40th District Assemblyman Mark Steinorth, the one-time Republican firebrand whose two years as a city councilman in Rancho Cucamonga and three-and-a-half years in California’s statehouse have imposed on him pressure to move to the center, is challenging two-term Second District San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford in the June 5 election.
Both Steinorth and Rutherford are Republicans in a district that once tilted toward the GOP, but which as of this week now lies decidedly in the hands of the Democrats in terms of the prevailing party registration of its voters. Of the Second District’s 195,785 registered voters, 39.1 percent are Democrats and 32.4 percent are Republicans, with 23.3 percent expressing no party preference and 5.2 percent belonging to other parties. Technically, the five county supervisorial positions are nonpartisan ones. On the ballot, the party affiliation of supervisorial candidates is not mentioned. Nevertheless, the battles for supervisorial posts in San Bernardino County have in many cases proven to be highly partisan.
Rutherford presents an interesting case study in a Republican politician. Most of her professional life has involved her in government. As a young woman, she hitched her wagon to the political star in the person of Bill Leonard, a middle-of-the-road Republican whose career in the California Assembly and California State Senate was built primarily on appealing to conservative Republicans in the Inland Empire. After Leonard was forced out of the legislature by California’s term limits, he went on to become a member of the California Board of Equalization, where Rutherford worked on his staff. Rutherford cut her elective political teeth as a member of the city council in Fontana, a blue collar city which is overwhelmingly Democratic. In 2010, she vaulted into the Second District supervisorial post by challenging and beating then-Supervisor Paul Biane, who had been weakened by his connection to scandal-tainted former Supervisor Bill Postmus, the one-time chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Party. Rutherford has played it relatively safe the last seven-and-a-half years, and has a reputation of acceding to county staff recommendations and accommodating the wishes of the cities within her jurisdiction. Thus, Rutherford comes across as a creature of government in a political party that is considered to be the voice of the business community and the private sector, and, at least in California, remains as the bulwark against the growth of government and governmental regulation.
Steinorth offers something of a counterpoint. A successful entrepreneur, Steinorth built from the ground up a direct mail marketing and advertising company, well-rooted in the Central Valley and West End of San Bernardino County. His first major political effort, a run for Rancho Cucamonga Mayor in 2010, was made on the basis of his status in the business community. In that contest, Steinorth took on the odds-on favorite, councilman and former Rancho Cucamonga Fire Chief Dennis Michael. Steinorth’s campaign was faithful to conservative, and in particular fiscally conservative, principles, as his campaign featured constant reminders that Michael was a former public employee pulling a substantial pension, that two of his council colleagues were former firemen likewise receiving substantial pensions, that Rancho Cucamonga’s fire department alone had a budget that was larger than the entire municipal budgets of eight of the county’s 24 incorporated municipalities and that Rancho Cucamonga was paying its then-retired firefighters more in pensions than it was paying its then-working firefighters in salaries. In this way, Steinorth promoted himself as the candidate taking a stand against big government, generous salaries and benefits to government workers and high taxes. He lost the election to Michael in 2010, but in 2012 was elected to the Rancho Cucamonga City Council. Thus began one of the more mercurial political rises in San Bernardino County in recent years. Two years later, notably with the endorsement of Mayor Michael and his colleagues on the city council as well as the Rancho Cucamonga firefighters’ union, Steinorth ran for State Assembly in the 40th District, proving victorious over his Democratic rival, Kathleen Henry.
Steinorth arrived in Sacramento with his Republican bona fides intact, despite his having picked up endorsements from public employee unions along the way. Over the course of what is now approaching two terms in the State Capital, a Democratic town through and through, the political maturation process that Steinorh has been subjected to has required that he be far less strident in his denunciations of the Democratic approach to governance, and that he occasionally vote for legislation put forth by his Democratic colleagues that he would not support if the Republicans rather than the Democrats had an overwhelming majority in both houses of the state legislature.
Meanwhile, back in San Bernardino County, Rutherford’s board of supervisors colleague, the wealthy James Ramos, a Democrat, decided earlier this year to challenge Steinorth in the 40th District. With the 40th having grown increasingly more Democratic over the last four years – 40 percent of its voters are affiliated with the Democratic Party as opposed to 32.6 percent being registered Republicans – Steinorth realized that discretion would be the better part of valor. Instead of running for reelection against Ramos, who has the personal resources to put more than $1 million of his own money into a campaign in addition to what he could raise from other sources, Steinorth opted to run against Rutherford.
