SBC Democrats Takes 3 Steps Forward, 2 Steps Sideways & Then 2 Steps Backwards

After four election cycles of continuous dysfunction under Chairman Chris Robles, the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee has regrouped under a new chairwoman, Kristin Washington. This week, during the first major meeting of the full central committee at which its direction under the revamped leadership could be discerned, the central committee made progress in allowing a fuller rendering of opinion and advocacy to be brought into consideration that might create the foundation of wider and more intensive commitment to supporting the party’s candidates in the November 2020 race. Yet on display, however, was the factionalism within its ranks that has plagued the local Democratic Party in the past, a confusion as to protocol, along with manifestations of the self-centered orientation and alliances of the party’s more dominant members that have crippled it for over a decade.
With the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan in California politics in the 1960s, the Republicans captured control of San Bernardino County. For more than four decades, the GOP enjoyed undisputed primacy over the 20,105-square mile jurisdiction, as Republican voters in the largest county in the lower 48 states outnumbered Democrats. During that era, only in the most heavily concentrated blue collar districts and cities of the county were Democrats consistently elected to public office.
In 2009, for the first time in more than a generation, the number of registered Democrats in San Bernardino eclipsed the tally of registered Republicans. That trend matched what had been going on in virtually all of California since the late 1990s, as more and more of the Golden State’s voters moved into the Democratic camp. Nevertheless, into the beginning and middle years of the second decade of the Third Millennium in San Bernardino County and even until today, the Republicans have continued to dominate at the polls, at least partially because of the greater degree of voter turnout among Republicans than Democrats generally, both nationally and in California.
In 2012, the San Bernardino County Central Committee chose Chris Robles, a political consultant by trade, to serve in the role of San Bernardino County Democratic Party chairman. Robles, it was widely thought, would bring his expertise with regard to running election campaigns to the job, boosting the party’s performance all around, allowing the Democrats to close the gap and claim victory in the races for municipal, county, state legislative and federal legislative offices where they were competitive but finishing narrowly behind their Republican rivals. It was hoped as well that Robles would help the party drive more and more Democratic voters to the polls in the less competitive contests where the Republicans were also consistently winning, even though Democratic voters in those areas were more numerous than the Republicans. By slowly building the party up in such areas, the hope was the Democrats might regain San Bernardino County as a whole.
Despite the expectations the Democrats had for Robles’ leadership, in 2012, 2014, 2016 and again in 2018, even as the numerical advantage that the Democrats had countywide continued to climb, the Republicans continued to outhustle and outperform their primary political rivals.
Internally, the Democrats were split over revelations that Robles used his position as chairman for personal gain by luring candidates seeking the Democratic Party endorsement to his personal campaign consulting business to further their chances of gaining the party’s endorsement, a conflict of interest for Robles. Robles took money from and worked for candidates who were not endorsed running against endorsed candidates, and even worked for Republicans in contravention of his duty to support the party’s endorsed candidates. Robles was censured by the state party for his conduct, though his supporters, including those associated with the powerful California Teachers Association, brushed off the charges and remained loyal to Robles. The resulting squabbling rendered Democrats seemingly incapable of uniting effectively under Robles’ leadership. Indeed, Robles’ most impressive display of his political acumen consisted of his ability to structure the executive board of the central committee with his personal supporters as he handed out perquisites and positions of influence and power in the party to his allies in an effective manner that kept those who were questioning the party’s overall performance in the county at bay. Whereas the party would make a modest effort at getting those members of the central committee vying for office who were Robles’ supporters elected, the party was doing woefully little for the rest of its candidates. This created what was essentially three factions within the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee: Robles’ loyal supporters, those wanting to see Robles removed as party chairman, and a third group less focused on what the local party’s leadership was going to be than on promoting Democratic candidates and causes. Robles managed to obtain reelection as party chairman in 2016, but in 2017, the faction intent on his removal rebelled, succeeding in ousting him during a meeting after he abruptly departed in the face of widespread protest over his leadership. Robles immediately, however, appealed to the state party leadership to have that action taken in his absence declared null and void, and he remained in charge of the county’s largely ineffective Democratic political apparatus. In 2018, the Democratic party’s lackluster performance in San Bernardino County again demonstrated Robles’ absolutely hapless performance in the party leadership role.
