Robles Maneuvering After His Second Removal As Dem Central Committee Head

Nearing the close of 2017, more than a half year has passed since a contingent of dissident central committee members first undertook the arduous task of dislodging Chris Robles as the chairman of the San Bernardino County Democratic Party. This month, a clear majority of the county’s elected Democratic Party officials went on record as favoring his ouster as party chairman. On December 7, that movement culminated when a quorum of the central committee voted, without Robles being present, to remove him as a central committee member. Those who undertook the vote maintain it effectively removed him as chairman. At its December 28 meeting, again with a quorum present, the central committee voted to install a new chairman and vice chairman.
What remains to be seen is whether Robles will accept and the state party will recognize the action ousting Robles from the central committee and the ascendancy of the new leadership.
The December insurrection was not the first time Robles was presumptively removed as central committee chairman by a groundswell of the central committee members. At the May 25 Democratic Central Committee meeting, members assailed Robles with complaints about what was said to be his less-than-energetic efforts with regard to promoting Democratic candidates generally. As debate over Robles’ tenure and effectiveness ensued, Robles entrusted the officiating of the remaining proceedings to one of his closest allies on the committee’s executive board, Mark Westwood. Westwood twice refused to recognize motions for a vote of no confidence in Robles that had been seconded. No resolution of the issues germane to the concerns raised with regard to the drift of the party under Robles’ guidance was arrived at. This dissatisfaction carried over to the June 22 central committee meeting, prior to which those intent on Robles’ removal had lodged with the California Democratic Party a complaint against him and a petition for his removal as chairman, including documentation showing that in his capacity as a professional campaign consultant Robles had worked for Republican candidates. When the meeting commenced, Robles found himself under fire and unable to direct the proceedings to even the vaguest semblance of order and 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. With the meeting descending toward chaos, Robles steadfastly refused to entertain questioning of his leadership or authority and more than a dozen of those present persisted in pursuing those questions. An exasperated Robles abruptly adjourned the meeting and called in the county sheriff. Four law enforcement officers arrived to herd the group out of the room. No action with regard to any of the items on the agenda was taken. Upon Robles’ initiation of the central committee’s July 27 meeting, the proceedings again declined into a cacophonous logjam, 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. He left along with most of his supporters, calling the police in as he did so. More than 20 central committee members remained, however, moving on to 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 both the central committee and 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 in San Bernardino where the meeting was being held, the meeting proceeded, during which consideration of the removal of Robles as chairman was added to the agenda. Following the discussion of that item, removal of Robles as chairman was moved by Debbie McAfee, seconded, and the vote was counted by raising credentials. Chris Robles was deposed 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, insisting that a “removal from membership” challenge against Robles alleging conduct in violation of California Democratic Party by-laws initiated in June be pursued to a conclusion. Robles responded to the allegations raised in the challenge, declining to resign as a Democratic State Central Committee member. 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, including Eric C. Bauman, the chair of the California Democratic Party. That panel concluded the state party’s by-laws did not provide grounds for Robles’ removal from membership, but did issue a letter of admonition to Robles with respect to his dragging his feet in seeking California Democratic Party approval of San Bernardino County Democratic Party endorsements and his engagement of non-Democratic candidates, particularly in election contests in which there were local Democratic Party-endorsed candidates.
In November, Robles told the Sentinel that challenges of his authority as head of the Democratic Party in San Bernardino had 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.”
But less than a month later, the dissidents were at it again. When Robles sought to cancel the previously scheduled central committee meeting for December, a quorum of the central committee met on December 7 and by a vote of 20 to 0 removed him as a central committee member, simultaneously relieving him of his position as chairman. A quorum of the committee then reconvened yesterday, December 28, at the Communications Workers Union Hall in Colton, where they voted to install Ron Cohen as chairman, James Albert as the first vice chair and Tim Prince as the parliamentarian. Further appointments to the executive committee were deferred until the committee meeting in January.
The substantial dissatisfaction with Robles stems from the Democratic Party’s generally poor showing in San Bernardino County over the four-and-a-half year span of Robles’ chairmanship. A political consultant by vocation, Robles was active in Democratic politics before he relocated to San Bernardino County in 2012, whereupon he was elected to the central committee. Thereafter, he was elevated to the chairmanship based upon the general belief that he would use his knowledge as a political operative gained from his professional experience to promote Democratic candidates for city, county, state and national offices in San Bernardino County, where for decades the Republicans had been ascendant. It was believed that the opportunity to do so existed, since in 2010, the number of registered Democrats in San Bernardino County surpassed the number of registered Republicans. The Democrats have held a growing plurality among registered voters in San Bernardino County ever since, and 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, when Hillary Clinton in San Bernardino County outperformed her Republican rival, Donald Trump, polling 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 – 357,397 registered Democratic voters or 40.1 percent to 279,200 registered Republican voters or 31.3 percent among a total of 891,148 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 89,222 or 40.3 percent to 73,440 or 33.2 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 71,444 or 43 percent to 46,396 or 27.9 percent, a Republican, Curt Hagman is in office, despite the fact that his opponent in the 2014 election was a then-incumbent Democratic U.S. Congresswoman, Gloria Negrete-McLeod.
