San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee Chairman Chris Robles appears to have survived, at least for the time being, a concerted effort by more than two dozen committee members to depose him as the local party leader, with the ruling board of the California Democratic Party opting to admonish him rather than excommunicate him from the party.
Since spring, Robles has been scrambling to put down a series of insurrections by local party members who have been critical of what many Democrats consider to be his lackluster leadership. Robles is a transplant from Los Angeles County, where he was previously active in Democratic politics and politics in general as the owner of Vantage Campaigns, a political consulting company. Upon relocating to San Bernardino County, he acceded to a position on the county’s Democratic central committee, and was selected to serve as chairman in 2012.
Part of Robles’ appeal was that he had experience with a number of campaigns, as a manager, treasurer and consultant. It was widely assumed he would energetically apply his knowledge of the intricacies of fundraising and campaigning across a broad number of races, from ones at the local municipal level, to county contests and those for the state legislature as well as for Congress. Robles’ coordination of party efforts on behalf of Democratic candidates has been, his critics say, disappointing, as during his tenure the Democratic Party in San Bernardino County has failed to make gains commensurate with its growing demographic clout.
In 2010, the number of registered Democrats in San Bernardino County surpassed the number of registered Republicans, and the Democrats have held a growing plurality among registered voters ever since. That trend appeared to be reflected in the countywide results in the 2012 presidential race when Barack Obama outdistanced Republican Mitt Romney 305,109 votes or 52.55 percent to 262,358 or 45.19 percent. And again in 2016, Hillary Clinton in San Bernardino County outperformed her Republican rival, Donald Trump, by 340,833 votes or 52.64 percent to 271,240 votes or 41.89 percent. Nevertheless, those two races, among a few notable exceptions, remain as rare showings of Democratic political might in San Bernardino County over the last half dozen years. Despite Democrats currently having a registration advantage over Republicans in San Bernardino County approaching a 4-to-3 margin – 357,530 registered Democratic voters or 40.1 percent to 279,937 registered Republican voters or 31.4 percent among a total of 890,918 voters overall – 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. Where the Democrats hold state or federal office in San Bernardino County they hold a commanding registration advantage. In those electoral jurisdictions where the Democrats have close to parity with the Republicans or hold a lead that is substantial but less than entirely overwhelming, they have consistently lost to Republicans. Such is the case in the 40th Assembly District where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 91,615 or 40.4 percent to 76,234 or 33.7 percent, and a Republican, Marc Steinorth, holds office. In San Bernardino County’s Fourth Supervisorial District, where the registration numbers are lopsidedly in favor of the Democrats 71,859 or 43.1 percent to 47,128 or 28.3 percent, a Republican, Curt Hagman is in office, even despite the fact that his opponent in the 2014 election was a then-incumbent Democratic U.S. Congresswoman, Gloria Negrete-McLeod.
While Democrats expected Robles to utilize his electioneering expertise and his connections as a professional political consultant to boost the party’s fortunes, that failed to come about. Indeed, many Democratic candidates report, during party briefings for candidates which dealt with rudimentary and stock campaigning techniques, Robles provided them with his business card, telling them he could offer them further assistance if they were to retain him as consultant or employ him as their campaign manager. Some have suggested Robles is willing to assist them only if they can pay his substantial consulting fees.
For many San Bernardino County Democrats, Robles crossed the line last year when during the 2016 Ontario City Council campaign, Vantage Campaigns took on as one of its clients Gus Skropos, a former Ontario councilman, former Ontario mayor, former San Bernardino County supervisor and former Superior Court Judge, for the purpose of managing his campaign. Skropos was a Republican. While Robles did support Sam Crowe, a Democrat in the race, he pretty much ignored another Democrat vying for city council, Josie Estrada.
At the May 25 Democratic Central Committee meeting held at the rented California Teachers Association main conference room in San Bernardino, Robles was assailed with complaints about what was to be his less-than-energetic efforts with regard to promoting Democratic candidates generally. With prominent anti-Robles contingent members Ron Cohen, Bobbie Chavarria, Tim Prince, Leticia Garcia, Laurie Stalnaker, Debbie McAffee, James Albert, George Alfano, Socorro Cisneros, Ana Gonzales, Fernando Hernandez, and Marvin Sawyer insisting that the issue of his continued chairmanship be considered, Robles entrusted the officiating of the remaining proceedings to one of his closest allies on the committee’s executive board, Mark Westwood. As chaotic debate over Robles’ tenure and effectiveness ensued, Westwood twice refused to recognize motions for a vote of no confidence that had been seconded. To a cacophony of protests, Westwood, a bear of a man at 6 feet five inches and 360 pounds, 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.
Prior to the June 22 San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee meeting, those intent on Robles’ removal had lodged with the California Democratic Party a complaint against him and a petition for his removal as chairman and then came to the meeting armed with documentation that in his capacity as a professional campaign consultant Robles had worked for Republican candidates. Seeming to anticipate that a renewed call for his immediate removal would be made that night, Robles had moved to ensure that he would have the maximum number of supporters present to support him in the event that he was forced to allow such a vote to occur. When the meeting commenced, Robles found himself under fire and unable to direct the proceedings to even the vaguest semblance of order.