Earlier this summer, a clear majority of the Democratic Central Committee’s membership had swung behind Washington, something of a political juggernaut herself who for the last several years has led and embodied the Redlands Area Democratic Club.
Weary from the battles, lack of progress and censure from the California Democratic Party, Robles and all but one of his executive committee decided not to run for re-election. Washington easily won in a vote of the newly constituted members of the central committee on July 18.
At last night’s meeting on Thursday, August 27, the entire central committee was scheduled to take up the subject of endorsements of candidates to be made in the various races to be held on November 3.
Already understood is that the central committee is supporting the state endorsement of the Democratic candidates running in the state and federal legislative races that are considered partisan. What was taken up on August 27 were the county and municipal races, which are officially considered nonpartisan. In San Bernardino County, however, no election is considered nonpartisan by the Republicans. On 17 of the county’s city and town councils, Republicans outnumber Democrats. On the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, Republicans outnumber Democrats 4-to-1. These realities are a function of the Republican Central Committee working quietly but efficiently to promote its own in such local races. This year, under Washington, the Democratic Central Committee appears intent on responding in kind to the efforts of the Republicans.
A vestige of the cabal that had kept Robles in power over the last several years yet exists within the central committee, which includes Ralph Trujillo, Wendy Eccles, Mary Feeney, Christina Marquez, Mark Westwood, Nancy Glenn, Sean Houle and Robles himself. At various junctures on Thursday night, Robles’ coalition sought to assert itself with regard to obtaining the full committee’s endorsement of a handful of candidates favored by Robles, garnering only limited success. The upshot of those efforts and their aftermath is that Robles’ power has essentially been attenuated.
Instead, a mixture of establishment Democrats and new blood have moved into positions of substantial influence in the organization. While the sway 40th Assembly District Assemblyman James Ramos holds was not openly apparent at the meeting, his presence as a remote controlling entity was felt, since Chairwoman Kristen Washington is not herself a member of the committee, but acts as James Ramos’ appointed “alternate.” As per the central committee’s bylaws, if Ramos were to actually attend and hold his vote card at a meeting, Washington would not be entitled to act, and Ramos would not be chair. Rather, the vice chair of the party would be empowered to act as chair. More overtly, 47th District Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez-Reyes is now asserting her guidance of the local party, doing so in large measure by the presence of her alternate, Ana Gonzalez, as the committee is coming out from under the shadow of Robles.
In her short span as committee chairwoman, Washington has been credited with facilitating communication within the committee all around in a way that is more open than what existed during Robles’ reign. This was on display Thursday evening, when Washington, with a single exception, indulged the committee members in allowing them to weigh in with regard to their perceptions and preferences with regard to the subject at hand, the party’s endorsements.
An inherent problem with political committees, Democratic or Republican, is holding the personal ambition of their constituents in check, and ensuring that the decision-making process is not overly influenced by those who have a selfish interest in the outcome that conflicts with the organization as a whole. Washington, it appears, is struggling in coming to terms with this reality, an intractable one since those attracted to politics to begin with are generally strongly opinionated and in many specific instances are themselves vying for political office, and have gravitated to a political organization to promote themselves first and have only a secondary interest in furthering the party.
This shortcoming was on display in the process that was arrived at for evaluating those seeking the central committee’s endorsements. Among those named to the various committees interviewing the candidates were three central committee members who this year are themselves candidates for office. Those were Lizet Angulo and Leslie Irving, both of whom are seeking election to the Victorville City Council, and Jim Gallagher, a one-time Robles ally who is running for city council in Chino Hills. While the central committee took steps to assure that none of those three directly oversaw the recommendation for the office they were seeking, in the case of Angulo, she worked with Christina Marquez in evaluating the candidates in the race for Rialto mayor, in evaluating candidates for the San Bernardino County Board of Education and Etiwanda School District’s Area 5 board position. Angulo also worked with Scott Brown in evaluating candidates for Big Bear’s District 1 council seat, in looking at candidates in the Victor Valley High School Board of Education and the Hesperia Unified School District Board of Education. She coordinated with Curt Lewis in evaluating candidates for the San Bernardino County Board of Education and Rialto mayor. Likewise Aaron Bratton was side-by-side with her in evaluating candidates for the San Bernardino County Board of Education and the Redlands School Board District 4 seat. Angulo was also coordinating with Nancy Glenn in evaluating candidates for the San Bernardino County Board of Education, the Redlands School Board and the Etiwanda School District’s Area 5 position on the school board. Marquez, Brown, Lewis, Bratton and Glenn were involved in evaluating the candidates seeking election to the Victorville City Council, of whom Angulo was one. Similarly, Leslie Irving worked with Gallagher in evaluating candidates for the Colton Joint Unified School District Board, the Redlands School District Board, the Fontana City Council, the Phelan-Pinon Hills Community Services District Board, the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District Board and San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District Board. Gallagher served as an observer on the interviews of Victorville City Council candidates, of whom Irving was one.
