County Democratic Executive Committee Meeting Showcases Party Vulnerabilities

Because of the coronavirus crisis, the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee has lain dormant for more than three months. Yesterday, members of the central committee’s executive board held a teleconference using the Zoom program, allowing several issues impacting the party to be discussed, including the scheduling of next month’s meeting of the committee’s general membership, at which the reorganization of the county party’s leadership is to be undertaken.
Several party activists had been hopeful that the reactivation of party activity in the county after this spring’s unanticipated interruption would provide an opportunity for the Democrats to seize the potential that voter registration numbers moving decidedly in their favor presents to reverse decades of the Republican domination of San Bernardino County.
The meeting, however, bogged down with procedural and parliamentary snags that prevented reformists from breaking the hold the party’s long-in-place leadership exercised over the proceedings. The factionalism within the committee, which has long been apparent and a factor in the inability of the party to achieve traction in the county, was as pronounced as ever.
The Republican Party has been in ascendancy in San Bernardino County for two generations. In 2009, however, the number of registered Democrats throughout the county as a whole eclipsed the number of registered Republicans. Nonetheless, that did not precipitate much in the way of political change. Republicans in general throughout the United States and California turn out to vote in greater numbers than do Democrats. That is no less true in San Bernardino County.
Since 2009, the voter registration numbers in favor of the Democratic Party locally have continued to climb. While the county’s blue collar Fifth District, stretching from the midway point of Fontana on the west through Rialto, Bloomington, Colton and to the middle of San Bernardino on the east, has been a Democratic stronghold for upwards of 60 years, the other four supervisorial districts were previously Republican in their orientation. One by one, the Fourth, Third and Second districts have come to be inhabited by more Democrats than Republicans. Only the First District, which covers the lion’s share of the county’s Mojave Desert expanse, remains narrowly Republican in terms of its overall voter numbers.
At this juncture, the numerical advantage the Democrats enjoy in three-fifths of the county is not insubstantial. In the Third District, which includes the cities of Grand Terrace, Loma Linda, the eastern half of San Bernardino, Highland, Yucaipa, Big Bear, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms and Barstow, the gap favoring the Democrats in four of the county’s supervisorial districts is narrowest. As of this week, 80,769 or 36.4 percent of the Third District’s 222,090 voters are Democrats, compared to 79,474 or 35.3 percent who are Republicans. The remainder are voters who have declined to state a party affiliation or belong to the Peace & Freedom, American Independent, Green, Libertarian or more obscure parties. Of the Second District’s 226,243 voters, 92,343 or 40.8 percent, are Democrats and 69,766 or 30.8 percent are Republicans. That district encompasses western Fontana, Rancho Cucamonga, north Upland and San Antonio Heights, Mt. Baldy, Wrightwood, Crestline and Lake Arrowhead. In the Fourth District, consisting of south Upland, Ontario, Montclair, Chino and Chino Hills, 87,862 voters or 44.2 percent affiliate with the Democrats, while 52,447 or 26.4 percent of the 198,984 voters there are registered as Republicans. In the Fifth District, more than half of its 187,248 voters, 95,226 or 50.9 percent, are Democrats, and 35,001 or 18.7 percent are Republicans. Only among the 201,603 voters in the far-flung First District, which includes Oak Hills, Hesperia, Victorville, Adelanto, Apple Valley, Trona and Needles, are the Republicans a plurality, at 70,837 or 35.1 percent, compared to 70,290 Democrats, representing 34.9 percent of those eligible to vote. In the county overall, there are more than four Democrats for every three Republicans, as 426,490 or 41.2 percent of the county’s 1,036,168 voters are Democrats and 306,525 or 29.6 percent are Republicans.
In the face of these numbers, San Bernardino County paradoxically remains one of the few remaining Republican bastions in the state.
Only with regard to representation at the federal level are the Democrats in San Bernardino County in ascendance. Both of California’s U.S. Senators – Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein – are Democrats. Their presence in the U.S. Legislature’s Upper Chamber is a direct function of the overwhelming majority of Democrats throughout the Golden State. Among the five Congress members currently representing San Bernardino County at the federal level, one – Paul Cook – is a Republican, and four – Pete Aguilar, Judy Chu, Gil Cisneros and Norma Torres – are Democrats. That is because, however, the districts for several of San Bernardino County’s members of the House of Representatives extend beyond the county boundaries into areas of Los Angeles and Orange counties which are heavily Democratic. An analysis of the vote in the Congressional races in San Bernardino County going back to 2016 shows that neither Chu nor Cisneros would likely be in office if the determination of who was to represent them in the 27th Congressional District and the 39th Congressional District, respectively, had been left up to San Bernardino County voters alone.