A number of Democrats have come to believe that Robles is a clandestine Republican operative who has wormed his way into the Democratic Party establishment. They have suggested that from his position as county party chairman, Robles has misapplied, misdirected and misspent the party’s money intended to support Democratic candidates, resulting in Republican victories in at least 17 races in San Bernardino County where a Democrat was the logical frontrunner. For example, in several races, Robles insisted that a considerable portion of party money be used to send mailers in support of Democratic candidates to high propensity Democratic voters. High propensity voters are those who consistently vote in all elections, including primary presidential and general presidential and primary gubernatorial and general gubernatorial elections. High propensity Democratic voters are highly likely to support Democratic candidates; thus, mailers to them were not likely to bring in more votes for Democrats, who already had those votes sewn up. Those mailers, election specialists say, would have been more productive if they had been sent to lower propensity Democratic voters, that is, those less likely to vote, in an effort to drive them to the polls. That Robles would engage in such a strategy that many in his party feel squandered the party’s monetary resources is an indication he was militating on behalf of Republicans, they say.
Others have rejected suggestions that Robles is a traitor to the Democratic Party, but rather believe he is so engaged in promoting his own political consulting company, Vantage Campaigns, that he has neglected his duties as county party chairman, much to the Democrats’ detriment throughout San Bernardino County. Indeed, 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. Instead, 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.
This perception is exacerbated by the consideration that Vantage Campaigns and Robles have been paid a fair share of professional fees by the San Bernardino County Democratic Party, what several party members consider to be a conflict of interest. A recurrent charge has been that many of those payments to Robles or Vantage Campaigns were not authorized by the central committee or its executive board. Laurie Stalnaker, the committee’s treasurer, said she has been able to trace most if not all of the committee’s 2,900 expenditures during Robles’ tenure, but has been consistently thwarted in her efforts to complete comprehensive audits of the county party’s financials because Robles has not provided her with the minutes of the committee meetings during which the spending authorizations were made. Nor has Robles provided her with invoices or receipts for those expenditures. “Many, although certainly not all, of those payouts were to Chris Robles, himself,” Stalnaker said last night.
An issue cited during the effort during the spring and summer campaigns to remove Robles as party chairman was his work during the 2016 Ontario City Council campaign, when 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 ignored another Democrat vying for city council, Josie Estrada. Neither Crowe, Skropos nor Estrada were successful in that campaign. On May 31 of this year, as Vantage Campaigns’ work on behalf of Skropos was looming as a larger and larger issue with Democrats, Skropos, who had been a Republican the entirety of his political and professional career to that point, re-registered as a Democrat. Subsequently, the state party did not consider Robles work on behalf of Skropos to be grounds for removing him as county party chairman, though it did rebuke him for “engagement of non-Democratic candidates.”
More recently, information has surfaced to indicate Robles has militated against Democrats, albeit outside of San Bernardino County. Earlier this year, Robles went to work as a campaign consultant on behalf of a Republican-led group seeking to recall Mayor Ali Taj and councilmen Victor Manalo and Miguel Canales in the Los Angeles County city of Artesia. Taj, Manalo and Canales are Democrats. That circumstance has been reported to California State Democratic Party officials.
Last night, Cohen told the Sentinel that he did not believe that Robles is disloyal to the Democratic Party but that he nonetheless had neglected his duty as county party chairman while pursuing work on behalf of Vantage Campaigns’ clients which in some cases conflicted with Democratic Party goals and imperatives and in all cases distracted him, leaving crucial Democratic Party work undone and party operatives without clear assignments or the tools or facilities they needed to assist Democratic candidates as a whole in San Bernardino County.
Moreover, a belief that is common among the contingent of the committee members who moved to topple Robles is that in making his executive board assignments and appointments, he installed individuals who were more loyal to maintaining his primacy on the committee than they were committed to advancing the Democratic Party. Two cases in point were Mark Westwood, whom Robles established as the committee’s first vice chair and Carol Robb, whom he appointed to two executive board posts. Both Westwood and Robb were tried and true members of the Robles camp, and engaged in fierce infighting on his behalf when the dissidents sought to cast him out. Robb’s monopoly of two executive board posts prevented Robles’ opponents from occupying a greater position of authority in the county party.
Members of the contingent that removed Robles from the committee and therefore as chairman say they believe his continued occupancy of the committee chairmanship would perpetuate the lack of support of Democratic candidates in San Bernardino County.
