By Mark Gutglueck
Fueling concerns that the San Bernardino County Republican Party is intensifying its strategy of maintaining its domination of local government by the placement of political operatives into agency, municipal and county management posts, the Fontana City Council on Tuesday voted to hire Mark Denny as its city manager to replace Ken Hunt, who was forced out of the city manager’s post last year after 20 years with the city. Denny is set to assume the post on April 6.
It appears that Denny, who has established bona fides as a political dirty trickster in the form of a criminal conviction for election fraud, has assumed the top staff position in San Bernardino County’s second most populous city, putting him in position to network with other Republican political functionaries likewise holding high-paying and prestigious government jobs locally to engineer electioneering efforts supporting GOP candidates and undercut Democrats.
In 1996, Denny, who at that time was an aide to California Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle, was charged by the Orange County District Attorney and subsequently convicted of engaging in political skulduggery. Denny’s convictions on campaign documentation falsification charges before Judge Marjorie Laird Carter came in close conjunction with the recording of similar or related convictions of five others which ensued from an effort by the Republican Party, and in particular the Orange County Central Committee, to prevent the GOP’s then-tenuous hold on the state’s lower legislative house from slipping. Working with Pringle’s deputy chief of staff, Jeff Flint, the then-27-year-old Denny set about interesting Laurie Campbell in running as a decoy Democrat candidate to weaken the candidacy of Democrat Linda Moulton-Patterson who was vying against Republican Scott Baugh in the specially-held 1995 election to replace Assembly Speaker Doris Allen, who had been recalled from office through a campaign orchestrated by the Republican Party. Though Allen was a Republican, she was considered a turncoat by the GOP because of her cooperation with Democrats with regard to a number of appointment, procedural and legislative issues, including her election as speaker of the Assembly with unanimous Democratic support.
Ultimately, a nest of Republican operatives – Allen recall campaign manager Jeffrey Christopher Gibson; Rhonda Carmony, at that time a senior aide to and later the wife of Congressman Dana Rohrbacher; Baugh’s chief of staff Maureen Werft; Richard Martin, a campaign worker for Assemblyman Scott Baugh; Flint; and Denny – were convicted of election fraud. In Denny’s case, he admitted to participating in a scheme to siphon votes from Moulton-Patterson, the more established Democratic candidate in the Assembly race. While suspicion fell on Baugh, Pringle and Rohrbacher over their involvement in masterminding and directing the ruse, Gibson, Carmony, Martin, Flint, Werft and Denny proved good soldiers and did not turn state’s evidence on the officeholders. The scrutiny did, however, shed light on issues with regard to Rohrbacher’s use of and accounting of his campaign funds, and he was found guilty with regard to administrative infractions relating to his having compiled improper finance records. He was fined.
Denny’s sentence included three years of probation, during which time he was prohibited from working on political campaigns. He resigned from Pringle’s office just before he entered his guilty plea.
Ultimately, Denny was able to put his criminal conviction behind him. Through his contacts within the Republican Party, he was able to find gainful employment for a time with Allergan, Inc. as its director of marketing and strategic planning. In time, he reentered the political and governmental game. When William J. Campbell, a Republican who had been in the Assembly from 1996 until 2002, successfully vied for Orange County supervisor, Denny went to work for him, eventually becoming his chief of staff. He parlayed that post into an appointment as Orange County’s parks director. He subsequently hired on as the director of public works and community services with the City of Dana Point, and in 2017, was elevated to city manager there.
Denny has not lost his identity as a Republican, though he does not list his work for Pringle on his résumé.
In the years since Pringle was Speaker of the Assembly, the political landscape in California has shifted considerably. Not only have the Republicans lost their majority position in the Assembly that was needed for them to install one of their party as Speaker, they have now surrendered control of both the Assembly and State Senate to the Democrats utterly, such that the Democrats hold a supermajority in California’s lower and upper legislative houses, that is, a better than two-thirds advantage in terms of the number of members affiliated with the respective parties. In addition, California’s governor, the state attorney general, the controller, the auditor, the state treasurer, the superintendent of public instruction, the secretary of state, and the insurance commissioner are all Democrats. Similarly, the California Congressional Delegation is heavily weighted in favor of the Democrats. California has two Democratic U.S. Senators, and its House delegation consists of six Republicans and 45 Democrat, with two currently vacant seats.