The Victorville City Council race presents an extraordinary dilemma for the Democratic Central Committee. The race has attracted 21 candidates for three positions on the council up for election this year, one of which is held by an incumbent Democrat, Blanca Gomez. Of those 21 candidates, at least 14 are Democrats. Thus, the central committee this year has fallen under some degree of criticism from within its own ranks and without for not conducting outreach among the members of the Democratic Party to seek to limit the Democratic candidates in the Victorville City Council race so they are not competing against one another and thereby splitting the Democratic vote. Voter registration in Victorville strongly leans Democratic, with approaching 25,000 or 44.8 percent of its 55,00 voters registered as Democrats and 13,000 or 23.8 percent registered as Republicans. Nevertheless, at present, the Republicans hold a 3-to-2 majority on the Victorville City Council. Among the 14 known Democrats in this year’s race is the incumbent Gomez and Lionel Dew, who has nearly captured the council seat previously with strong showings at the polls. The central committee, however, declined to endorse either Gomez or Dew, instead recommending that Democrats cast their three votes in the upcoming election for Irving, Angulo and Kareema Abdul Khabir. In addition to overlooking Gomez and Dew, the central committee spurned one of its members, Roger LaPlante, who is also vying for city council in Victorville, after LaPlante relocated there from Apple Valley, where he unsuccessfully sought a position on the town council in 2018. A factor in the failure of Gomez, Dew and LaPlante to claim the central committee’s endorsements this year is the actuality or perception of their affiliation with Robles.
LaPlante, who has worked energetically on behalf of the Democrats as a former member of the California Democratic Party’s executive board in Assembly District 33, the party’s voter registration committee chairman in San Bernardino County as well as a candidate for State Assembly in the 33rd District, took being denied the party’s endorsement in the Victorville City Council race personally. After a contretemps earlier this year, LaPlante had tendered his resignation from the central committee, but then rescinded it. After being denied a recommendation for the Victorville council race endorsement by the evaluation committee last week, LaPlante earlier this week once more resigned in a missive to Washington, who accepted his resignation shortly thereafter. At Thursday night’s meeting, when LaPlante sought to participate, Washington announced to the committee that LaPlante had resigned, and thus his voice would be muted during the video conference. LaPlante was allowed to respond one last time. He told Washington, “You didn’t have to tell everybody,” his reference apparently being to his resignation. From that point, LaPlante was the one member of the central committee – or former member of the central committee – whom Washington refused to indulge.
Even prior to the meeting, LaPlante had gone public with information relating to Irving, who had prevailed over him and ten other Democrats in getting the Democratic Party endorsement in the Victorville City Council race.
In 2001, Irving was a resident of Compton, and she successfully vied for a position on the Compton City Council that year, posting a victory over her opponent, Melanie Andrews. Before she was sworn in to that office, however, accusations of voter fraud against Irving surfaced. A challenge to the outcome of the race, as well as that one for Compton mayor in the same election, was lodged in Los Angeles Superior Court.
The trial court, in the personage of Superior Court Judge Judith C. Chirlin, after weighing all of the evidence and based upon what Chirlin and the California Second District Court of Appeal called substantial and credible testimony, concluded that Irving had engaged in election fraud. Nine witnesses, at least six of whom did not speak English, testified against Irving, stating that she or her campaign had registered them to vote, even though they were not citizens. The most devastating witness against Irving was Elvita Andrade, whose testimony replicated in many respects that of the other eight witnesses. Andrade testified that although she had spoken with Irving through a translator, she had also spoken directly with Irving in English. Andrade stated she had told Irving, in English, that she was not a United States citizen. Andrade claimed that Irving’s response was “that citizenship had nothing to do  with it, that it had nothing to do with the government, so that it would not [a]ffect my citizenship.” Andrade said she had been told to sign an absentee ballot application, which she did, and that either Irving or the translator would pick up the absentee ballot from her when it arrived. Andrade stated that when the translator came to pick up Andrade’s absentee ballot, she had signed the ballot and gave it to the translator without marking or punching it. Someone other than Andrade, after she had given it to one of Irving’s campaign workers, marked and submitted Andrade’s absentee ballot, which was demonstrated to the court to have been counted in the election, according to evidence and testimony in the case.
