renters.”
San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan has endorsed Brown, saying “she demonstrates integrity and effective leadership” and “has a deep understanding of the many issues facing our city and surrounding region.”
Cheryl Brown has had the honor and pleasure of being elected to the California Assembly for the 47th district since 2012. Many people agree that Cheryl Brown seems to have a genuinely good heart and she has done many good things for the 47th District and her constituents. She also has many people in the 47th District supporting her, as well as business entities and unions. Being an effective and consistent state assembly member is a daunting task. There are so many people to please and a person cannot but help being dragged in thousands of directions at once.
The duties of the office inevitably weigh on a person. Because of this inevitability as well as human imperfection, error, misjudgment and miscalculation are sure to happen. Because of the errors that will be made, most people have compassion if a person admits mistakes and seeks to correct his or her course. People love the underdog story and a person who rights his or her wrongs.
But in Sacramento or any legislative government, on any level common sense must accompany a politician and this must be rounded out with compassion and integrity. Whether a person is a politician or an Average Joe, this is a hard skill to master.
Cheryl Brown has not admitted that abstaining from voting on important legislation, voting against, or not even showing up to vote were mistakes. That element of her voting record is something now being considered by the people of the 47th Assembly District as the day on which they will cast their ballots nears.
The people residing in the 47th District are now pondering which of the two Democrats vying to represent them is best suited for the job. Should a fresh set of ideas be put into place by Eloise Reyes? Her supporters attest that she is intelligent and steadfast. Should the 47th District continue its collective support of the incumbent? Have the policies and legislation she has supported been in the best interest of her district and all of California? Her action and votes have raised some eyebrows. Can those actions and votes withstand the scrutiny of discerning voters? Can she justify those votes, not just to her campaign donors, but to her constituents? Brown, as the incumbent, has retained many endorsements. She has lost others, and a good sampling of Democrats who once endorsed her are now backing Eloise Reyes.
Cheryl Brown has experience as a state assembly woman. She knows how to navigate the political landscape in Sacramento and has many people supporting her. Brown’s record speaks for itself. In her many years as a newspaper publisher in association with her husband, Hardy Brown, himself a well-respected publisher, there was not even a fraction of the controversy and outrage towards her as she generated in her nearly four years in the state Assembly. She has entered what Teddy Roosevelt called “the arena.” It is now up to the voters in the 47th District to determine whether she will stay in place to lead them on the path that they have been on for nearly four years and whether she will remain in Sacramento as the representative of the heart of San Bernadino County. Will the voters of the 47th District change horses in the middle of the stream, trade in their current political horse for Eloise Reyes, someone who is not a career politician? Will Eloise Reyes, with her reputation of serving as a quiet Democratic Party activist for decades and her record of being a successful attorney in private practice while putting the community and people in it first in her set of priorities, topple the reigning political champion in the 47th Assembly District?
We will know sometime late in the evening on November 8 or early in the morning on November 9.
That is not the only question, however.
If incumbent Brown wins because the people of the 47th District elect to return her to Sacramento, will she in her third term come closer to voting in synchronization with the ideals of the Democratic Party than she did in her first two terms? Will she clean up her act as a progressive force in San Bernardino County and throughout the state, and restore again the trust and confidence she has lost among some of the people she serves in the last few years? Will she again listen to her conscience rather than the deep-pocketed political donors who have endowed her with millions of dollars to run her reelection campaigns? If Eloise Reyes wins and displaces Cheryl Brown in Sacramento, will her integrity be undermined by the same forces that have so concentrated their financial firepower on Cheryl Brown?