Like virtually all of California, San Bernardino County has party affiliation numbers that favor the Democrats. In 2009, after more than 40 years of Republican ascendancy in San Bernardino County in terms of voter party identification, the Democrat’s registration numbers in the 20,105-square mile county eclipsed those of the Republicans. Since that time the numbers have moved ever further in favor of the Democrats. At present, as of February 23, 410,572 or 40.4 percent of the county’s 1,015,723 voters are Democrats, while 298,578 or 29.4 percent are registered with the Republican Party. At the same time, 236,551 or 23.3 percent have no stated party affiliation whatsoever; 39,252 or 3.9 percent are affiliated with the American Independent Party; 8,959 or 0.9 are registered as Libertarians; 6,010 or 0.6 are registered with the Peace and Freedom Party; 3,079 or 0.3 percent are Green Party members; and 12,722 voters or 1.3 percent are members of a slew of other more obscure parties.
Despite the more than 4-to-3 advantage the Democrats have over the Republicans countywide, the Republicans yet dominate San Bernardino County politically. In seventeen of the county’s 24 incorporated cities and towns, Republicans hold a majority of the positions on those jurisdictions’ town and city councils, and Democrats hold the majority on only five of the remaining seven city councils. On the county board of supervisors, four of the five members are Republicans. San Bernardino County’s state legislative delegation is majority Republican, with three of its five state senators and four of its eight assembly members currently being Republicans.
San Bernardino County remains as one of the last bastions of Republicanism in California in some measure because of the higher turnout at the polls among Republicans generally. Still, higher general voter turnout does not alone explain the grip the Republicans yet have on San Bernardino County, since the statistical 8 percent advantage this confers upon the Republicans is less than the 11 percent advantage the Democrats hold in numbers over the Republicans countywide. Indeed, in San Bernardino County, its Republicans have been able to keep the political upper hand through their collective gumption, cohesion, commitment, determination, tenacity, energy, coordination, hard work, cunning and willingness to defy expectations, convention and even the law to prevail at the polls, while the complacent and indolent Democrats have shown virtually none of those traits on a consistent basis, winning only when the odds and numbers are overwhelmingly in their favor.
A key factor in the winning formula the Republicans have applied is their indulgence in purpose-driven political patronage that is intended by design to perpetuate the GOP’s hold on local government. Once in office, Republican officeholders in San Bernardino County have demonstrated a readiness, willingness and propensity to confer governmental sinecures upon a selected group of their political associates. Merriam-Webster defines sinecure as “an office or position that requires little or no work and that usually provides an income.” Once Republican officeholders have succeeded in establishing those political operatives into those sinecures, they unleash them to undertake work to keep themselves and their Republican colleagues in office. Three of the Republican members of the board of supervisors – Robert Lovingood, Janice Rutherford and Curt Hagman – in December 2018 appointed a sister Republican, Dawn Rowe, to serve out the two years of time remaining on James Ramos’s term as Third District county supervisor after Ramos, a Democrat, was elected to the State Assembly in the 40th District in the November 2018 election. Rowe then hired Matt Knox as her chief of staff, Dillon Lesovsky as her policy advisor and Suzette Swallow as her director of communications. All three of those hires are political operatives whose actual immediate assignments are to ensure Rowe’s election as Third District supervisor this year; promote the election of current 8th District Congressman Paul Cook, for whom Rowe, Knox and Lesovsky once worked, as First District county supervisor to replace the retiring Lovingood; help with the election of current 33rd District Assemblyman Jay Obernolte as 8th District U.S. Congressman; assist former Hesperia Mayor Thurston Smith in his effort to succeed Obernolte as Assemblyman in the 33rd District; and work toward getting Fontana City Councilman Jesse Armendarez elected 5th District county supervisor. Cook, Obernolte, Smith and Armendarez are all Republicans.