San Bernardino’s state legislative delegation is majority Republican, with three of its five state senators currently Republicans and four of its eight assembly members Republicans. Again, it is because the districts of certain of those legislators extend beyond San Bernardino County’s borders that some of those Democratic Party-aligned office holders can claim incumbency. In the State Senate, 25th District Democrat Anthony Portantino would not hold his place in the state’s upper legislative chamber if San Bernardino County voters had their way. And Democratic Assemblyman Chris Holden likewise would not be in office if his political fate had been decided by the San Bernardino County voters within State Assembly District 41.
Local elected offices in California are officially considered to be nonpartisan. In San Bernardino County, however, party affiliation is a primary consideration whenever and at whatever level an election is held.
At the most basic level of local governance in the county – among the elected members of the 24 city and town councils and the county board of supervisors – Republicans have remained in control. In 17 of the county’s 24 cities, the Republicans form a majority on those panels. In two of those cities there is no clear partisan leaning among elected decision-makers. In only five of the county’s 24 cities are there more Democrats on their ultimate decision-making panels than Republicans. Currently on the board of supervisors, four of its five members are Republicans.
In this year’s March 3 election, Robert Lovingood, the Republican supervisor in the First District, did not seek reelection. As a consequence of that election’s outcome, he is to be replaced with Congressman Paul Cook, another Republican, who opted out of seeking to return to Washington, D.C. and instead will represent a large swath of the desert at the county seat in San Bernardino come December. On March 3, Dawn Rowe, the appointed Republican supervisor in the Third District, was also victorious, earning the right to remain in office until 2024. The sole Democrat currently serving on the board of supervisors, Josie Gonzales, is termed out and therefore did not seek reelection on March 3. Instead, she supported her chief of staff, Dan Flores, in the race. Flores, however finished in third place behind the top vote-getter, Rialto Councilman Joe Baca, Jr., a Democrat, and Fontana City Councilman Jesse Armendarez, a Republican. There is now to be a run-off in November, pitting Baca against Armendarez. While most political prognosticators consider that race to be Baca’s to lose, Armendarez is still in a position, if he campaigns hard and works like the devil, to emerge victorious and completely shut the Democrats out from the representation on the county board of supervisors. As it stands, for the next two years the Democrats will have no more than a single representative on the five-member board of supervisors to the Republicans’ four members.
Armendarez has already shown he has the ability, as a Republican, to overcome the registration advantage the Democrats enjoy. The City of Fontana, half of which lies within the Fifth District, is virtually as Democratic as the Fifth District. Of that city’s 94,619 voters, 47,371 or 50.1 percent, are Democrats, with slightly more than a third of that number, 17,856 or 18.9 percent, registered as Republicans. Yet, of the five members of the Fontana City Council, four – Armendarez, Mayor Acquanetta Warren, Phil Cothran, Jr. and John Roberts – are Republicans. Only one of its members, Jesse Sandoval, is a Democrat.
A similar pattern exists elsewhere in the county. Given the Republicans’ slight voter registration advantage in the county’s First District, it is quite natural that the current First District supervisor and the supervisor-elect there are Republicans. In the county’s Third District, it is not considered unusual or even remarkable that that jurisdiction is represented by a Republican, as the general six-to-eight percent greater Republican voter turnout in elections offsets the 0.9 percent registration advantage the Democrats claim there. But in the Second District, Democratic voters outnumber their Republican counterparts by 22,577, or ten percent. The Democrats in 2018 did not bother to field a candidate in the Second District. In the Fourth District, where the Democrats have 35,415 more registered voters than do the Republicans, a 17.8 percent advantage, the Democrats failed to get their candidate – Gloria Negrete-McLeod – elected in 2014 and 2018. McLeod’s candidacy failed despite her being in 2014 an incumbent congresswoman and one of the most well-known politicians in the district, after having previously served in both the California Senate and the Assembly. Both election years she lost to Curt Hagman, a former Chino Hills mayor who in 2014 was an incumbent assemblyman. The campaigns for Negrete-McLeod were lackluster at best, while those working on behalf of Hagman worked energetically and showed determination and tenacity, managing in both cases to eke out a narrow victory.