Judge Chirlin found, and the Second District Division 1 California Court of Appeal confirmed, that Irving “either personally or through her agents, (1) knowingly solicit[ed] nine non-citizens to register for absentee ballots in violation of section 18100, subdivision (a);  (2) [was] present in the nine absentee voters’ homes while they were voting and telling them how to vote, in violation of section 18371, subdivision (a);  (3) fraudulently register[ed] nine non-citizens and assist[ed] them to vote or complet[e] their absentee ballots for them, in violation of section 18500;  and (4) solicit[ed] illegal votes from the nine nonqualified voters, in violation of section 18561.” The trial court also disqualified Irving, under the provisions of section 18501, from ever holding office in California.
Irving appealed Judge Chirlin’s ruling to the Second District Court of Appeal, which in March 2003 ruled that Irving had indeed engaged in the “commission of offenses against the elective franchise” Chirlin had adjudged Irving to have been involved in and that Irving’s 2001 Compton City Council election was properly annulled. The Court of Appeal, while finding that Irving was disqualified from seeking or filling the council seat she had sought in the 2001 election for the remainder of that 2001 term, determined that because the case Chirlin was adjudicating was an electoral challenge rather than a criminal matter, the lifetime ban on Irving ever holding office again in California was improperly imposed. The Second District Court of Appeal ruling allows Irving to run for and hold elective office.
LaPlante contends that the Democratic Party is setting itself up for a scathing reproach by the Republicans for endorsing Irving. “The new San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee is the most corrupt organization I have ever been a part of,” he said. “I feel clean to move away from such unethical and inappropriate discrimination and bigotry.”
Action taken with regard to three other endorsements Thursday night also stirred controversy. In those matters, the central committee as a whole deviated from the recommendations of the evaluating committee.
In perhaps the most significant and surprising of those, the committee rejected the recommendation of the evaluation committee to endorse Rialto Mayor Deborah Robertson, who has been mayor in that city of 104,000 population since 2012, in favor of Lupe Camacho.
Robertson faces allegations backed by an investigation for conflict of interest involving a city contract awarded to a nonprofit organization headed by her daughter. She has been dogged as well as a consequence of her support of embattled West Valley Water District Board Member Channing Hawkins. Robertson and Hawkins are supported by the longstanding faction headed by Assembly Member Eloise Reyes’ deposed rival and predecessor Cheryl Brown, a loyal supporter of Robles.
Some central committee members decried denying Robertson the endorsement, based on their belief that the central committee would be well advised to adhere to a policy of backing Democratic candidates who have a proven track record of being elected.
In making a recommendation on whom Democratic voters should support in the race to represent Division 2 on the board for the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, the evaluation committee had recommended Gil Botello over the incumbent, Gil Navarro. Navarro, a colorful and controversial political figure, has consistently pulled down Democratic Party endorsements in the past. Still, his tendency to test the political envelope and involve himself in issues that are sensational and attention grabbing and sometimes questionable appeared to rub itself thin with the panel that interviewed him, which included Irving, Gallagher and Washington.
In 2012, Navarro, who had been a member of the San Bernardino County Board of Education since 2006, was elected to the board of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District. With multiple legal authorities, including county counsel and the attorney for the water district, insisting there was an incompatibility between the two offices Navarro had come to hold and that it was incumbent upon him to resign from the board of education to move onto the water board, he defied those calls, and sought to remain as a decision-maker on both panels. Ultimately, after Navarro remained in both positions for a year, Judge Michael A. Sachs issued a judgment in December 2013 at the behest of the San Bernardino County Board of Education that Navarro was “not entitled to hold or exercise the office of San Bernardino County Board of Education trustee, as it is an incompatible office with his position as a San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District Board member.” Sachs ordered him removed from the board of education.