Like Denny, Knox and Lesovsky have impeccable credentials as top-of-the-line political dirty tricksters. In 2018, while Knox was employed by Cook as one of his staffers in the 8th Congressional District, he was also functioning as the manager of Cook’s congressional reelection campaign. Knox and Lesovsky worked together on the “Dirty Donnelly.com” effort, the campaign against Cook’s opponent which has come to be recognized as a textbook example of how political “hits” are to be carried out. Ironically, Donnelly, a far right “Conservative American Values” politician, is a Republican. Indeed, Donnelly’s stances are so quintessentially Republican, Cook and his supporters believed he represented a true threat to Cook’s continuing political viability because he possessed an ideology more in keeping with that of Cook’s majority Republican constituents than did Cook. Donnelly, who served two terms in the California Assembly before abandoning that position to unsuccessfully seek California’s governorship in 2014, is such a Second Amendment/gun rights advocate that while he was serving in the Assembly, he was arrested for carrying a gun through the security checkpoint at Ontario Airport when he was returning to Sacramento following the legislative recess after the 2011/12 Christmas-New Years break. In 2018, because of the overwhelmingly Republican nature of the 8th Congressional District and California’s open primary system in which the two top vote-getters, irrespective of political party affiliation qualify for the November election, Donnelly managed to get into the November general election against the incumbent Cook. The Dirty Donnelly.com campaign Knox and Lesovsky masterminded consisted of a website and signs directing the public to that website, which 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 they did not mention stemmed from his gun possession arrest at the airport), was scamming senior citizens, had deserted his family, had engaged in “political fraud,” stole from his own wife and was unemployed.
Last year, Jeremiah Brosowske, who was then a councilman in Hesperia and who was formerly the executive director of the San Bernardino County Central Committee, which is the controlling organ of the county Republican Party, was hired as assistant general manager with the West Valley Water District in Rialto, despite the consideration that he had no experience in public agency management or administration and no expertise with regard to water operations or infrastructure. Despite the number of voters registered as Democrats in the West Valley Water District, 20,068 or 49.2 percent, outrunning the number of voters in that district registered as Republican, 8,088 or 19.8 percent, four of the district’s board members last year were, and currently are, Republicans. Brosowske was given the assistant general manager’s sinecure, providing him with a total annual compensation package exceeding $250,000. While in that position, Brosowske has done very little work related to the district’s function of providing water to its customers. His sinecure, however, allowed him to work on district elections that took place in November 2019, as well as the elections corresponding with the March 3 California Primary and the follow-on elections that are to be held in conjunction with the November 2020 General Presidential Election.
In the City of San Bernardino, three of Mayor John Valdivia’s current and former staff members – Mirna Cisneros, Karen Cervantes and Don Smith – have stated in recent weeks and days that Valdivia, a Republican, had pressured them to engage in activity to support candidates he is endorsing in this year’s election, going so far as pushing them to take vacation time so they can devote themselves to work on behalf of candidates he is endorsing in the current election. Cervantes and Smith worked on behalf of Republican candidates prior to their being hired as Valdivia’s staff members. Valdvia is a Republican.
In Fontana, this week, the city council voted 3-to-1 to hire Denny as city manager. Supporting the hiring with their votes were Councilman Armendarez, Councilman Phil Cothran and Councilman John Roberts, all three of whom are Republicans and stalwart members of Mayor Acquanetta Warren’s coalition. Opposing the hiring was Councilman Jesse Sandoval, the only Democrat on the Fontana City Council. Warren and West Valley Water District Board Member Dr. Clifford Odell Young are considered to be San Bernardino County’s leading and most politically viable African-American Republicans currently holding office. That the council undertook Denny’s hiring this week, while Warren was engaged in travel to Italy, was considered to be curious, indeed suspicious, by some, a circumstance believed to have been arranged to provide Warren, as the head of the city’s Republican coalition, with some level of plausible deniability that Denny is being extended the job to allow him to function in support of the ongoing and future campaigns of Republican candidates. Foremost among those is that of Armendarez, who is competing against three others, Dan Flores, Joe Baca, Jr. and Nadia Renner, for Fifth District county supervisor. Currently, the Fifth District supervisor’s post is held by Josie Gonzales, the only Democrat on the board of supervisors. In the Fifth District, which encompasses the eastern half of Fontana, Rialto, Bloomington, Colton and the western half of San Bernardino, the Democratic lead in voter registration is overwhelming, with 92,245 or 50.2 percent of the district’s 183,780 voters registered as Democrats and 34,156 or 18.6 percent registered as Republicans. The district’s voters expressing no party affiliation, 45,636 or 24.8 percent, outnumber the district’s Republican voters. Nevertheless, the Republicans are holding out hope that they will be able to exploit circumstances that will result in Republicans holding all five of the positions on the county board of supervisors.