A growing number of the members of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee have come to attribute the party’s year-in, year-out poor performance to Chris Robles, who since 2012 has been the chairman of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee. The committee’s members had hoped that putting Robles into the role of party leader would pay off, calculating that the expertise he had accumulated in his professional career as a political consultant would redound to the benefit of the party as well as Democratic candidates. Giving him control over the party machinery and its fundraising functions was intended to benefit Democratic candidates at all levels within the 20,105-square mile county, as the committee members assumed that Robles would so thoroughly commit himself to the party and its fortunes that it would be as if the Democrats were tapping into political and electioneering expertise worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per election cycle.
Relatively early on, however, it was observed that Robles would, after a minimal and barebones consultation with candidates, press on them one of his cards, suggesting that he could be of more assistance to them if they were to hire him to serve as their campaign consultant. This grated on some members of the party, who believed Robles was using his position to advance his consulting business rather than fundraising for candidates or guiding them toward victory in his capacity as party chairman. With the county party organization’s coordinated strategy virtually nonexistent, the Democrats’ performance in San Bernardino County has consistently lagged dramatically behind their numerical superiority.
In 2017, a year into Robles’ most recent term as chairman, there was an uprising in the central committee as a core group moved to oust him from his leadership role, citing what they said were irregularities with regard to the stewardship of party funds and Robles’ work as a consultant on the part of some Republican candidates. A significant contingent of the central committee at one of its meetings managed to call the question to depose him, prevailing in the vote. Robles, however, was able, after the fact, to undo what had occurred through the use of a parliamentary challenge to the voting procedure removing him.
Since then, the constant challenges of his chairmanship have subsided somewhat, and Robles has managed to remain in place.
At Thursday’s Zoom meeting, many of those involved in the teleconference were looking forward to the opportunity it represented to embark not only on the efforts to advance the party in the upcoming November election but to effectuate a major changeover in the county party itself, consisting of revamping the committee’s leadership. Toward that end, several party members were looking toward succeeding where they had failed in 2017 when they sought midterm to depose Robles as chairman.
Robles, however, seemed to understand that his leadership role is at risk. Indeed, the one arena of political action in which Robles has consistently demonstrated his mastery is that relating to maintaining control of the central committee. One of the manifestations of this is the fashion in which he has used his purview as the chairman to install a group of his loyalists in the executive roles within the central committee. Each time a revolt has manifested, he has called upon those on whom he had bestowed party positions and perquisites to rally to sustain him.
It was no different Thursday. Under the arrangement for the Zoom meeting, all members of the executive board of the central committee were able to actively participate in the meeting, while the committee’s general membership was given access to observe the proceedings, but not actively participate. Only Robles himself, executive board members and those Robles chose to recognize could actively, that is verbally, participate. At his own discretion, Robles was empowered to cut off the microphone of any of those participating in the teleconference. Throughout the meeting, Robles electronically muted all attendees except the executive board members.

Two items that came for discussion Thursday were crucial to the chairmanship question for upcoming 2020-21. The reorganization of the committee by tradition takes place every four years in July, at which point the full membership votes on who will serve as chairman for the next four years, followed by the chairman’s nomination of executive board members, after which a ratifying vote of the general committee ensues. The second critical issue discussed was the submission of dues by the committee members to qualify them as members for the upcoming year.
Traditionally, the committee members submit their dues, a nominal fee of roughly $50, in July, which every fourth year falls within a month of the selection of the chairman. The dues are thereafter deposited into the central committee’s operating fund and utilized in accordance with the consensus of the chairman, the executive committee and the general membership.