One of the developments that weakened Robles was the decision by Rita Ramirez- Dean in October to terminate Westwood as her selected alternate on the central committee. Ramirez-Dean is an ex-officio member of the central committee, based upon her status as the Democratic candidate for Congress in the 8th Congressional District in the 2016 General Election. It was through her appointment of Westwood to the central committee that Robles was able to arrange his appointment as the committee’s first vice chair. When Ramirez-Dean learned, however, that on two occasions during her absence Westwood shut down committee meetings to terminate discussion of Robles’ performance and on another occasion had summoned police officers to the meeting hall in an effort to foreclose committee proceedings on the threat of arrest, she resolved to remove Westwood as her alternate to the committee. This terminated Westwood’s status as first vice chair, leaving Robles without crucial support he needed to maintain his control over the committee and the executive board. Ultimately, Robles approached another ex-officio member of the central committee, Congresswoman Norma Torres, and prevailed upon her to select Westwood as her alternate. Robles has since used Westwood’s reinstatement as a central committee member to reinstall him as first vice chair.
Meanwhile Robles and his camp, which has dwindled to a group of some 22 of the central committee’s 67 members, are refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of the action by 42 members of the committee to sack him as chairman by removing him from the committee altogether. Robles has filed a challenge of the December 7 meeting and its action with the California Democratic Party in Sacramento. On December 23, after learning that a meeting of the committee was scheduled for yesterday, December 28, Robles had his selected parliamentarian, Mario Alfaro, email all members of the committee. In that email, Alfaro referenced the call for the December 28 central committee meeting and stated, “I was asked by chairman Chris Robles and first vice chair Mark Westwood to issue a parliamentary ruling regard[ing] the email sent by Ron Cohen. Put simply, Mr. Cohen’s interpretation of the bylaws and the election’s code (sic) in calling the December 7th meeting either demonstrates material misrepresentations to the body of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee or a failure to understand both.”
Alfaro continued, “Attached to this email is a compliance review commission complaint regarding the December 7th meeting that explains why the December 7th meeting was invalid. Essentially, it comes down to the fact that under Supreme Court and appellate court decisions, our San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee bylaws are controlling when it comes [to] our internal governance, not the elections code. As such, Mr. Cohen’s purported ‘notice’ of a meeting was invalid because it did not comply with our bylaws. Separately, Mr. Cohen also failed to comply with the election’s code (sic) provisions he claimed to have been following. As a result, the alleged ‘meeting’ held by Mr. Cohen is invalid including any actions allegedly taken. Further this new meeting he is trying to call for December 28th is also invalid.”
Alfaro’s email continues, “With respect to holding elections for the chair and first vice chair positions, despite Mr. Cohen’s claim that the first vice chair position was vacated, it is not. Mark Westwood continues to be the first vice chair as the permanent alternate for Congresswoman Norma Torres. Mr. Cohen would know this if he had bothered to ask. Mr. Cohen’s apparent attempt to dictate to Congresswoman Torres whom she can or cannot appoint as a permanent alternate is not appropriate under either our bylaws or the election’s code (sic).”
According to Alfaro, “Finally, Mr. Cohen’s attempt to remove Chris Robles is improper and invalid. The State Party expressly ruled against Mr. Cohen’s request to remove Mr. Robles. The San Bernardino County Central Committee Executive Committee voted down Mr. Cohen’s request to remove Mr. Robles. The body voted down Mr. Cohen’s attempted appeal of the executive committee’s decision. Finally, the California Democratic Party Rules Committee voted down Mr. Cohen’s appeal of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee’s vote. In short, Mr. Cohen has been rebuffed at every level in his attempt to remove Chris Robles and take the reins of the Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee for himself.”
In response Cohen cited the preamble to the San Bernardino County Central Committee’s bylaws, which he said establishes that the quorum of the central committee was justified, in contravention of Alfaro’s assertion, in relying on the California Elections Code in carrying out the December 7 meeting at which Robles was removed. The preamble to the bylaws states, “The San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee is created by the law of the State of California and is enabled thereby to adopt by-laws not inconsistent with its parent legislation. Where a conflict appears, these by-laws shall be deemed subordinate, and the law of the State of California shall prevail. The Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee shall also be known as the California Democratic Party of San Bernardino County.”
Cohen said he anticipates that the California Democratic Party’s rules committee will make a determination with regard to Robles’ challenge of the December 7 meeting and his removal as a committee member and thus as chairman within the next two months. Until that time, Cohen said, he and the majority of the central committee will proceed on the assumption that Robles’ removal was properly effectuated.
Central committee members said the leadership of the committee remains in doubt, while decrying the power struggle over the county party’s leadership, saying it detracted from the efforts to promote Democratic candidates and attenuate the hold of the Republicans on the county and its political institutions. One wryly remarked that if Robles would merely devote as much focus, intensity, energy and skill to promoting the Democratic Party in San Bernardino County as he has employed in his maneuvering to retain his party chairmanship, the entirety of the central committee would be in lockstep behind him.
-Mark Gutglueck

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