Paul Vincent Avila, whose perennial electoral efforts over the course of four decades ultimately culminated in highly and increasingly contentious tenures as an Ontario-Montclair School District board member and then as an Ontario city councilman, was found dead in his home on June 19. He had been dead for several days when police and fire officials entered into his premises to do a safety check after they had been alerted that he had not been heard from or seen for some time and there were no responses to phone calls or knocks at his door.
In a multitude of ways, Avila was out of the political mainstream and perpetually swimming against the current. Most of the political alliances he made were short-lived ones, as minor differences he had with his school board and council colleagues had a recurrent tendency to metastasize into intense altercations that grew acrimonious and personal. In much of his approach he seemed to lack the basic interpersonal and social skills intrinsic to most politicians. So too, did most of the rudimentary elements of political campaigning elude him, along with an understanding of the basic protocols of governance, which as an elected official he was supposed to be so involved in but which he constantly mishandled. Nevertheless, his dogged persistence in seeking office over time provided him with a crucial advantage scores of other would-be office holders lacked – name recognition – which he was eventually able to parlay into success at the polls. Moreover, accompanying his absolute dearth of common political skill was a corresponding inability to fit within the context of the region’s intensely corrupted political ethos, rendering him as something of a political and social reformer, albeit an ineffective one.
Born in Oxnard, Avila was the son of a hard-working but illiterate farm equipment mechanic who sought to give his son the advantage of an education he did not possess. Young Avila attended Catholic schools, graduating from Santa Clara High School.
Though he had not been drafted, at the age of 24 in 1968, with the Viet Nam War at its peak of intensity, Avila enlisted in the Army, where upon the completion of basic training he was assigned to Air-Mobile Riverine Task Force 4/47, 9th Infantry Division. During his two years in Southeast Asia, Avila was awarded the Infantry Badge, Air Medal, Bronze Star and Army Commendation w/V Devise medal for valor, among other national defense and campaign service citations. It was while he was in Viet Nam, Avila said, on one particular day in one particular spot experiencing one particular event in a singular moment that he was put on course to become a politician. In battle, a fellow serviceman was felled, mortally wounded with just minutes left to live. In that soldier’s final moments, Avila said, his brother-in-arms told him that if Avila managed to make it back home, he should run for elected office every chance he got to justify what they were fighting for.
After a training and debriefing assignment at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii in 1970, Avila discharged from the military service. He subsequently found work as a pencil pusher, processor and job counselor with the California Human Resource Development Agency, remaining there until his retirement in 1996, along the way being elected job steward, then local chapter president and then district president with the California State Employees Association. From 1990 until 1995, he served, by gubernatorial appointment, on the special state project to find employment for parolees from state prison.
In 1979, he married Maryanne Margaret Dunn, a job counselor colleague.
Shortly after purchasing an old farming property in Ontario where he and Margaret raised four sons and a daughter, Avila obsessively sought elected political office, running for positions as they became available, school board, city council, mayor, assembly, state senate, Congress. Avila was inveterately unsuccessful. He had woefully little outside support. He bankrolled his campaigns with his own money, recycling his campaign signs from election cycle to election cycle. Finally, in 1993, he was elected to the Ontario-Montclair School District Board of Trustees. He stood for reelection, successfully, to that post every four years, in the meantime continuing to vie for other elected positions. Though for nearly two decades none of those other efforts panned out, it kept his name before voters and his name recognition intensified. He propounded the Avila name further, getting his wife to run for the Ontario-Montclair School Board on multiple occasions as well as for the Chaffey College Governing Board. Ultimately Paul Vincent Avila served four-and-a-half terms on the school board.
He applied for and was selected to the San Bernardino County Grand Jury in 1999 and was named secretary of that panel. Grand jury members and the grand jury advisor considered him to be so disruptive, however, that he was removed with the acquiescence of the county’s presiding judge.
With his continuing tenure in office at the school district, he became mired more and more in contretemps and controversy. Among those he tangled with while on the school board was one of his board colleagues, Debra Dorst-Porada, one of Ontario’s wealthiest residents. In 2008, an effort by the school board to censure Avila failed, barely, with two of the board members hoping to avoid the negative publicity such a declaration would entail.
In 2012, Avila ran for Ontario City Council, at last successfully. With two years remaining on his term as school board member, Avila announced that he intended to remain in that post when he moved into the city council position. When it was pointed out that city councilman and school board member were incompatible positions and that this principle had been established in previous California Attorney General findings, Avila indicated he was going to defy efforts to prevent him from serving in both capacities, as the local electorate had elected him to both. He would test the matter legally, he said. It was only at the last moment that he relented, resigning from the school board to take up the council office.
Upon ascending to the council, Avila joined his old nemesis, Dorst-Porada, on that panel. That spelled trouble from the start, putting the two on a collision course.
Following the 2012 election, Ontario Mayor Paul Leon was seeking to reestablish political relevance in Ontario, as Dorst-Porada, along with council members Alan Wapner and Jim Bowman had coalesced into a three-member voting bloc that controlled the ebb and flow of politics in the city. There were signs, nonetheless, based upon the way votes lined up on certain issues, that Dorst-Porada might be a swing vote that could move into Leon’s camp, if only with regard to specific matters. Leon had welcomed Avila onto the council, and for a time it appeared that they were forming an alliance of their own, one that would need Dorst-Porada to migrate to their side for it to succeed. Inevitably, however, when Leon failed to support Avila right down the line on all of the issues he was championing, Avila broke with Leon, loudly and brutally, calling Leon, in what could only have been a gross misinterpretation of political reality, a “puppet” whose strings were pulled by Wapner and Bowman.