Rutherford’s reflexive support of government may have played her wrong, leaving her vulnerable to Steinorth’s challenge. Last year she supported the Upland City Council in its effort to impose on Upland’s citizens a tax without a vote through a move to close out the Upland municipal fire department, annex both Upland and neighboring San Antonio Heights into a county fire service/assessment district and then impose on those residents a $156 per year fire service assessment they previously had not been required to pay. This occurred in the face of overwhelming resident opposition to the move. Roughly 15 percent of Rutherford’s constituents are Upland and San Antonio Heights residents, and polling numbers show they are disinclined to support her at this point by a two-to-one margin.
With approaching $800,000 in his campaign war chest, Steinorth began this year’s campaign while holding an advantage on that score against Rutherford, who had less than a third of that to campaign with. Moreover, Steinorth, with his sophistication vis-à-vis marketing and advertising using direct mail together with his control of the machinery to accomplish just that, enjoys a further advantage over Rutherford. Exacerbating her disadvantage, Rutherford early this year appeared to have squandered a critical portion of the funding that was available to her on expenditures that had marginal or negligible candidacy-promoting value and which analysts said appeared to be intended to provide money to her family or associates.
One positive breakthrough for Rutherford came at the San Bernardino County Republican Party’s endorsement convention held in Ontario on April 14. Despite Steinorth capturing 59 percent of the votes of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee members participating in the endorsement process this year, the San Bernardino County Republican Party gave its endorsement to Rutherford, based on a party rule that the party endorsement automatically accrues to an incumbent seeking reelection if fewer than 60 percent do not dissent in that endorsement.
In recent weeks, voters in the Second Supervisorial District most likely to vote in this year’s election based upon their previous turn-out at the polls or by absentee ballot have been treated to the spectacle of dueling political hit pieces from Rutherford and Steinorth arriving in their mailboxes.
Thus, Rutherford, who endorsed Steinorth in his 2014 run for Assembly and endorsed him again in 2016 when he ran for reelection, is engaged in attacking him now, claiming, with varying degrees of accuracy, that as assemblyman he voted to raise gasoline tax statewide, voted to spend money on the north-south bullet train, and that he is a “dishonest, tax-hiking politician” who mistreats women.
Steinorth, who endorsed Rutherford in 2014, is now using mailed hit pieces to blast her not only as a supervisor “who never met a tax she didn’t like, ” but as having been a recipient of a $5,000 personal loan from former Upland Mayor John Pomierski, who was indicted for, convicted of, and imprisoned in a federal penitentiary for, taking bribes. A mailer from Steinorth sent exclusively to Democratic voters depicts Rutherford as a “right-wing politician supported by the Republican Party” who opposes abortion and marriage equality and supports “border vigilantes.”
This week, Steinorth told the Sentinel he merits election over Rutherford.
“I’ve been working hard in the state legislature to stop harmful policies that impact our community, but I ultimately made the decision to run for county supervisor because we need a voice for residents, small businesses and public safety at the local level to protect our communities. Crime is increasing and the number of officers on the streets isn’t. This is a real problem that needs to be addressed, not just talked about. County government needs to work for the people, not the other way around. We need to cut the fat and prioritize spending where we need it most. We do not need to raise taxes like my opponent has done repeatedly. We need a responsible, independent voice at the county who isn’t there just to collect a fat paycheck and a huge pension.”
Steinorth said he represents a better alternative to Rutherford because, “Unlike my opponent, I’m not a career politician. I’m a small business owner. I also have a track record of being effective for our community. I’m proud to be the only candidate endorsed by our law enforcement officers because I’ve proven I have their back. I’m committed to increasing response times and reducing crime. I’m also the only candidate endorsed by our local taxpayer associations because I’ve proven to be effective without ever voting for a tax increase.“
Steinorth said, “Crime is a huge issue facing everyone right now. We need to take a hard look at the county budget and set our priorities and number one must be public safety. We need more officers on the streets, we must improve response times and we must keep our talent in our county by compensating them competitively, which the county is not doing currently. Homelessness is another issue we’re seeing on the rise. I have a plan to address homelessness that incorporates providing mental health services. Simply housing our homeless is not enough. We must provide counseling and substance abuse treatment as well. Another huge issue is the fire tax. The community of San Antonio Heights was slapped by the county with a fire tax that they were never given the ability to vote on. This can happen to more unincorporated communities if they don’t have anyone representing their interests at the county. No one should have to pay more for basic services we already pay for through our property taxes.”
With just two candidates in the race, the contest will be decided on June 5, with the only possibilities of a November runoff consisting of the highly unlikely outcomes of either a precisely split vote with both candidates receiving identical vote totals of exactly 50 percent, or the number of write-in votes preventing either candidate from receiving at least 50 percent plus one vote.