Robles gave indication that the committee’s members were expected to pay their dues prior to the reorganization meeting of the committee in July and indicated that those not paying their 2020-21 dues will not be eligible to vote on any upcoming matters, including the leadership succession question.   The payment of dues prior to the reorganization meeting would effectually give Robles as current chairman discretion over the expenditure of fees paid for the upcoming year. When the executive board concluded the meeting, committee members who are not on the executive board were allowed to speak. Ruth Musser-Lopez brought up the subject of dues payment, citing and displaying on the chat screen the committee’s bylaws which state that the newly organized committee shall establish the dues at the reorganization meeting and the members would have 30 days to pay them. Musser-Lopez said that the current executive board had no authority to establish what the dues would be for the new term, nor to collect the dues on behalf of the new committee, and that the county party’s “ActBlue” website link directed members to a payment site that indicated the dues were being paid for the 2019-2020 term. She objected to the confusing commingling of the new funds with the current funds controlled by the board. She told Robles that if he prohibited members from voting because they didn’t pay their dues prior to the meeting, that he could expect a formal challenge with the state party. Tim Prince, a San Bernardino attorney and also a current member of the committee, concurred with Musser-Lopez. His and other expressions by members suggest that it is widely held that the dues being required prior to the meeting is a ploy by Robles to purposely exclude a number of those members he has strong reason to believe will not vote in favor of keeping him in the role of chairman and to limit the number of committee members who will be able to vote to select the other executive board seats.
There was further intrigue with regard to the timing of the vote. While a deadline of July 13 has been set for nominations for chairman, it is not clear when the next meeting, which will again follow the Zoom format, will be held. Previously, a date of July 18 was mentioned, but there has been no determination that the meeting will be held on that date, which falls on a Saturday. Normally, the Democratic Central Committee has met on Thursday nights.
The Sentinel has learned that a consensus is building around Kristen Washington, the president of the Redlands Area Democratic Club, as an alternate to Robles as chairman.
During the Thursday Zoom meeting, there was a further demonstration of the factionalism and personal rivalries that have pervaded the party and kept it from hitching all of the horses up to the same side of the wagon so they can all pull with concentrated power in concert.
Roger La Plante, a member of the Democratic Central Committee who is the party’s voter registration committee chairman as well as a one-time candidate for the Apple Valley City Council and more recently a candidate for State Assembly in the 33rd District, is now running for the Victorville City Council. He had sought the endorsement of the Democratic Party in that race. Victorville, where 24,468 or 44.8 percent of its 54,674 voters are registered Democrats and 12,990 or 23.8 percent are registered as Republicans, now has a city council where three of its five members are Republicans. So far, however, La Plante has been unable to get the endorsement of his own party in that contest, which will take place in November.
During Thursday’s meeting, La Plante registered his objection to the treatment he said he has been accorded by another Democrat, in this case, Adelanto City Councilwoman Stevevonna Evans.
La Plante, who was formerly a member of the California Democratic Party’s executive board in Assembly District 33, was edged out for that position by Evans last year. In March, she was a candidate for county board of supervisors in District 1.
According to La Plante, Evans defamed him, stating that he was mentally ill, was not taking his medication and needed to return to taking that medication, and that he was a racist. He further claimed that Evans had allowed a Facebook page she has co-control of to be utilized to falsely state that Joe Biden is a child molester. An Army veteran who was stationed in Europe during the 1980s and saw combat with the 1st Inf Div Big Red 1 Iraq in 1991, La Plante is retired from the military with a full disability. He said the latter circumstance formed the basis of Evans’ statements with regard to his mental illness. He said her remarks were a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act and that in making them, she was seeking to prevent him from participating in the political process.
Evans told the Sentinel she had not made any of the statements about La Plante attributed to her, but did tell him that he needed therapy.
She provided the Sentinel with 81 separate screenshots of an extended set of Facebook exchanges involving her, La Plante and at least 31 other individuals in which they exchange a host of accusations and unflattering characterizations of one another.
The back-and-forth sheds a good deal more heat than light, and captures numerous statements from both that, in the generations before the declension of public discourse brought on by what now routinely occurs within the context of social media, would have been anathema to anyone holding public office or vying for the same.
Both implied, suggested or outright stated the other was a racist.
La Plante, who is white, said that Evans had engaged in race baiting by claiming that Malcolm Harsch, a 38-year-old itinerant man who was subsequently demonstrated through a heretofore unknown security video to have committed suicide by hanging himself on May 31, had been lynched in Victorville.
At one point, La Plante referred to Evans and another woman as “racist cowards.”
This prompted Evans, who is African-American, to ask, “Do you know the definition of racism? It is very clear that in America, black people can’t be racist.”
