Donnelly Won’t Let Obernolte Claim 8th District Seat Without A Real Contest

Tim Donnelly, who in 2014, gave up what was considered to be a safe seat in the California Assembly to make a quixotic but surprisingly strong effort to capture the  Republican nomination for governor, is now making yet another foray to capitalize on his right wing bona fides by again seeking election to Congress in the 8th Congressional District.
Donnelly’s entrance into the race perpetuates his role as an outcast among the sometimes loosely-knit and sometimes more closely-tied alliance of GOP officeholders in San Bernardino County, one of the last bastions of Republicanism in the Golden State.
Donnelly’s appeal to a contingent of the GOP that is more strident in the propounding of his party’s basic values and core beliefs while resisting in principle and practice the policies and approaches favored by the Democrats is seen as a threat to the element of the Republican Party now in control in San Bernardino County and its ability to remain on top politically in this region because of the danger that he might awaken and galvanize the Democrats, who have in the past been unable to drive a sufficient percentage of their superior numbers to the polls to offset the greater force the Republicans can muster in terms of energetic turnout of their party faithful.
In the March 3 California Primary Election, Donnelly will be going head-to-head against Jay Obernolte, the incumbent in the 33rd Assembly District who filled that void when Donnelly made his unsuccessful 2014 gubernatorial bid. This will be the first time Donnelly and Obernolte have vied against one another, as they have steered clear of a direct confrontation until now. How contentious the race between them will get is not yet clear. Two years ago, Donnelly challenged the incumbent 8th District Congressman, Paul Cook, provoking a bitter and what many considered to be an underhanded internecine attack from Cook’s political operatives. Obernolte, who covets the Congressional office Cook holds, showed greater respect and patience in maintaining the Republican order, such as it is, then did Donnelly. Obernolte was willing to remain in the California Assembly until such time that Cook willingly departed, rather than seeking to wrest the prestigious office from him in a revolt against that order.
Since the 1990s, all state legislators in California have been constrained by term limits. Previously, Assembly members were held to three-two year terms in the lower house and California state senators were restricted to two four-year terms in Sacramento’s upper legislative house. Beginning with state legislators first elected in 2014, California reduced its mixed 14-year limitation to a blanket limitation of 12 years, meaning an individual could serve three senatorial terms and renounce ever being a member of the Assembly, or could serve two senatorial terms and two Assembly terms or four Assembly terms and one senatorial term, or six Assembly terms. Under the previous rules, Obernolte would have been obliged to leave the Assembly after his current term, but coming into the Assembly for the first time in 2014, he had the luxury of remaining in the Assembly, if he wished and could succeed in getting reelected therein, until 2026. Thus, Obernolte was considering running again for the Assembly in the 33rd District next year. In September, however, Cook, a former Marine colonel who had served two tours of duty in Viet Nam and had entered local politics as a member of the Yucca Valley City council and then went on to become mayor there before achieving election as a member of the Assembly in the 65th District, announced he would not seek reelection to Congress, to which he had first been elected in the 8th Congressional District in 2012, essentially replacing longtime Congressman Jerry Lewis, who had retired just as reapportionment following the 2010 Census redrew California’s Congressional districts, creating the 8th District from most of what had been Lewis’s 41st District. Cook made that decision following an announcement by First District County Supervisor Robert Lovingood that he would not seek reelection as supervisor, whereupon Cook resolved to forego constant travel between Washington, D.C. and Southern California in favor of remaining at home, and run to replace Lovingood as supervisor. Obernolte immediately declared his intent to replace Cook as Congressman.
While there was a belief that Lovingood would then run to claim Obernolte’s Assembly seat, that did not occur. Rather, Lovingood endorsed former Hesperia Councilman and Mayor Thurston Smith in his run for the 33rd Assembly District post.
When campaigning among an exclusively Republican crowd, San Bernardino County’s establishment Republicans do not hesitate in lambasting the Democrats as lily-livered unChristian coddlers of criminals who advocate open borders, tolerance of illegal immigration, taking guns away from law abiding citizens and profligate spending of hard-earned tax dollars, who never miss an opportunity to raise taxes or create new ones that did not previously exist. In mixed crowds, however, they seek to tone that criticism down, as the number of registered Democrats in San Bernardino County eclipsed the number of registered Republicans in 2009, and the Democrats have widened that registration gap in their favor ever since. Thus, Republicans have cultivated the art of highly selective campaign targeting, appealing to voters in isolation,  based upon factors known about them, including political affiliation, area of residence, ethnicity, responses to survey inquiries, and any further information that can be gleaned.
