By Mark Gutglueck
The Republican Party’s improbable grip on the City of Fontana is loosening under the weight of local, regional, statewide and national developments that are undercutting the primacy of Mayor Acquanetta Warren.
Warren, whose Republican ruling coalition on the city council is afloat on a roiling sea in which the tide is pulling strongly in the direction of the Democrats, is hopeful that she will herself be able to survive in the 2022 election, based largely on her substantial political war chest. Nevertheless, with unfolding events, the time may have come for Warren to depart Fontana and Fontana City Hall for Sacramento and the Statehouse if she is to meaningfully perpetuate or prolong her political career.
With last year’s election cycle, the rock solid political machine Warren headed after the 2016 election began to fragment, as the vaunting ambition of one her most promising protégés, Jesse Armendarez, led him to reach for a brass ring he failed to grasp. In that move, consisting of his ultimately unsuccessful run for Fifth District San Bernardino County Supervisor, Armendarez defied Warren’s wishes that another of her Republican allies, Cliff Young, be the Republican standard bearer in the race for supervisor. By his defiance, Armendarez, who was first elected to the Fontana City Council in 2016 with Warren’s endorsement, put himself in the position of not being able to seek reelection to the Fontana City Council. In last year’s Fontana City Council District 3 race, Warren moved to endorse Peter Garcia, a member of the Fontana School Board. Garcia outpolled Democrats Erick Lopez, Amy Malone, LaShunda Martin, Linda D. Richardson and Dawn Dooley to capture the position. Reelected to the Fontana City Council last November was Jesse Sandoval, the lone Democrat on that panel. Sandoval had run unsuccessfully against Warren in the 2018 mayoral election.
Ostensibly then, Warren remains at the head of a four-member Republican ruling council coalition. Local elections in California are considered to be nonpartisan, but in San Bernardino County party affiliation is a major factor in all political races. Warren is, or at least was, a major luminary in the Republican Party in San Bernardino County. Longtime Fontana Councilman John Roberts is a Republican, as is Councilman Phil Cothran, Jr. and Garcia.
The partisan affiliation of four-fifths of the Fontana City Council is at a variance with the political orientation of a majority of the voters in the city. Of Fontana’s 104,038 voters, 51,413 or 49.4 percent are registered Democrats, while 20,649 or 19.8 percent are Republicans. GOP-affiliated voters in Fontana are outnumbered by the 25,556 voters or 24.6 percent who profess no party affiliation at all. Those registered as Libertarians, or with the Peace & Freedom, Green and American Independent and other obscure parties account for 6.1 percent of the voters in Fontana.
The Republican Party’s political apparatus in San Bernardino County has been generally more aggressive, coordinated and efficient than that of the Democrats going back for more than half of a century, and Republicans both locally and nationwide tend to turn out to vote in greater numbers than do their Democratic counterparts. In Fontana over the last three-and-a-half decades, Republicans have shown themselves far more willing than Democrats to commit resources – in large measure consisting of money – to promote their party’s candidates and causes and engage in electioneering efforts in general.
Among the major contributors to the Republican Party’s efforts to establish primacy in Fontana over the last decade-and-a-half to two decades has been Phil Cothran, Sr., whose insurance brokerage has proven to be among the most consistently successful businesses in Fontana since the mid-1980s. Cothran has been active as a political donor and patron of politicians for the better part of four decades. Originally, his bent was less partisan-oriented than it became, as he was a key supporter of Dave Eshleman during his initial run for city council in 1990 and Eshleman’s later time in office as Fontana mayor. Eshleman was a Democrat. Ultimately, however, Cothran gravitated toward Republicanism throughout the latter 1990s, until by the first decade of the Third Millennium he was supporting Republicans exclusively.
Practically from the outset of Warren’s political career, Cothran was in her corner. Warren, who had been a member of the Fontana General Plan Advisory Committee and the chairperson of the Village of Heritage Citizens Landscape Development Committee, was appointed to the city council in 2002, and was then elected to that post in her own right in 2004, and reelected in 2008. In each of those campaigns, Cothran proved to be among the most generous donors to her electioneering fund.