This was augmented by a lecture to La Plante by someone named Margarita Lacabe, who asserted, “Black people literally cannot be racist when they live in a white supremacist society like ours. Racism requires power, which black people don’t enjoy directly.”
Evans asserted at one point that LaPlantge typified “white fragility.”
Melinda Richardson characterized La Plante as “a sensitive old white man who wants to be an elected official, not knowing how to navigate tough conversations without name calling.”
At one point La Plante called Evans and her associates “commies,” but later belittled Evans or a woman he associated with her for involving herself in an apparent entrepreneurial venture in which she employed one of her children in selling slogan-bearing T-shirts during a protest rally.
La Plante indicated he resented Evans for recommending that he receive therapy, saying it was unprofessional of her to make such a personal jab.
Evans responded, “I don’t think referring to therapy is unprofessional. Most adults need it. I’m just trying to find a way to help you.”
Having previously lived in Apple Valley before he more recently moved to Victorville where he is now seeking election to the city council, La Plante objected to speculation about where his place of residence was.
When some of those involved in the exchanges expressed the belief that La Plante was a discredit to the Democratic Party, Evans provided them with the address of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee so they could call for his resignation.
Another participant in the exchanges, Angela Mayo, upbraided La Plante for supporting Joe Biden, claiming, “There is proof that Biden is a racist. And his stance on certain policies could be considered racist.”
La Plante was buffeted by another participant, Lee Wilson, who told him, “You support mass murders.”
To someone uninvolved in the fracas, it was difficult to understand what had led to the meltdown between Evans and La Plante, or what either thought they might gain from the exchanges.
In the midst of the conflagration, La Plante stated that in light of the “defamation” he was being subjected to, “I have a right to defend my honor.”
Evans, meanwhile, at several points sought to have La Plante simply leave her Facebook chatroom, one of those times accusing La Plante of “stalking me and my page.”
La Plante told the Sentinel that he previously had no issues with Evans and had endorsed her in her run for city council. More recently, he said, she had allowed posts on her Facebook page which were both inaccurate and unfair to him, and he had sought to have her remove them. “I’m running for the Victorville City Council, so I’m asking her to retract those things that were posted,” La Plante said. “She has thousands and thousands of followers on social media, and it has come to the point where she is defaming me. So, I’m suing her through the forum of the central committee to have her remove them. What she is saying is not conducive to our party making gains in Democrats holding elective office.”
In recent weeks, La Plante said, he had seen Evans at rallies stating that Harsch had been lynched, which was simply not true, he said. And it is now proven to not be true by two separate videos that captured his act of suicide he said.
“I told her she should not be promoting that idea, no matter what her cause is, because it is not true that Malcolm Harsch was lynched by white racists, and now she is calling me a racist,” he said, adding that he has retracted his statement calling her a racist, which he said was made in the heat of the moment. He offered an apology to Evans.
Evans personalized things unnecessarily, La Plante said. “I am a Joe Biden delegate. She supported Bernie [Sanders],” he said.
La Plante said he is shocked by the hostility leveled at him and other Democrats by members of their own party. He said he is a conservative Democrat. “They lost,” La Plante said of the “liberal” Sanders supporters. “I represent veterans. I was in the military. I think they hate veterans. They disrespect us. I want to take our party back from the ones that are trying to take it over. I’m for America. I’m a conservative Democrat. I’m a Democrat. But I’m an American first and foremost. I’m against people perpetuating the demagoguery.”
La Plante said it is true that in San Bernardino County, the Republicans are cohesive and the Democrats are at each other’s throats.
“We’ve got guys like [Republican] Jay Obernolte walking into these seats [as in Obernolte’s case, the 8th Congressional District], while we’re fighting each other and taking each other out like crazy.”
Evans chalked her differences with La Plante up to her having defeated him in the competition for the current position she holds on the California Democratic Party’s executive board for the 33rd Assembly District and his having been removed from the Facebook page she and others participate in, which she said, incidentally, was not her decision but one made by “another organizer, due to him attacking her and telling her how to run the group and to change the name.”
On that Facebook page, she said, La Plante had “been blasted. He decided to play the victim and come up with these outrageous stories, is my guess,” she said. “We both ran for the Assembly District 33 Executive Board seat. I won by a landslide. He and another candidate both attempted to appeal that with no success.”
Evans said, “Neither my kids nor I have ever sold T-shirts.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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