As a Marine veteran and Republican state legislator before he  moved on to Congress, Cook had established himself as a solid Republican with so-called conservative leanings. In 2018, Donnelly challenged Cook in the primary election, as did three others, all of whom were Democrats – Ron O’Donnell, Marge Doyle and Rita Ramirez-Dean. When the dust of the June 5, 2018 balloting had cleared, Cook had prevailed by what appeared to be a comfortable margin – 41,585 votes out of 100,116 cast for 41.54 percent. The Democrats together managed to get 35.28 percent of the vote, with Doyle finishing in the top spot among them with 20,153 votes for 20.13 percent. Donnelly brought in 23,214 voter endorsements, or 23.19 percent, for second place. Under California’s open primary rule, the top two finishers, regardless of party affiliation, move on to the November general election. Thus, Cook found himself in a showdown against Donnelly in a district that leaned heavily in favor of the Republican Party.
That circumstance represented some difficulty for Cook, however. In a literal shootout against another Republican, without the interference of a candidate appealing to the so-called liberal vote, the issues were very likely to boil down to hardcore right wing elements. In this respect, Donnelly had Cook at a disadvantage. Donnelly had taken a diamond-hard stance against illegal immigration, going so far as founding the California Chapter of the Minuteman to patrol the border with Mexico. A die-hard Second Amendment advocate, Donnelly had lived up the principle he espoused, such that while he was yet a member of the California Assembly he would routinely carry a concealed gun onto the floor of the statehouse while the legislature was in session. He took an aggressive stand against a 2011 bill restricting the open carrying of handguns in California by labeling the measure “a form of tyranny.”
Donnelly topped that when, on the way back to Sacramento after the Christmas and New Year holidays for the first state legislative session in 2012, he was stopped by Transportation Security Administration officers at Ontario Airport for having a Colt .45 handgun loaded with four rounds of ammunition and five addition rounds in his carry on baggage.
The gun was taken from him and he was cited for possession of a loaded firearm. It turned out that Donnelly, who had purchased the gun roughly five years before the incident, had never registered it in his name. He was not charged with failing to purchase the gun through a licensed dealer, which is prosecutable as misdemeanor under California’s gun laws. Ultimately, Donnelly pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of carrying a loaded firearm in public without a concealed weapons permit and possessing a gun in an airport. He was fined $2,125 and placed on three years’ probation, but was not prohibited from carrying a concealed weapon thereafter, as long as, under the terms of his probation he did not “use, own or possess any firearm that is not registered to him.” Donnelly maintained he had done nothing wrong, going on record as saying, “I didn’t do anything other than exercise my 2nd Amendment rights as a free American.”
His action did not hamper him politically, as he was seen by gun owners as having stood up to unreasonable liberal efforts to curtail gun ownership. He prevailed against two opponents in the June 2012 California Primary election with 52.06 percent of the vote, and then convincingly defeating his Democratic opponent in the November 2012 General Election, John Coffey, 73,836 votes or 59.04 percent to 51,215 vote or 40.96 percent.
Cook, his backers, his allies and the employees in his office saw Donnelly as a formidable opponent, one who might very well end the incumbent Congressman’s political career by his appeal to the so-called conservative base of their party.  Donnelly’s political persona, anchored to his identification as the most conservative politician in California and one who is unrelentingly faithful to bedrock ultra-right principles, matched perfectly with a solid plurality if not an outright majority of the voters in the overwhelmingly right wing 8th Congressional District. Of particular concern to the Cook political machine was that there are large numbers of gun-toting constituents in the 8th District, which covers a large swath of the Mojave Desert and the San Bernardino Mountains, where gun ownership is a way of life for a majority of those living in isolated rural areas.
Two of Cook’s political operatives, Dillon Lesovsky, who had previously been employed in Cook’s Congressional office, and Matt Knox, who was yet employed by Cook as the 8th District director and was also functioning as Cook’s 2018 campaign manager, earnestly set about untracking Donnelly’s candidacy. They formulated what was called the “Dirty Donnelly” attack. Consisting of a website and signs to promote the website, utilized doctored photos to paint Donnelly in the most negative of light, and dwelt at length on a number of derogatories relating to the former assemblyman, including that he had a criminal record, which was an unspecified reference to his gun-carrying conviction; accusations that he was scamming senior citizens; that he had deserted his family; that he had engaged in “political fraud,” which was again unspecified; that he stole from his own wife; and that he was unemployed. In violation of state law, neither the website nor the signs directing voters’ attention to the website had any identifying California Fair Political Practices registration number nor the indicia required under California law for campaign signs and materials to show what entity, organization, committee or campaign paid for the materials. The campaign on behalf of Cook directed by Knox and the hit perpetrated by Knox and Lesovsky proved highly effective, as Cook trounced Donnelly in the November 6, 2018 election, 108,414 votes or just under 61.33 percent to 68,370 votes or 38.67 percent.
