Chris Carrillo, who was widely considered to be the odds-on favorite to unseat Dawn Rowe in the race for Third District supervisor in 2020, precipitously withdrew as a candidate last month.
Contacted by the Sentinel, Carrillo asked not to be quoted but confirmed that he was not going to seek election next year, and indicated he would be devoting himself and his time to his family.
Carrillo’s strength as a candidate was multi-fold. He had previously served as James Ramos’s deputy chief of staff when Ramos was Third District supervisor.
Ramos, who was first elected supervisor in 2012 and was reelected in 2016, successfully ran for the California Assembly in the 40th District in 2018. With two years yet remaining on his second term as supervisor when he departed for Sacramento, Ramos had requested his board colleagues consider appointing Carrillo to replace him. Though Supervisor Josie Gonzales was favorably disposed toward Carrillo, supervisors Janice Rutherford, Robert Lovingood and Curt Hagman spurned Ramos in his request. In a particularly pointed show of disrespect toward Ramos, Rutherford, Lovingood and Hagman did not choose to interview Carrillo when they winnowed the field of 48 applicants to what they considered the 13 most serious contenders for the appointment – former Third District Supervisor Dennis Hansberger, Republican Central Committee Chairwoman Jan Leja, Loma Linda Councilman Ron Dailey, former San Bernardino Councilman Tobin Brinker, Barstow Mayor Julie Hackbarth-McIntyre, former Twentynine Palms Mayor James Bagley, former Yucca Valley Councilwoman Dawn Rowe, former Westlake Village Mayor Chris Mann, former Chino Councilman/current Big Bear Councilman William Jahn, then-San Bernardino Mayor Carey Davis, former Assemblyman/State Senator Bill Emmerson, former Congressional Candidate Sean Flynn and Loma Linda Mayor Rhodes Rigsby.
This slighting of Carrillo damaged the once friendly relationship between Lovingood and Ramos. Penultimately, the board reduced the field once more to five, including Rigsby, Jahn, Emmerson, Flynn and Rowe. At that point, at Gonzalez’s insistence, the board allowed Carrillo to address them, but Lovingood and Rutherford in particular were so committed to Rowe that they would entertain no other possibility for appointment. Shortly thereafter, Hagman joined with them in advocating for the former Yucca Valley councilwoman. Gonzales, seeing the writing on the wall, voted with her colleagues to appoint Rowe, making the vote unanimous.
Rowe’s appointment featured a heavy partisan element.
Though local offices in California are defined as being nonpartisan ones, in San Bernardino County in particular, party affiliation is of significance in who holds office at both the municipal and county levels, as wells as on the boards of school, fire and water districts. For more than 40 years, San Bernardino County has been a Republican bastion, such that for the last two decades, it has been out of step with the rest of the state, which has grown overwhelmingly Democratic in its orientation, with the Democrats holding a supermajority in both houses of the state legislature, control of the governorship, the state attorney general’s office, and the California Secretary of State’s office. Both of California’ s two U.S. senators are Democrats. Of the 53 members of California’s Congressional Delegation, 46 are Democrats and seven are Republicans. In San Bernardino County, however, currently 16 of its 24 incorporated cities/towns have more Republican members on their councils than Democrats. Four of the five members of the board of supervisors are Republicans. The district attorney is a Republican. The sheriff is a Republican. While the number of registered voters registered as Republicans in San Bernardino County in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and into the first decade of the Third Millennium outran the number of those registered to vote as Democrats, in 2009 the number of registered Democrats in the county eclipsed the number of Republicans. Nonetheless, the GOP has continued to dominate San Bernardino County politically, even as the gap in favor of the Democrats in terms of registered voters has grown. As of this week, of the county’s 969,473 voters, 386,866 or 39.2 percent, are registered Democrats, while 284,380 or 28.8 percent are registered as Republicans. The number of voters with no political party association whatsoever, 252,738 or 25.6 percent, comes close to the number of Republicans, while voters registered with the more obscure parties such as the Peace and Freedom, Libertarian, Green and American Independent account for 6.4 percent of the total. Despite having a four-to-three advantage over the Republicans in the county number-wise, the Democrats have consistently found themselves outhustled and outmaneuvered by their Republican Party counterparts in San Bernardino County. The San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee sports highly motivated, highly coordinated and for the most part cooperative members who make concerted electioneering efforts, appealing to non-affiliated voters and those with the marginalized political parties to persuade them to support Republican candidates. The Republicans have proven more resourceful, energetic and generous in their efforts to raise money and endow the political war chests of Republican candidates than have the Democrats been effective in their support of their party’s candidates. Equally as important, registered Republicans consistently turn out to vote at the polls or through mail-in ballots at a clip nearly one-and-one third greater than Democratic Party-aligned voters in the county.
