Four Years Later, Negrete-McLeod Set To Prove Hagman’s 2014 Victory Was A Fluke

In a rematch from 2014, Gloria Negrete-McLeod this year will challenge incumbent Curt Hagman for Fourth District San Bernardino County supervisor.
Swimming upcurrent, Hagman four years ago was able to outdistance Negrete-McLeod in a race that many considered was hers to lose. While Hagman was at that time a member of the California Assembly, Negrete-McLeod was an incumbent congresswoman. In addition to having been higher up the political evolutionary chain at that point, Negrete-McLeod also boasted a stronger past political track record. Prior to his coming to the state Assembly, Hagman had been a member of the Chino Hills City Council, where he had acceded to the post of mayor. He could also lay claim to having once been a member of the county’s workforce advisory committee. In contrast, beyond being a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Negrete-McLeod had been an assemblywoman herself, a member of the California State Senate, and both a member and then the president of the Chaffey Community College Board of Trustees. More significant than all of that, however, was that Negrete-McLeod was a Democrat and Hagman a Republican. Voter registration numbers in the Fourth Supervisorial District heavily favored Democrats in 2014. Going into the election, 64,477 or 40.8 percent of the Fourth District’s voters were Democrats, while 50,387 or 31.9 percent were Republicans.
To offset that seemingly critical disadvantage, Hagman had to hustle, and hustle he did. Well in advance of the race, even before anyone other than he and members of his circle knew he was going to run and while he was yet engaged with state politics in Sacramento in 2013, Hagman worked behind the scenes at both the state and county level within the Republican Party to provide himself with the leverage he would need. His first move was to solidify his friendship with former state Assemblyman and state Senator Jim Brulte, who was moving in 2013 to become the chairman of the California Republican Party and initiate a multi-pronged and long range effort to wrest, over a period of a decade or longer, political control of the Golden State from the Democrats. Having formed an alliance with Brulte, Hagman then moved to depose Robert Rego as the chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee. Rather than engaging in a knock down drag out donnybrook with Rego, Hagman and his forces arranged to mollify Rego, offering him important roles in the party both locally and statewide down the road if he would simply agree to step down at the county level. Through this use of tact and politesse, Hagman and Brulte preserved the upside of Rego’s direction of the party, by which the Republicans in San Bernardino County turned out at the polls in far greater numbers than their Democratic counterparts despite the burgeoning Democratic registration countywide. Rego had previously sought to smooth over rivalries between locally competing Republicans. And even though Hagman and Brulte eased Rego out the door, they managed to do so without having Rego turn on the party or on them, and Rego continued to assist them in the first order of business, which consisted of convincing party donors that they should continue to stock the party’s coffers with money.
Hagman had reached the end of his eligibility as an assemblyman, with California’s term limits preventing him from seeking reelection in that capacity. The only state or federal elected position to which he could realistically aspire in 2014 was that of Congressman in the 39th District, a route not open to him, given that the incumbent there was Ed Royce, another Republican
From his enhanced position as county party chairman, Hagman then prevailed upon Gary Ovitt, another Republican who had been Fourth District Supervisor since 2004, to go quietly into the good night and opt out of running for reelection. Negrete-McLeod had at that point firmly resolved to leave as Congresswoman, she said, because she had grown to dread the bi-weekly California-to-Washington D.C. commute. She, too, coveted the Fourth Supervisorial post.
Both Hagman and Negrete-McLeod filed to run for the Fourth District supervisor’s post. They were joined by James Na, a Republican member of the Chino Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees and Paul Vincent Avila, a Democrat and member of the Ontario City Council.
In the June primary balloting, Negrete-McLeod prevailed, capturing 10,180, or 41.93 percent of the total 24,376 votes cast. Hagman pulled down 9,982 votes, or 41.12 percent; Na captured 2,313 or 9.53 percent, and Avila polled 1,801 votes or 7.42 percent. Negrete-McLeod’s plurality of the vote did not capture the supervisor’s position for her, as a majority of the vote was needed to gain the seat. Rather, the outcome resulted in qualifying the two top vote getters – Negrete-McLeod and Hagman – for a runoff in the November 2014 election.
It was against a backdrop of the Democrats widening their voter registration advantage statewide, in Southern California, regionally, in San Bernardino County and in the Fourth Supervisorial District, that Hagman and his political team needed to project his candidacy – a daunting task. But Hagman had a few things going for him, the foremost being that his chief of staff, Mike Spence, was heavily invested in keeping Hagman in office.