Things escalated from there. Navarro had formed the Navarro Legal Defense Fund, a so-called recipient committee intended to bankroll his legal effort to block his removal from the San Bernardino County Board of Education. Navarro and his defense committee then failed and continued to refuse to file the two semiannual campaign statements relating to the activity in the defense fund that are required of officeholders in California. This ran afoul of Government Code Section 84200. He then did not terminate the defense committee, a violation of Government Code Section 85304.5 and Regulation 18530.45. Compounding that, Navarro made an unsuccessful run for 47th District assemblyman in the November 2014 General Election. His Assembly campaign committee failed to file two pre-election campaign statements, in violation of Government Code Section 84200.7, and failed to timely file four semiannual campaign statements, in violation of Government Code Section 84200. Ultimately, Navarro was fined $36,500 for these reporting violations, a substantial fine, well beyond the norm imposed on politicians who typically are given a warning to make full disclosure, and then suffer fines of usually no more than $500 to $1,000 if they are tardy in making the required reports. Concern had developed that Navarro’s failure to provide the reports was an effort to hide untoward activity or payments or improper diversions of money to himself or his family members. The Democratic Party’s endorsement of Navarro, it was feared, might be used by the GOP to malign the Democrats generally. Consequently, the recommending committee had settled upon endorsing Gil Botello.
It was pointed out to the central committee at large, however, that Botello has used Robert Rego as a campaign consultant and as his treasurer. Rego is a former chairman of the Republican Central Committee, one who works closely both politically and professionally with Republican candidates, including hopefuls and incumbents. Moreover, Botello is a close associate of San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia, a Republican. Valdivia last year appointed Botello, a candidate for the San Bernardino City Council in 2018, to the San Bernardino City Personnel Commission. After charges surfaced that Botello is a “Republican spy,” the full central committee reevaluated the recommendation that Botello get the endorsement for the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District Board Division 2 post.
After Anna Gonzales pulled the recommendation to endorse Botello off of the central committee’s consent calendar, a substitute motion to endorse Navarro was made, passing by a margin of 31 yes votes to 17 no votes.
For the San Bernardino City School Board, which has four at-large seats up for election, the panel recommended only three of four Democrats who applied for endorsement, Gwen Rodgers, Margaret Hill and Heather Johnson, leaving the fourth seat to the Republicans. The fourth candidate, Mayra Ceballos, is a Latina with substantial higher education credentials, who is supported by Navarro and the Democratic Luncheon Club of San Bernardino. Upon a substitute motion by Democratic Club President Tim Prince and support from Gonzales, all four candidates were endorsed by the body.
Erick Lopez, a candidate for city council in Fontana’s District 3, had impressed the interview committee with his general knowledge, ability to stay on point with regard to the questions asked of him, his well-defined ideas on issues and governance in general, his ideas with regard to public safety, homelessness solutions, environmental issues and opposition to the further construction of warehouses in the Fontana area.
After Denise Wells, chair of the endorsement committee touted him in support of that committee’s recommendation, Ana Gonzalez intervened, countering with supportive reasons why Dawn Dooley would be better suited to represent Fontana’s District 3 at Fontana City Hall. This was taken as an indication that Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes favored Dooley, and the recommendation that Lopez receive the endorsement was substituted by a 60 percent majority vote of the full committee in favor of Dooley.
Other endorsements made by the central committee were Alan Lee for District 1 councilman in Big Bear Lake, Jim Gallagher for District 3 councilman in Chino Hills, Jessie Sandoval for District 2 councilman in Fontana, Ken Stewart for councilman in Grand Terrace, Ruth Musser-Lopez for councilwoman in Needles, Mark Rush for Councilman in Rancho Cucamonga and Rafael Trujillo for councilman in Rialto.
Washington was given an overall high rating for her conducting of the meeting, but poor marks for not being prepared to clarify the committee’s by-laws when she was challenged by Leticia Garcia’s alternate, Tim Prince, for her method of calculating vote percentages by including “abstains” as “no” votes. Such a method of counting caused the outcome to tilt toward the Robles camp on at least a few occasions; two of the “endorsements/no endorsements” are currently under review by the executive board of the central committee as a result of the challenge: Rialto mayor and Division 2 on the board for the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District.
-Mark Gutglueck

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