In the county’s Fifth Supervisorial District, where Democrat Josie Gonzales holds office, the Democrats hold a voter registration advantage approaching 3-to-1 over the Republicans, as 87,602 or 49.1 percent of the district’s 178,293 voters are registered Democrats and 32,744 or 18.4 percent are registered Republicans. In the Fourth District, Republicans, with 47,981 or 25.7 percent of the district’s voters, lag significantly behind Democrats, with 78,270 registered voters or 41.9 percent. Despite that, Curt Hagman, a Republican, is supervisor. In the Second District, which a generation ago was at the epicenter of the region’s rising tide of Republicanism, Democrats have opened up a significant lead over Republicans in terms of voter registration numbers, with Democrats claiming 82,777 party affiliates, or 38.4 percent, against the 64,448 Republicans, or 30.4 percent. Still the same, Janice Rutherford, a Republican, is county supervisor in the Second District. Only in the county’s First District do the Republicans have more voters registered than the Democrats, as the Grand Old Party’s 64,448 voters – 33.7 percent – outnumber the 33.3 percent, or 63,734, who are Democrats. Robert Lovingood, a Republican, rules the roost there as county supervisor.
As late as last year, the Republicans yet held a lead – a very slim one – over the Democrats in terms of voter registration in the county’s Third District. The Third District is the county’s most diverse district, consisting of the heavily urbanized metropolitan area entailing east San Bernardino and Redlands, the foothill community of Highland, while extending into the somewhat unique communities of Grand Terrace and Loma Linda, the rustic communities of Yucaipa, Mentone and Oak Glen, the mountain community of Big Bear and the desert cities of Barstow, Twentynine Palms and the town of Yucca Valley. Redlands was for a century a major cultural and social center and the home of the county’s Republican political machine. Within the last nine months, the Democrats have inched ahead of the Republicans in terms of voter registration in the Third District. Those numbers now stand at 74,483 voters or 34.7 percent for the Democrats to the Republicans’ 73,759 voters or 34.4 percent.
In 2012, James Ramos, who was at that time the chairman of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, used his personal wealth and that of his tribe’s members to promote his candidacy for Third District supervisor. The tribe’s San Manuel Casino was by that time, as it remains, one of the most successful economic engines in the area. Ramos’s demonstrated willingness to fuel his candidacy with as much money as would be required for him to win, coupled with a rare internecine Republican Party dispute between then-incumbent Third District Supervisor Neil Derry and his predecessor as supervisor, Dennis Hansberger, who was a primary figure in the Redlands Republican Political Machine, led to a faction of the Republican Party withdrawing its support of Derry. In this way, Ramos, a Democrat with the support of a fragment of the Third District’s Republican base, ousted Derry as Third District supervisor in 2012, elevating Ramos to the vaunted position of supervisor. He handily won reelection in 2016 against the poorly-financed Donna Muñoz, a Morongo Valley resident.
It appears that Ramos felt that the mandates he had as a result of his elections in the Third District in 2012 and 2016 gave him, if not outright appointive power to choose his replacement to fill out that last two years of his term as supervisor when he departed to Sacramento to take up his newly elected post in the Assembly, then at least a voice in the selection process that should have been given careful consideration. When the board of supervisors undertook to carry out a recruitment effort to replace Ramos late last year – a process that was rigged from the outset in that both Lovingood and Rutherford were committed ahead of time to ensuring Rowe’s selection and Hagman, as a Republican, was fated toward supporting the consensus of his party colleagues on the board – what was essentially a sham examination process was carried out in which the 48 applicants were reduced to 13, only one of whom – Dailey – was a Democrat, despite the consideration that 22 of those who applied were Democrats.