He was not able 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. Robles’ efforts to carry on with the meeting were further interrupted by an accusation that he was no longer chair because he had refused to respond to a certified letter with the grounds for his removal. Robles engaged in some back and forth over whether he could be considered to have actually been served with the petition, though he conceded he had received it, and then insisted he had responded to it as the chairman “out of an abundance of caution,” while nevertheless maintaining the move to remove him was procedurally flawed, tantamount to a “kangaroo court” and both wrongheaded and counterproductive. 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 stated that she had been consistently rebuffed in her efforts to obtain minutes of previous meetings so she could reconcile expenditures made out of the committee’s bank account with their authorizations. In his further exchanges with Stalnaker, Robles refused to grant her requests for a redetermination of the action tabled at the executive committee meeting to consider the certified letter and removal of Chris Robles. Over this issue the meeting erupted into chaos 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 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.
Undeterred, the not insubstantial contingent of anti-Robles forces within the county central committee persisted. They insisted that a “removal from membership” challenge initiated by Cohen and several others on June 3, 2017 and amended on June 13, 2017 that would have bounced Robles out of the central committee altogether be pursued to a conclusion. That challenge alleged conduct by Robles in violation of California Democratic Party by-laws during the 2015-2017 Democratic State Central Committee term. Robles was notified of the challenge in accordance with the party’s by-laws. Robles responded to the allegations raised in the challenge and declined to resign as a Democratic State Central Committee member.
Enumerated in the challenge as grounds for his removal was Robles’ advocacy of a Republican candidate in 2016; his use of the position of chairman to advocate for personal gain as a candidate consultant; his failure to support certain candidates endorsed by the county central committee in the 2016 election; his delay in making committee appointments as provided in the by-laws for more than ten months since his most recent election as chairman and an accompanying failure to allow representation from each Assembly district in the county on those committees; having not exercised due diligence in spending San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee funds for endorsed candidates in the November 2016 election, while cutting the executive board of the central committee out of the decisions on the expenditure of that money; the more than 66 percent failure rate of Democratic candidates countywide in the 2016 election; the lack of auditing on central committee funds and failure to adhere to the policy of having fund expenditures authorized by the committee; and his general lack of availability to central committee members.
Key documentation supporting the complaint consisted of campaign finance disclosure forms showing that Robles’ consulting firm, Vantage Campaigns, Inc., received payment from the Skropos campaign, as well as an email, from Skropos to Laurie Stalnaker in her capacity as the executive secretary/treasurer of the San Bernardino and Riverside Counties Central Labor Council, in which Skropos sought that body’s endorsement for his 2016 Ontario City Council run and which noted that his campaign consultant was Robles.
In his answer to those charges, Robles contested the allegations against him on procedural and factual grounds. He maintained the complaint was procedurally flawed because the issues with regard to the November 2016 election fell under the 2015-2017 Democratic Central Committee term and not the current 2017-2019 term, making the complaint late and untimely, such that his removal during the current term should not be permitted. Robles pointed out that the gist of the complaint was that he had assisted a Republican candidate, Skropos. Robles said this came about because through Vantage Campaigns he was working for Sam Crowe, a longtime Democrat who had the endorsement of the San Bernardino County Central Committee in his run for the Ontario City Council, and Crowe had conducted polling, the cost for which Crowe chose to split with Skropos. It was in that way that Skropos had come to pay Vantage Campaigns, Robles insisted.
Robles contended he had never advocated that “voters should not vote for the endorsed candidates.” Robles further contended that his consulting firm, which received payment from Skropos, is a corporation and not a California Democratic State Central Committee member and thus, its activities could not be imputed to Robles. Robles provided documentation which he said demonstrated he supported and advocated for party-endorsed local candidates, including the Ontario City Council race, by means of press releases, news articles, and robo-calls.
The complaint was considered by a committee known as the “Statewide Officers of the California Democratic Party,” consisting of the highest ranking Democratic Party members in California. The panel’s members are Eric C. Bauman, the chair of the California Democratic Party, as well as the four next highest Democratic Party officials in the state under him, Alex Gallardo-Rooker, first vice chair; Daraka Larimore-Hall, second vice chair; Jenny Bach, secretary; and Dan Weitzman, controller.
While the Statewide Officers of the California Democratic Party ruled that the membership challenge was filed in a timely fashion and that Robles’ action with regard to the 2016 election was a legitimate area of focus for examination, it held that under the party’s by-laws, local endorsements are not considered to be California Democratic Party endorsements, which more properly apply to statewide and national office. And the Statewide Officers of the California Democratic Party concluded the state party’s by-laws do not provide grounds for Robles’s removal from membership on allegations relating to his advocacy of voter support of a non-Democrat in a local election contest.
“There was no evidence that Mr. Robles publicly avows preference for another party,” the statewide officers stated in their memorandum on the matter, dated November 14, 2017. The statewide officers found that “there are insufficient grounds to remove Mr. Robles for other allegations in the challenge pertaining to Mr. Robles’s conduct as San Bernardino County Democratic Party chair.”