In addition to being Hagman’s chief of staff when Hagman was in the Assembly, Spence had previously been the chief of staff for then-assemblyman Joel Anderson (R- El Cajon). And Spence was a politician himself, having been elected to the West Covina City Council, from which perch he had been elevated to the post of mayor. There was every prospect that if Hagman were to capture the supervisor’s post, Spence would remain as Hagman’s chief of staff, moving his office some 350 miles closer to home, from Sacramento to San Bernardino. Serving as the de facto chairman of Hagman’s supervisorial campaign, Spence utilized his knowledge of how to activate grassroots support for a candidate combined with more straightforward conventional campaigning tactics involving mailers, handbills, phone banks, electronically programmed phone calls, i.e., so-called robocalls, and radio and newspaper advertising, all of which was funded by the treasure trove of money, much of it coming from the Republican Party, that Hagman had access to. Spence garnished that with negative ads targeting Negrete-McLeod. In the meantime, Negrete-McLeod and her supporters ran a lackluster campaign. She lost a further element of her political edge when San Bernardino County’s Democratic Party, led by Democratic Central Committee Chairman Chris Robles, seemingly took for granted that the strong Democratic registration numbers in the Fourth Supervisorial District would carry the election, and failed to conduct an effective effort to inspire large numbers of the party’s voters to go to the polls.
On November 4, 2014, Hagman eked out a victory, albeit by a rather narrow margin, 24,480 votes, or 52.11 percent of the 46,982 votes cast to Negrete-McLeod’s 22,502 votes or 47.89 percent.
More than three years into Hagman’s tenure as supervisor, it is unclear whether he will be able to convert the advantage incumbency often confers on an elected official into a repeat electoral victory over Negrete-McLeod in 2018 and another four-year term. While Hagman certainly bears the upper hand in terms of incumbency, three of the factors that favored him in 2014 have been attenuated or eliminated entirely and one of the disadvantages he managed to overcome has become an even larger advantage in Negrete-McLeod’s favor.
Spence, without whose guidance in 2014 Hagman very well may not have won, is no longer with the Hagman team after Hagman fired him more than 13 months ago. Spence’s cashiering came in the aftermath of his June 2016 involvement in a single-vehicle traffic accident in the City of Covina. Toxicology tests determined he was under the influence of methamphetamine at the time of the accident. Ultimately, Spence was convicted of a misdemeanor driving under the influence offense.
Hagman’s and Spence’s shared “Republican Values,” including principles of social conservatism and pro-law enforcement concepts, virtually mandated that Hagman part company with Spence. Still the same, the impact to the Hagman political machine from the loss of Spence is immense and incalculable. As the architect of Hagman’s winning 2014 strategy, Spence game-planned how to dictate the terms of the campaign from the beginning, keeping the Negrete-McLeod campaign off balance and out of the proper firing sequence. Ensuring that Hagman’s shots were well-placed and done with sufficient frequency, in proper numbers and with effective depth and reach, Spence provided the steady nerve needed in the face of developments that might have rattled other campaign managers into overreacting. He formulated on the fly but nevertheless with considerable aplomb his boss’s responses to the few deft moves made by the Negrete-McLeod team during the campaign.
Negrete-McLeod appears to realize the degree to which she herself underperformed in 2014 and how her campaign was lulled into complacency by her victory in the June 2014 primary and by superior Democratic registration numbers. That she has taken up the gauntlet against Hagman this year is an indicator that she will be more diligent in propounding her message and less laissez-faire with regard to entrusting Democrats in the Fourth District to show at the polls en masse without prompting.
It remains to be seen whether Hagman can reproduce in 2018 the heavy Republican voter turnout in the Fourth District that occurred four years ago, given his demonstrated propensity to deviate from a basic tenant of the Republican Party, which is to attenuate the power of government and the concentration of power rather than to intensify it. Hagman has consistently installed into the positions of authority within his supervisorial office not representatives of the private sector but ones who are creatures of the government or outright institutional government employees. As a consequence, Hagman’s primary advisers are averse to effectuating reforms that include reducing government employee pay scales and benefits. Accordingly, Hagman has drifted away from any such reform initiatives, leaving him closer to the position taken up by the Democratic Party, which adheres to protecting public employees and conceding to their unions in the course of collective bargaining.
Spence was a long time government employee, with over 20 years as a public employee. At the time he was fired, he was receiving $135,166.81 in pay from all of his government positions and $54,325.22 in benefits on top of that. He was on a trajectory to collect a pension upon retirement of roughly $140,000 per year.
Katherine Kolcheva, who succeeded Spence as Hagman’s chief of staff, was formerly a regional field representative for the Assembly Republican Caucus in service to former-Assemblyman Mike Morrell and Hagman when he was yet in the Assembly. She is on a trajectory to receive a pension upon retirement rivaling Spence’s.
Jeff Sorenson, who serves as one of Hagman’s policy advisors, has held a number of positions as a public employee, most recently as a prosecutor’s office investigative technician. Karen Haughey, one of Hagman’s field representatives, is the wife of Chino City Councilman Tom Haughey. Douglas Boyd was a field representative with Hagman’s office when he was assemblyman, a field representative for Congressman John Rousselot, and chief of staff to State Board of Equalization Member Ernie Dronenburg.