Ultimately, after Rowe was selected, it was suggested that Rowe might be able to ameliorate the affront to Ramos by reaching across aisle and naming Carrillo as her chief of staff. She did not do so, for among other reasons that she considers his Democratic Party-affiliation to be antithetical to her governance formula.
Carrillo, a member of the East Valley Water District Governing Board, almost at once began preparations for the 2020 Third District supervisor contest. An attorney, his father is a wealthy licensed contractor/developer associated with the San Manuel Indian Tribe. With James Ramos in Sacramento, a Democratic town in the heartland of the Democratic Party, it was assumed that massive amounts of money would be coming Carrillo’s way, if not directly into his campaign fund, then to independent expenditure committees supporting him, which could sidestep the $4,400 individual contribution limit members of the board of supervisors several years ago imposed on themselves.
It thus appeared that Carrillo was cruising toward a showdown with Rowe in 2020 that he would have in all likelihood win.
As word spread last month that Carrillo was opting out of the race, suspicion at once fell upon the bevy of dirty tricksters who surround Rowe.
Before her appointment, Rowe had reportedly acceded to the position of chief of staff with Congressman Paul Cook, after serving on Cook’s Congressional staff and his staff while he was a member of the California Legislature. Upon her appointment as supervisor, Rowe hired as staffers two Republican Party political operatives – Matt Knox and Dillon Lesovsky – whose reputations as political hitmen proceed them. The most recent high profile example of their work is the “Dirty Donnelly” website that was utilized to blast a hole below one-time Assemblyman Tim Donnelly’s waterline after he placed second in the 2018 primary race in California’s 8th Congressional District, qualifying him for a runoff against Cook in November 2018.
The website, Dirty Donnelly.com, utilized doctored photos to paint Donnelly in the most negative of light, and alleging that he had a criminal record, was scamming senior citizens, had deserted his family, had engaged in “political fraud,” stole from his own wife and was unemployed. In violation of state law, the website had no identifying California Fair Political Practices registration number, a circumstance which was paralleled by signs attacking Donnelly that the pair were posting which did not bear the indicia required under California law for campaign signs and materials to show what entity, organization, committee or campaign paid for the materials. The anti-Donnelly campaign carried out by Knox and Lesovsky, which involved threads of fact interwoven into a tapestry of misstatements, exaggeration and overstatement, proved highly effective, as Cook trounced Donnelly in the November 6 election 108,414 votes or 60 percent to 68,370 votes or 40 percent.
After reports surfaced to indicate that Rowe had hired Knox and Lesovsky as members of her supervisorial staff and had given them license to engineer her 2020 election campaign from their county offices, Rowe, pointedly, did not move to squelch those reports. This was widely perceived as an effort to ward off opposition next year. Suggestions were that messages had been conveyed to Carrillo, threatening him with treatment similar to that accorded to Donnelly last year, inducing him to discontinue his pursuit of the Third District supervisorial seat.
Carrillo’s departure from the race may have a wider implication.
Last year, prior to Rowe’s ascension to the board, the county board of supervisors in a controversial 3-to-2 vote, with supervisors Lovingood and Rutherford dissenting, placed the entirety of the county’s unincorporated areas into a fire service assessment zone that was initially formed more than a decade ago to fund the provision of fire service in the county’s Silverlakes and Helendale districts. That action, which impacted more than 94 percent of the county’s 20,105-square mile expanse, involved the imposition of $157 per parcel yearly assessments on all property owners in that 19,000-square mile area. Those now hit with the assessments were not given an opportunity to approve the new tax being levied upon them, which triggered widespread anger and legal challenges. Mindful of the approaching 2020 election, Rowe has signaled what she represents as her disapproval of the expansion of the assessment district, known as FS-5. Given that both Rutherford and Lovingood are on record against the assessments being layered onto property owners without their approval, the inference has been drawn by many that the expansion of FS-5 might be rescinded and that the county will seek some other funding mechanism for the county fire district. That has not been fully committed to, however. Nevertheless, the Third District is host to the second largest, after the First District, expanse of unincorporated county land. Rowe appears to be courting the voters in those areas by tantalizing them with the suggestion that she might give them a reprieve from the FS-5 assessment.