Nevertheless, the Statewide Officers of the California Democratic Party declared the panel “will issue a letter of admonition to Mr. Robles with respect to (1) Mr. Robles’s engagement of non-Democratic candidates, especially in election contests in which there are local Democratic Party-endorsed candidates, and (2) Mr. Robles’s inaction on seeking California Democratic Party approval of San Bernardino County Democratic Party by-laws provision on endorsements during his time as San Bernardino County Democratic Party chair.”
Robles told the Sentinel that challenges of his authority as head of the Democratic Party in San Bernardino have now been brought to a close with the statewide officers’ finding, “The state party has determined that there are no grounds for my removal,” Robles said. “This is it. There is nothing further. It is over and it is not accurate to say that I am surviving just for the moment. Ron Cohen and his small group of people sent a complaint to the state party claiming I would not allow them to vote on my being removed. The state party asked me to put it on the agenda before all the members. So, I put it on the agenda and I won by an overwhelming margin. Then Mr. Cohen challenged that. That was rejected by the state party.” Once again I am vindicated and cleared of any wrongdoing. It is time to put this nonsense behind us so that we can move forward in electing Democrats. That is why I’m here.”
Robles glossed over the issues mentioned in the admonition.
“In this most recent go-round, the state party made clear that the bylaws need to be sent to them,” Robles said. “I can assure you and everyone that annually since I have been chair, we have sent the state party the bylaws. I am shocked that they do not have a copy.”
Robles continued, “Second, they mentioned my having this connection with this other candidate [i.e., Skropos]. What no one told you is he is a registered Democrat, not a Republican.”
Robles fastidiously avoided referring to Skropos by name. According to the San Bernardino County Registrar of Voters Office, Skropos, who had been a Republican the entirety of his political and professional career to that point, on May 31 reregistered as a Democrat. Robles took credit for that transition, enlarging from that point to insist that the Democrats are now dominating the Republicans number-wise in the county.
“I recruited him to the party,” Robles said, “and that’s why we have incredible success, because we’re attracting more and more people to the Democratic Party in this county. I did my job in bringing in new blood to our party.”
In mounting a defense of his stewardship of the party, Robles consistently referenced the party’s registration numbers rather than the electoral results at the polls, where the Republicans, by virtue of a significantly higher percentage of turnout of their smaller numbers of registered voters yet managed to eke out victories for a majority of their party’s candidates in the face of a much weaker percentage turnout of the numerically superior Democratic voters. Robles similarly downplayed the numbers of dissidents within the central committee opposed to his leadership. He discounted the 27 votes to remove him that manifested at the July 27 meeting, saying that nearly half of those votes were ones by alternates to actual members who do not have authorization to vote unless the central committee member they are designated to replace is not present. He rounded the 27 votes down to two dozen and said, “It’s not 24 who are dead set against me. When you discount the alternates it’s only a dozen, not two dozen. When we held the vote that counted, 85 percent of the members supported me.”
The perception that he is constantly under fire does not fit the reality, Robles said, with the same complaints against him being constantly recycled. At the same time, he countered the suggestion that he was militating, as a political consultant, on behalf of Republican candidates, many of whom have more money to put into campaigns than do Democrats. “Every time this microgroup of malcontents loses, they file another complaint in an attempt to sidetrack our main goal of getting more Democrats elected,” Robles charged. “The 85 percent of the party supporting me remain undaunted and will continue to do the good work we have already begun and enjoy the success we have had. We will not let this small group put us off of our goal of electing Democrats.”
Cohen told the Sentinel that Robles was continuing to ignore political reality, and was failing to promote the party’s fortunes in a way that was effective. He said it was Robles’ failure to guide the Democrats in a way that capitalized on their registration advantage in the county that was fueling, and would continue to fuel, the movement to oust Robles from his leadership role. “The preliminary results of local elections in 2017, with three out of seven local endorsed Democratic candidates elected were hardly better than the 2016 local elections, with 14 out of 40 local endorsed Democratic candidates elected. The only way to turn this around is to remove the leadership of the San Bernardino County Democratic Party. We will not rest until that is complete.”
The Sentinel has learned that the challenges against Robles have not relented. Cohen and other members of the central committee have taken issue with the California Democratic Party’s August 23 ruling that the vote to defrock Robles at the July 27, 2017 meeting was invalid because no evidence could be found to show that Robles had improperly adjourned the meeting prior to that vote. They have appealed that ruling and that appeal is being heard tomorrow, Saturday November 18, by the California Democratic Party Executive Board in San Francisco. Cohen will attend that hearing, at which two videos with audio tracks captured on cell phones by the participants are to be considered as evidence.
Additionally, the Sentinel has learned, those intent on displacing Robles as San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee chairman are purposed to demonstrate to state party officials that Robles’ work on behalf of Skropos was not an isolated example of his having promoted a Republican against Democrats. They are preparing to show that Robles is working as a campaign consultant on behalf of a Republican-led group seeking to recall Artesia Mayor Ali Taj and councilmen Victor Manalo and Miguel Canales. Taj, Manalo and Canales are Democrats.