Upon becoming supervisor, Hagman hired then-Chino Hills City Council Member/Mayor Ed Graham, whom Hagman had previously employed in his Assembly office, as his senior field representative. When Graham, who had been a public employee most of his life, surpassed the retirement age of 65 and retired in 2016, Hagman replaced him with another government insider, Graham’s Chino Hills City Council colleague, Peter Rogers.
Last year, Hagman hired longtime Ontario City Councilman Alan Wapner, himself a retired Ontario police officer, as his policy adviser. Wapner retired in 1998 from the Ontario Police Department after being with the department for 15 years 10 months and six days and having risen to the position of sergeant of detectives. Wapner took a disability retirement based on aggravation to his hip from constantly wearing a gun holster. The disability retirement excused him from having to pay taxes on his pension, which stands at $58,647.68 per year.
Surrounded as he is by staff members partial to government and who are indulgent of government employees and giving them favored status, it remains an open question whether Hagman can count on the solid backing of the Republican voters he needs if he is to again shut the door on Negrete-McLeod.
Another disadvantage Hagman faces, paradoxically, is the strength of his performance in 2014, which threw the tepid performance of San Bernardino County Central Committee Chairman Chris Robles into stark relief. As much as Negrete-Mcleod can be faulted for not being more aggressive in her 2014 campaign, Robles likewise squandered what seemed to be a clear advantage for his party – given the voter registration numbers in the Fourth Supervisorial District that were so favorable to the Democrats – and allowed victory to elude Negrete-McLeod. Indeed, within the last year, a growing number of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee members have sought to replace Robles as their leader, citing his seeming indifference with regard to many of the races in San Bernardino County where the Republicans simply outhustled the Democrats and were able to prevail not on the strength of greater numbers but by virtue of better organization, sharper and more aggressive strategies and clocklike execution of those strategies. Many of his Democratic minions have lamented that Robles, who by profession is a political consultant, has been less focused on facilitating the campaigns of Democrats in San Bernardino County than on running the campaigns of his campaign consulting firm’s clients, many of whom held or were seeking office in Orange and Los Angeles counties. It appears that Robles has, at least for the time being, overcome the efforts to depose him as Democratic Party chairman in San Bernardino County. But with the attention that has been focused on his failures to energize the Democratic Party sufficiently in San Bernardino County in 2014 and 2016, he is now under the gun to demonstrate that he can quarterback the Democrats to victory. As of this week, the already overwhelming voter registration advantage the Democrats had over the Republicans in the Fourth District had widened to the point where the ratio of Democrats-to-Republicans has grown to more than 3-to-2. As of this week, of the district’s 166,406 voters, 71,506 or 43 percent are Democrats and 46,336 or 27.8 percent are Republicans. If Robles cannot muster the Democratic troops to take that battle in 2018 and install Negrete-McLeod as Fourth District supervisor, he will be out as the Democratic leader in San Bernardino County, and he knows that.
At this point Hagman has options beyond simply seeking reelection as Fourth District supervisor. Should he determine that seeking to hang onto the post in the face of Negrete-McLeod’s commitment to challenge him is too risky, he could instead seek to replace Republican Ed Royce, the incumbent Congressman in the 39th Congressional District who is voluntarily leaving Congress. Demographics, party registration numbers and stronger turnout among Republican voters vis-à-vis Democrats in the 39th District auger well for a Republican victory there. To move up to Congress in the 39th, however, would require that Hagman compete against a bevy of other Republican hopefuls, including Scott Baugh, a former state assemblyman and former chair of the Orange County Republican Party; Phillip Chen, a first-term assemblyman in the 55th Assembly District; Ling-Ling Chang of Fullerton, the former Assembly District 55 office holder; Bob Huff, a former State Assembly member and state senator from Diamond Bar, who was the California Senate Republican leader before being termed-out; Young Kim of Fullerton, the former state assemblywoman in the 65th Assembly District, and a one-time staff member with Royce’s office; Tim Shaw, the mayor of La Habra and a former district director for Huff while he was senator, a policy advisor for then-Orange County Supervisor Janet Nguyen, and policy assistant to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; Shawn Nelson, a lame duck member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors from Fullerton in Assembly District 65 and a longtime aide to Congressman Royce; and Janet Nguyen, a state senator from Fountain Valley and former Garden Grove City Council member and Orange County supervisor.
Jumping from the San Bernardino County supervisor’s post he currently holds and reaching for the Congressional brass ring might be the most propitious and best-timed move Hagman can make at this point in terms of advancing his political career. Nevertheless, it may be too risky for Hagman, who has already offended elements of the Republican establishment by his slavishly favorable treatment of Democratic-leaning government employee unions, to stand in opposition to the ambition of so many other established and up-and-coming members of the GOP.
-Mark Gutglueck

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