By Mark Gutglueck
The 2018 election and the vicissitudes of partisan politics have come together to cloud what once seemed to be Victorville Councilman Eric Negrete’s promising career as a public official.
Among a rising tide of Hispanic elected officials in California, Negrete is somewhat out of the mainstream in that he identifies as a conservative Republican, while the vast majority of Latinos in general as well as those vying for or holding office are Democrats, with most of those embracing what are commonly described as liberal or progressive ideals.
That is not true of Negrete, who more stridently than any others on the Victorville City Council objected to liberal activism by Blanca Gomez, who was elected to the council in 2016, two years after Negrete’s 2014 elevation to the city council. Almost immediately after she took office, Gomez began using her perch on the council as a bully pulpit to espouse her heartfelt beliefs. Less than a month after she was sworn in as a Victorville councilwoman, Gomez on December 30, 2016 showed up at Rialto City Hall for a rally put on by Rialto City Councilman Rafael Trujillo in support of Senate Bill 54 and the sanctuary city concept.
Senate Bill 54, the so-called “Sanctuary State” law, bars state and local law enforcement agencies from using their resources, including money, facility, property, equipment or personnel, to assist federal officials with immigration law enforcement. The law prohibits local law enforcement officers from asking detainees or arrestees about their immigration status, giving federal immigration authorities access to interview a person in custody or assisting them in immigration enforcement. The sanctuary city concept, which parallels Senate Bill 54, pertains to local officials declaring their municipalities to be illegal alien friendly zones wherein local law enforcement would stand down and not assist federal authorities in the enforcement of immigration and customs laws, and illegal immigrants would be provided with social assistance to be able to sustain themselves.
The Rialto rally was also heavily attended by protesters against Senate Bill 54 such as We The People Rising, which characterizes Senate Bill 54 as a violation of federal law. Negrete spoke out with regard to Gomez’s Rialto sojourn immediately, going on record to say Ms. Gomez was not speaking for the City of Victorville or its city council, that most certainly she wasn’t speaking for him, that he personally disagreed with what she was doing, that he considered Senate Bill 54 to be treasonous and that neither Victorville nor any other California city should become a sanctuary for illegal aliens. Noting federal law takes precedent over state law, Negrete said Gomez had acted improperly. “Local officials are expected to support the rule of law,” he stated.
During his more than three-and-a-half year tenure on the city council, there were numerous manifestations of Negrete hewing to the conservative side of the political divide, a common thread of which was his stated belief that law and order should prevail. In addition to reiterating his campaign theme of reprioritizing the city’s budget to shore up public safety in general, he called for further crackdowns on crime and criminals, even as the State of California appeared to be moving in the opposite direction with Proposition 47, which reduced some so-called non-violent crime from felonies to misdemeanors. In criticizing Proposition 47, Negrete emphasized that “break-ins” or burglaries might not necessarily remain nonviolent, particularly if a homeowner or business owner ended up confronting the burglar. He decried the reduction of felonies to misdemeanors and the softening of laws, which he said invited criminals to reoffend.
This year, Victorville was among dozens of cities in Southern California, including at least eight in San Bernardino County which either endorsed or gave serious discussion toward endorsing by means of an amicus brief the stance the City of Huntington Beach took in defiance of Senate Bill 54. That council discussion, which occurred on May 15, was undertaken at Negrete’s behest. His intent was to convince his council colleagues, among whom there are two other Republicans, to at least file an amicus brief or preferably join with Huntington Beach as a plaintiff in the suit. During that discussion Negrete asserted that “California is becoming a third-world country” and opined that the majority of the state’s legislature was rooted in “anti-American” and “stupid” ideologies. In contrast, his colleague, Councilwoman Blanca Gomez, characterized Negrete, because of his opposition to Senate Bill 54, as a “brown Nazi.”
Ultimately, however, though the majority sentiment on the council was that the California legislature was out of line in seeking to thwart federal authority, the panel collectively decided to allow the matter to play out in the courts without any official input from the City of Victorville.
At times, Negrete has merged the issues of immigration law liberalization and sentence reduction, as when he said that allowing sanctuaries to exist in California “impedes federal agents in their effort to keep illegal immigrant felons off the streets.” In December, he said, “When you reduce a felony to a misdemeanor and you’ve got homeless people violating all kinds of laws…those laws really don’t count as much as they used to.”
While not alone among Latino politicians in California to have questioned Senate Bill 54, the sanctuary for immigration law offenders concept or liberalization of immigration policy in general or specific, Negrete is certainly among the most, if not the most, outspoken on the topic. Negrete’s political base at present is in Victorville, where 47.8 percent or the registered voters in the 123,700 population city identify as Hispanic. Victorville is also centrally positioned within San Bernardino County’s High Desert, which is one of the last bastions of Republicanism in the State. In this way, Negrete’s political future appeared promising. An eventual berth within California’s statehouse, either as a member of the Assembly or Senate or both was clearly within the realm of possibility for him. And given his trailblazing status as a conservative Republican Latino in the Golden State, neither was it unthinkable that Negrete might find his way into Congress and make his mark on the national stage as iconic member of the GOP. To some, Negrete seemed like he might be that one charismatic Hispanic politician, who, like Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt, might point a pathway for Latinos to make their exodus from the Democratic Party to the promised land of Republicanism.