Gonzales, a former Fontana councilwoman who has served in the capacity of Fifth District supervisor since 2004, is obliged to leave that post as a consequence of the three-term limit put in place on members of the board with the passage of Measure P in 2006. She has endorsed Flores, who brings to the table five basic strengths. He is, like Gonzales a Democrat and Hispanic in in an overwhelmingly Democratic and strongly Latino district. He is Gonzales’s chief of staff, thus embodying an understanding of the district and its issues. He is an elected official, currently serving as a board member with the Colton Joint Unified School District. And he has accumulated $312,966.39 in his campaign war chest.
Baca, like Flores is a Democrat and Hispanic. He, too, currently holds public office, serving as a city councilman in Rialto. His father, Joe Baca, Sr., held longtime status as an established politician in the area as an assemblyman, state senator and congressman. This gives the young Baca, perhaps, the best name recognition of all four of the candidates in the race. As of this week, he has collected $116,443 to fund his race for supervisor.
Renner, a Latina, identifies with no political party. She does not currently hold public office. She has banked, overall, $19,100 to carry out her campaign.
Likewise Latino, Armendarez, the only Republican in the race, holds office in 214,000-population Fontana, representing on the order of twice as many people than the roughly 107,000 residents who live within the confines of the Colton Joint Unified School District where Flores serves or the 104,000 population of Rialto where Baca is councilman. Armendarez has accumulated into his election fund, $336,299.86.
If no single candidate garners a majority of the votes in the election being held next week corresponding with the March 3 California Presidential Primary, then a run-off between the two top vote-getters is to take place in November. The Republicans’ strategy to boost Armendarez is to drive as a many of the Fifth District’s Republican voters to the polls to support Armendarez as possible while conducting a campaign that essentially targets the district’s unaligned voters, hopefully bringing in enough votes for Armendarez to capture second place among the four contestants to qualify for November, but husbanding enough of Armendarez’s financial resources to be able to wage an even stronger and more energetic campaign in November. In the meantime, the Republican strategists believe, the well-funded but less well-known Flores will need to spend the lion’s share of the money in his political account to overcome the better known but less cash-flush Baca, as they split the more numerous Democratic vote. If, indeed, Armendarez can manage a second place or even first place finish next week, he will then have the advantage of the political team of Lesovsky, Knox, Swallow, Brosowske and Denny, all of whom will be functioning from the comfort of well-paid positions and involving the equipment and facilities of government offices paid for by the taxpayers, working on his behalf to overcome whomever he finds himself up against in November. While a Republican winning in the heavily Democratic 5th Supervisorial District is ranked as a long shot, it is not considered impossible. The 50.2 percent to 18.6 percent registration advantage the Democrats enjoy over the Republicans in the 5th District is not all that much greater than the 49 percent to 18.6 percent edge they have over the Republicans in Fontana, where despite that lopsided lead, the mayor and three of the four council members are Republicans.
The Sentinel made repeated efforts this week to reach Denny at the City of Dana Point, where he is yet employed as City Manager. He did not return phone calls left there for him. Nor did he respond to an email which sought from him whether he was aware of reports that he had been hired by the Republican coalition in Fontana with the understanding that he would bring his considerable skill as a political operative to bear to engage in electioneering activity in favor of the Republican Party and Republican candidates in San Bernardino County going forward, including on Armendarez’s behalf in the election for Fifth District County supervisors. Denny did not respond to a question asked point blank if he will be working on behalf of Armendarez in his campaign for supervisor in November, should the vote on March 3 qualify him for the November run-off. He further declined to answer whether he is already working on Mr. Armendarez’s behalf.
Denny did not speak to the circumstance of Acquanetta Warren, as the head of the Republican coalition on the council controlling the City of Fontana, departing for Europe just as his hiring was being effectuated, such that she did not directly participate in the vote to hire him. He did not field questions with regard to reports that Warren had directed councilmen Roberts, Cothran and Armendarez to hire him. Asked if he was comfortable with the mayor’s absence while his appointment was being coordinated in that fashion and if he thought it might have been better for the council to have waited for the mayor’s return before installing him as city manager, Denny remained mute. Similarly, Denny spurned the opportunity to make a response to reports that either he and/or Pringle, who now runs his own public relations and government affairs firm, Curt Pringle & Associates, was or were involved in advising Mayor Warren or the Republican coalition on the council to carry out his hiring while the mayor was not present.
Queried directly as to what his understanding was about the legality or illegality of using governmental facilities and personnel for political advocacy or electioneering, Denny spurned the Sentinel’s offer to discuss the subject.
By Mark Gutglueck