Knox and Lesovsky have gone to work for Dawn Rowe, another former Cook staffer, who was appointed in December 2018 by the board of supervisors to serve the final two years of James Ramos’s term as Third District San Bernardino County supervisor following Ramos’s election to the California Assembly in the 40th District in the same November 2018 election in which Cook defeated Donnelly. There have been indications given that Knox, in his capacity as Rowe’s chief of staff, and Lesovsky, as Rowe’s policy advisor, are running multiple 2020 election campaigns from inside of Rowe’s office, including Rowe’s electoral effort for Third District supervisor, Cook’s campaign for First District supervisor, Obernolte’s campaign for Congress and now Thurston Smith’s effort to capture the 33rd Assembly District position that Obernolte is abandoning in vying for the House of Representatives.
In deciding to run once more for Congress this year, Donnelly was looking past his defeat by Cook last year and an unsuccessful bid in 2016 when Rita Ramirez-Dean, with 23,959 votes or 21.48 percent in the primary captured second place and nosed out Donnelly, who finished in third place with 23,671 votes or 21.22 percent, before Ramirez-Dean went on to be defeated by Cook that November. In the upcoming election season Donnelly could have run instead for the 33rd Assembly District position Obernolte is giving up to run for Congress and which Donnelly himself forsook to run for governor. A question attends as to whether Donnelly, if he were to regain election to the Assembly, would be able to remain in California’s lower legislative house for more than a single term under the term limit rule that was in place when he was originally elected to the Assembly in 2010, which limited him to three terms in the Assembly, or whether the term limitation structure in place since 2014 would apply to him, allowing him to run for another three terms beyond that to serve a total of 12 years as Assemblyman. Based on the consideration that he might be limited to just one more term in the Assembly, Donnelly resolved to run for Congress now, calculating that his name recognition and conservative reputation will stand him in good stead against Obernolte, who has the power of incumbency in the California legislature, a fair share of name recognition himself, and the support of the Cook/Rowe/Knox/Lesovsky political machinery.
Whether Donnelly’s calculation is an astute one will prove out with the upcoming primary election and the general election. In California, races for state office cannot be decided in the primary, even if a candidate manages to capture more than 50 percent of the vote. In those races for state office, the November election is a runoff between the first and second place finishers in the primary, irrespective of the party or parties of the candidates and the margin of victory and defeat between the top two vote-getters.
Even before the primary, which is to be held in March in 2020, the Cook/Rowe/Knox/Lesovsky political machine, and by extension the Obernolte campaign, have sustained setbacks. In September, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Janet Frangie ruled that the board of supervisors in selecting Rowe as Third District supervisor last December violated the State of California’s open public meeting law, the Brown Act. Frangie ordered that Rowe’s appointment be rescinded. That ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by a group of Democratic Party activists, challenging the Republican Rowe’s appointment. The county board of supervisors then ordered the county’s stable of in-house lawyers, known as county counsel, to appeal Frangie’s ruling. The appeal stayed the rescission of Rowe’s appointment, so she yet remains in the capacity of Third District supervisor. Unless the appellate court reviews Frangie’s ruling before the March 3 Primary Election, Rowe will be able to run for election as an incumbent. Nevertheless, the ruling has compromised Rowe’s authority to a certain degree, and it has galvanized Democratic voters in the Third District, which has historically, with a few notable exceptions, leaned in favor of Republican candidates.
Moreover, there has been considerable attention focused on the political activity emanating out of Rowe’s office involving Knox and Lesovsksy, as well as another political operative Rowe hired as part of her Third Supervisorial District staff, Suzette Swallow. Such political activity being run out of governmental offices is technically illegal under California law, though largely ignored as a privilege and perquisite of holding political office. Still smarting from what Cook, Knox and Lesovsky did to him last year, Donnelly is sensitive to what they are now trying to pull off in 2020 in favor of Cook, Rowe and the select group of political hopefuls with whom they are associated, including Obernolte. Donnelly is not without resources of his own, and the opportunity will present itself over the next several months and then perhaps again in the run-up to the November election to make a major issue out of Obernolte’s participation in and association with an illegal effort to utilize public facilities, equipment and employees for partisan purposes, a manifestation of the abuse of  governmental power and authority that Donnelly has a long history of advocating against.
At this point five candidates, including Obernolte and Donnelly, have declared they are running in the 8th Congressional District race in March. The others include Democrat Chris Bubser, an engineer and former biotech executive; Peter Mathisen, who has no political affiliation and is the proprietor of Law’s Oak Glen Coffee Shop; and Republican Jeremy Staat, an Iraq war veteran and former NFL player.
In announcing his bid, Donnelly essentially ignored Bubser, Mathisen and Statt, taking aim at Obernolte by implying the five years he has spent in Democratic-dominated Sacramento has rendered him into a typical tax-and-spend politician, incapable of exercising fiscal discipline.
“It’s time we stop electing the same losers who got us into this mess and expecting them to bail us out,” Donnelly said. “At the rate we’re spending, we’re sentencing the next generation to financial Armageddon. The only solution the politicians come up with is raising our taxes. We’re being taxed to death.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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