At one point, both Avila and Dorst-Porada attended a conference as representatives of the City of Ontario. According to Dorst-Porada, Avila approached her in the lobby of the hotel they were staying in and asked her “Are you going to be my hooker for the night?” Dorst-Porada raised public objections to this and claimed that Avila, whose wife had passed away in 2010, sent her bare-chested photos of himself.
Openly at a council meeting, Avila denied asking Dorst-Porada the question attributed to him, saying he would rather “romance a palm tree” and that he would never proposition her. “She is a very unattractive woman,” he said.
Eventually, the council moved to sanction Avila, a rebuke more powerful than a symbolic censure. Sanctioning him removed him from all of the internal city committees he was a member of and any outside adjunct governmental boards or joint powers authorities he had previously been posted to, and banned him from officially participating in groundbreakings and ribbon cuttings as a city official. The sanction also meant that he was to no longer be eligible to attend conferences as a city representative.
True to his form of constantly running for office and building upon his newfound enmity with his erstwhile ally Leon, Avila opposed Leon in the November 2014 Ontario mayor’s race, joining with another former councilman, Rudy Favila, in challenging the incumbent. Leon, capturing 11,139 votes or 69.53 percent, trounced Avila, who managed to place second, with 2,578 votes or 16.09 percent. Favila was a close third with 2,304 votes or 14.38 percent.
In the face of his loss to Leon, Avila challenged the mayor physically, offering to avenge his second place showing at the ballot box with Leon’s choice of a foot race, a push-up or sit-up contest, or a fistfight. Leon declined.
Avila did manage to carry off what earlier seemed a political impossibility: pushing Leon closer to both Wapner and Bowman, indeed to the point that in 2014 and 2015 the three almost appeared to be allies. This was in large measure because Leon, a preacher by profession who finds going on political attacks to be somewhat distasteful, was able to sit back and let Wapner, for the most part, and Bowman, to a lesser extent, cross swords with Avila. Wapner, an alpha male, a-type personality with a constant need to dominate the circumstances he finds himself in, was completely within his element in taking on Avila. A former detective with the Ontario Police Department and former member of the Ontario-Montclair School Board himself, Wapner was able to utilize Avila’s multiple faux pas to promote himself by comparison, making high profile attacks on his council colleague, bemoaning what he insisted was Avila’s unsuitability for public office. Avila, nevertheless, did not back down from the intimidating and domineering Wapner, referring to him as “old camel-gut over there” and telling anyone who would listen that Wapner was morally dishonest, on the take and a psychopathic liar.
Essentially by default, Avila found himself cast in the role of the perpetual political dissident, one who was on the outs with the political establishment. As a consequence, to the extent that those he was up against were entrenched and entangled in a culture of corruption and corrosive influences, Avila became a voice for reform. Ontario, with the largest municipal budget of San Bernardino County’s 24 municipalities, one that had grown to running two-thirds of a billion dollars through all of its funds – general, enterprise, redevelopment, augmentation, special and reserve – just as the economic downturn of 2007-2013 hit, is again approaching that dimension of financial intensity as the fifth year of economic recovery unfolds. Ontario boasts municipal budget activity twice that of the next largest city in the county. The sheer magnitude of the city’s operations and the money to be made by vendors, service providers, contractors, consultants and the like, not to mention development efforts by the private sector in the 49.93-square mile, 174,000 population city, has created an atmosphere of pay-to-play that is palpable. Avila, because of his elected position, had a close-up window on the manifestations of that ethos. In many cases he had a sense that something or several things were not quite on the up and up, though he was not always capable of understanding exactly what the various grifts and grafts were. On occasions he made specific public references to the payoffs and kickbacks – both direct ones involving money going into the pockets of his council colleagues or other high ranking officials and staff members or indirect inducements which were laundered in the form of donations to the political funds of the city’s office holders. One needed look no further than the city’s various franchises – for taxicabs, ambulances, tow trucks and trash hauling, he said. Yet Avila’s lack of sophistication and social skills, his shallow understanding of the political game he was so deeply involved in and his inability to marshal the evidence to back up his charges doomed his crusades to ignominious failure. Still, the vehemence and virulence with which his rivals on the council attacked him offered testimony to the importance they attached to demonizing and discrediting him, lest a sizable portion of the public begin to pay attention to him and do its own examination of the irregularities Avila was able to glimpse, however imperfectly he was able to understand or articulate what he saw.
In 2016, when he had to stand for reelection, the constant attacks he had sustained, the negative publicity that had constantly attended his own misstatements and social gaffes, doomed his campaign to failure, and he was unable to garner the voter support required for him to stay in office. In a race that featured ten candidates running for two council positions, he could do no better than place fourth in the balloting, with 11.5 percent of the vote. Dorst-Porada, who placed second, was reelected. Avila was replaced by the first place finisher, Ruben Valencia.
That political defeat was not enough to keep Avila out of the political fray. The same man who had run for one position or another in every even-year political season at least since 1990 and in nearly all of the odd-year elections as well, who had run unsuccessfully for the State Board of Equalization in 2010, the Assembly in the 2012 Primary, in special elections for Assembly and State Senate in 2013, for Congress during the primary election in 2014, and for Assembly in the June Primary in 2016, ran again for State Senate earlier this month.
Mayor Leon this morning sized Avila up this way: “He’s the quintessential example of the adage ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.’ In politics, like everything else, you can’t succeed if you don’t try. He kept trying. If you keep trying, one day lightning strikes and the stars align perfectly and you get elected. That’s the American way. In my book, once he was in office he did what he thought was right. He might not have had the most sophisticated understanding of what being in office meant, but I believe he was honestly attempting to do what he thought was best, even if he was a bit confused.”