But along the way, Negrete had to remain in office to keep his political persona in play. This year, having been elected to the Victorville City Council four years ago, he was due to run for reelection, which he did. And he seemed destined for reelection, given the consideration that the other incumbent due for reelection this year had chosen not to seek reelection, that Negrete had the power of incumbency and a larger campaign war chest than any of his competitors, and that the field of 16 candidates for Victorville City Council was the largest in terms of the number of those running in any of San Bernardino County’s municipal races in 2018.
But at 5:46 a.m. on Monday October 15 during National Public Radio’s Morning Edition broadcast, which is heard virtually everywhere throughout the United States as well as in many foreign countries, a five-minute report on Negrete put together by Tom Dreisbach and Libby Denkmann of the Southern California National Public Radio affiliate KPCC was propagated across the airwaves. Dreisbach and Denkman dredged up an incident from almost a decade ago, a Valentine’s Day lovers’ spat on February 14, 2009 in which a disagreement between Negrete and his then-girlfriend, whom he would later marry, grew heated and then turned physical. The couple was on 7th Street in Victorville just after 1 a.m., according to a San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Report, which reads, in part, “Negrete struck victim in face. The victim ran and Negrete chased and forced victim into the vehicle.”
Negrete was arrested on suspicion of kidnapping and battery, and held in lieu of $250,000 bail for four days. Despite his girlfriend’s expressed preference that no charges in the case be pursued, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office acted upon the sheriff’s department report and filed charges. On February 18, 2009, Negrete was arraigned before Judge Patrick Singer on a Penal Code Section 270 felony charge of kidnapping, two Penal Code Section 243 misdemeanor charges of battery on a spouse or cohabitant and a Penal Code 374 misdemeanor charge of inflicting corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant. Six days later, Negrete came before Judge Bridgid McCann on February 24, 2009, at which point three of the four charges – the felony kidnapping and the two misdemeanor battery on a spouse – were dismissed. Simultaneously, the misdemeanor inflicting corporal injury charge was amended to a felony, and Negrete pleaded guilty to it.
According to the KPCC/National Public Radio report, “Judge Bridgid McCann stated during one court hearing, ‘alcohol was one of the main factors in the offense being committed.’”
McCann sentenced Negrete to 120 days in jail and three years probation, with an option for work release. He was required to attend a class for domestic batterers weekly for a year and refrain from the use of alcohol during his probation and submit to periodic tests administered by his probation officer to detect whether he had been using alcohol. Negrete served 69 days of the 120 day sentence in jail, including the ten days served between his arrest and his plea.
Dreisbach’s and Denkmann’s report dwelled upon the contrast between Negrete’s public utterances with regard to cracking down on lawlessness and his own criminal conviction as well as Negrete’s professed opposition to Proposition 47, which reduces many classes of felonies to misdemeanors, and a petition Negrete made to the court subsequent to his conviction have the charge upon which he was convicted reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Negrete appeared at several probation review hearings before judges Margaret Powers, William Jefferson Powell, Larry Allen and Miriam Morton in 2009 and 2010. On January 19, 2011, Judge Eric Nakata heard a Penal Code 17(b) motion filed on Negrete’s behalf by his attorney, Dave Leicht. Penal Code 17(b) allows a judge to reduce a felony conviction to a misdemeanor based on a host of issues, including the defendant’s behavior, adherence to the terms of probation, criminal history and the severity of the offense. The district attorney’s office did not object to the reduction of the charge to a misdemeanor but protested Leicht’s request for early termination of Negrete’s probation. Leicht told Judge Nakata that Negrete took personal responsibility for what he had done but that the felony conviction and his client’s probation status was making it difficult for Negrete to get work and function as a civilian contractor at Fort Irwin. Judge Nakata consented to the reduction of the charge to a misdemeanor and, over the district attorney’s office’s objection, ordered the termination of Negrete’s probation.
The KPCC/National Public Radio spot on Negrete used the term “irony” in suggesting that there was some degree of hypocrisy in Negrete’s strident anti-crime and pro-public safety rhetoric and his own actions “Negrete has been much less outspoken about his own felony conviction,” according to Dreisbach and Denkmann. They noted that in his response to KPCC, Negrete referred to the 2009 Valentines Day incident as a “family matter” and “a misunderstanding.” The report quoted Negrete as telling the reporters “Obviously, we are still together, and the issues within our marriage have been resolved. On the advice of my counsel, I entered into a plea deal which resulted in my agreement to plead guilty to certain charges.” Negrete further stated that he and his wife “have sought each other’s forgiveness and addressed the issues that led to this unfortunate incident. Those issues are now in the past and nothing precludes me from holding public office.” Negrete suggested, according to Dreisbach and Denkmann “that reporting on his conviction was politically motivated.”