Now, however, with Carrillo no longer running and Rowe unlikely to face a stiff challenge in 2020, her need to appeal to those landowners in her district’s unincorporated areas has subsided somewhat, meaning she is now much less likely to push for the rescission of the FS-5 assessments.
Two prospects for removing Rowe as Third District supervisor yet exist, consisting of legal challenges filed in the aftermath of Rowe’s appointment by the board of supervisors. One of those was filed by Ruth Musser-Lopez and the other by Inland Empire United. Both of those lawsuits maintain that the board of supervisors did not follow the proper protocol in appointing Rowe and had violated the Ralph M. Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law, in making its choice. The Musser-Lopez and Inland Empire United challenges are based on the same set of facts and make the same legal arguments. Both assert that the board violated the Ralph M. Brown Act by voting in secret on December 10, 2018, when each supervisor lodged his or her individual choices with the clerk of the board instead of taking a public vote to winnow a field of 48 eligible candidates down to 13 candidates, thus failing to properly agendize that action. It was on the following day that the board interviewed the 13 candidates and narrowed the list further to five “finalists” but not before Musser-Lopez publicly accused them of violating the Brown Act in doing so. Two days later a special meeting to appoint the winner was postponed as a result of a written challenge and a “Brown Act Demand to Cure and Correct” letter sent by Musser-Lopez.
Five days later on December 18, 2018, at a regular meeting of the board, Dawn Rowe was appointed during an agenda item referenced “Selection of Third District Supervisor” at which time the board rescinded the list of 13 and the list of five finalists, mentioning in the background information contained within the report relating to the item that was contained in the meeting’s agenda packet the need to “mitigate public concern with regard to the process,” but failing to reference on the agenda the actual Musser-Lopez demand letter received five days prior or giving direct notice that it was to be deliberated and acted upon.
Thirty days after she lodged the complaint with the board, Musser-Lopez filed a mandamus petition with the court within what she believed was the statutorily required filing period on January 22, 2019. Nevertheless, on June 19 Judge Janet Frangie dismissed the Musser-Lopez petition, finding it to be “untimely” for having been filed more than 15 days after she received a notice of board action sent to her from County Counsel Michelle D. Blakemore. On July 1, Musser-Lopez filed a motion for reconsideration requesting the court to invalidate Blakemore’s correspondence as amounting to “fraudulent concealment” of the fact that the board had not taken lawful action with regard to her December 11-13, 2018 communications. She said that if the Blakemore letter is not invalidated as a “notice of decision,” then the court’s determination amounts to a confirmation that the board took action without putting her Brown Act complaint on the agenda, which is thus tantamount to another Brown Act violation and a breach of her First Amendment rights to redress the board. “No one could have guessed that my Brown Act demand letter was the subject of the agenda item titled ‘Selection of Third District Supervisor.’ The complaint letter was not included in the background information and the public was never given valid notice or an opportunity to be heard with regard to it. Now the court is saying that the board made a decision? Well, making a decision on an item not on the agenda is another violation of the Brown Act. There is no evidence that the board ever directed county counsel to send notice or that there had been deliberation or a decision with regard to the specific and particular challenges actually in my letter.” The motion for reconsideration is scheduled for a hearing on August 7
Musser-Lopez intends to take the matter up on appeal and file another Brown Act claim at the same time to cover both bases.
Meanwhile, the Inland Empire United petition was filed within 15 days after the Blakemore correspondence was sent and was not dismissed on the issue of timeliness, but the court has yet to make a determination based on the merits of the claim. A ruling is anticipated on that suit on August 5.
In both cases, the court is asked to determine that the appointment of Dawn Rowe should be invalidated as it was based upon a process that was in violation of the Brown Act and that the “ceremonial” rescinding of the list of 13 interviewees and five finalists did not cure or correct the illegal acts.
Chris Carrillo, who was widely considered to be the odds-on favorite to unseat Dawn Rowe in the race for Third District supervisor in 2020, precipitously withdrew as a candidate last month.