The KPCC/National Public Radio report said “Until now, there does not appear to be any news coverage of Negrete’s arrest or conviction” and that City of Victorville officials appeared to have known nothing of the matter.
It has been suggested by some that the intent behind the broadcast and its timing was to dim Negrete’s re-electoral hopes in this year’s election and derail his promising career as a Republican Latino political leader in California. Indeed, the lead-in to the report and the report itself appear to have winged Negrete, who in the last two weeks has gone into a virtual cocoon, at the very height of the political season when his campaign would benefit most from him being out on the hustings. He missed a recent candidates forum, which the KPCC/National Public Radio report suggested was a consequence of Negrete seeking to avoid public exposure in the heat of revelations contained in the broadcast. A recurrent criticism of National Public Radio is that it evinces a liberal bias in that it appears to promote Democrats over Republicans, and embraces so-called progressive or liberal causes. That bias, some have suggested, played a part in the current contretemps.
In their report, Dreisback and Denkman acknowledged that they “discovered Negrete’s conviction as part of a routine check of public records for a story about the debate over sanctuary cities and SB 54.”
There remain individuals who yet support Negrete.
Ruth Cordova, a Latina law enforcement veteran and 35-year community activist from Apple Valley, told the Sentinel, “This incident with Eric Negrete is something that happened ten years ago. It has nothing to do with him acting in the scope of being a city councilman. Eric Negrete has dedicated his life to ‘God and County.’ He served and fought for his country in the U.S. Air Force and now he has shown the same commitment to his country and community while holding public office. He has shown leadership. He opposed Proposition 47, which reduces the seriousness of criminal offenses, and Proposition 57, which called for the early release of criminals. He was against Assembly Bill 109, which took inmates out of prison where they should be and instead has them overburdening our county jails. He opposed Senate Bill 54. Senate Bill 54 has nothing to do with illegal immigration in which many misinterpret the body and language of the law and everything to do with harboring criminals. He will never compromise his oath of office.”
Cordova said, “Eric has firmly, boldly and courageously stood up for the protection and safety of our community, and without reservation. He hands down passionately stands for the rule of law and has lived up to his oath and legal duty and obligation to protect and defend the people of Victorville and the Constitution of the United States, with perseverance.”
There were easily detectable signs of the highly political nature of the orchestrated campaign to discredit Negrete, Cordova said. She noted that Negrete and his council colleague, Blanca Gomez, represent diametrically opposing world views, and that Negrete has proven to be a far more articulate and convincing proponent of his position than Gomez has been of hers.
“It is clear on its face that the Victorville City Councilwoman Blanca Gomez set this up while making wrongful accusations against him and others, sadly,” said Cordova. “She has established this pattern and practice absent supporting evidence or basis, whatsoever.”
Cordova said, “This is a very critical time in the history of America, and leadership must pull together to protect the blindfold of justice, which Blanca Gomez and the rest of the Democrats maliciously fail to defend. The press supports the Democratic Party. This was an effort to damage Mr. Negrete. If that is all the press can find, he is doing pretty good.”
Raul Rodriguez, Jr. is the California coordinator of America First Latinos and is associated with the We The People Rising conservative political action group. He was a candidate in the June Primary for California Secretary of State, finishing third.
Rodriguez said everything about the KPCC/National Public Radio report, from its timing to its content, was suspect. “I don’t like the idea behind National Public Radio’s hit piece on Eric at all,” Rodriguez said. “I think the Democrats have a pattern of trying to discredit individuals they fear politically. This happened ten years ago. We’re all sinners and some people take that to the point of trying to make others look bad. I met Eric Negrete some time ago. I know him. He is a very patriotic individual. I believe he is worthy of his position and has done a good job working with the City of Victorville, trying to benefit those within the city.”
Based on Negrete’s merits in a straightforward comparison between him and the other candidates in the city council race, Rodriguez said Negrete is clearly the superior choice. “I think he is an individual of character and trust, and the people should vote for him,” according to Rodriguez. “He had momentum [in the current race.] Blanca [Gomez] is trying to destroy him. She is trying to destroy Victorville. What she has been doing is having La Raza and CHIRLA, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles, come into the city and take over. This has been very disruptive. There is a recall attempt against her ongoing now, and this takes the focus off that.”
Rodriguez continued, “National Public Radio came in here and did this hit piece on him. I think it was wrong and unfair. If they want to be fair, they should put out information on everyone. There is another candidate in the race, Valentin Godina, stealing signs. You have Ms. Gomez’s transgressions. They are not reporting on that. The piece they did was one-sided, because their intent was to damage Mr. Negrete.”
Rodriguez predicted that Negrete will weather the storm. “He is going to be the hardest guy to beat,” Rodriguez said. “I am myself a Latino. I am a Republican. I am a conservative. There are Latinos out there who are changing their political affiliation because they are sick and tired of what the Democrats are doing. The Republicans won in 2016 and Donald Trump is president. The Democrats can’t get over that. Look at how they carried on with the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The American people are fed up with what they [the Democrats] are doing. I have a feeling there is a red tide coming throughout the United States and in California. I think people are waking up.”