Warren is a rarity – an African American woman who has gained considerable traction as a politician, as most politicians of her gender and ethnicity are Democrats. In this way, boosted by Republican donors such as Cothran, she carved herself a significant niche in Fontana, having been elected mayor in 2010, reelected in 2014 and reelected once more in 2018. Thus, she has triply benefited, first by the perception of the local Republican establishment that she stands as a symbol of Republican inclusivity, second by the willingness of deep-pocketed Republican donors to bankroll her political career and third by the support of a not insubstantial number of Democratic voters unaware of her status as a Republican who have supported her out of the mistaken belief that she must be a Democrat.
All along, for nearly three decades, Cothran was seeing a return on his investments in supporting politicians. As his status within the Fontana establishment rose, he was smiled upon and treated well by City Hall. His business expanded, he prospered and his fortune grew. In 2018, he saw what was perhaps the greatest dividend from his political involvement when his son, Phil Cothran, Jr., with the endorsement and support of Warren, was elected to the city council.
By 2019, Warren was at the absolute apex of her political power, having formed a firm and fast political alliance with President Donald Trump, who likewise saw a reciprocal benefit in associating with the African American woman mayor of California’s 19th most populous city. Fontana and Warren were called upon and visited by multiple Trump Administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. Nevertheless, that same year, dissension was festering within Warren’s own political ranks. Four of her most trusted team members – Phil Cothran, Sr., Armendarez, West Valley Water District Board Member Kyle Crowther and West Valley Water District Board Member Mike Taylor – militated to undercut another of Warren’s allies, West Valley Water District Board Member Greg Young, who was to stand for reelection in the November 2019 election, by denying him the Republican Central Committee’s endorsement. Instead, the Cothran/Armendarez/Crowther/Taylor team arranged to rent a room in a house in Bloomington for Angel Ramirez, a 22-year old Fontana resident who had been involved in local political campaigns involving Republican candidates, including Warren’s mayoral race in 2018. Ramirez establishing residency in Bloomington qualified him to run for the Division 5 position on the West Valley Water District Board, which is precisely what Ramirez did. Despite Greg Young’s status as a member of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee and his track record of vigorously and effectively campaigning on behalf of Republican candidates in San Bernardino County going back to the 1990s, the Cothran/Armendarez/Crowther/Taylor cabal, aided by Jeremiah Brosowske, Christopher Dustin, Ross Sevy, Naseem Farooqi, Cameron Wessel and a handful of others, arranged to confer the Republican Central Committee’s endorsement on Ramirez. During the Fall 2019 election season, Ramirez, aided by Cothran, Armendarez, Crowther, Taylor, Brosowske, Dustin, Sevy, Farooqi, and Wessel, waged a ruthless campaign that utilized attack ads and hit pieces targeting Greg Young mailed to West Valley Water District Division 5 voters. Ultimately, the effort to have Ramirez oust Greg Young proved unsuccessful, and Greg Young was retained as a West Valley board member by the voters of Division 5.
Nevertheless, the effort by Cothran, Armendarez, Crowther, Taylor, Brosowske, Dustin, Sevy, Farooqi and Wessel achieved the group’s overarching goal, which was to convince West Valley Water District Board Member Clifford Young [no blood relation to Greg Young] that it had the ability to influence the endorsement process within the Republican Central Committee to the point that it could ensure that Clifford Young would not receive the central committee endorsement if he were to seek election in 2020 as Fifth District supervisor, and that it would instead go to Armendarez.
The 2020 election presented what many thought might be an opportunity for the Republicans, in that Josie Gonzales, a Democrat who had been Fifth District supervisor since 2004, was being termed out of office. Clifford Young, who had been appointed to serve as Fifth District supervisor in 2004 to succeed former Supervisor Jerry Eaves, a Democrat whose conviction on political corruption charges necessitated his removal from office that year, had opted out of running to remain in office in 2004. Yet, a move was on in 2018 and well into 2019 to have Clifford Young vie once again to serve as Fifth District supervisor in the 2020 election, with many political analysts believing that he represented the GOP’s best shot at capturing the Fifth District seat.
Seeing the vicious campaign that Cothran, Armendarez, Crowther, Taylor, Brosowske, Dustin, Sevy, Farooqi and Wessel had put together against Greg Young and recognizing that he would have to involve himself in a knock down-drag out fight within the Republican Central Committee to ensure that he would get the party endorsement in his run for Fifth District supervisor, Clifford Young opted out of getting into the supervisor race, aware a bare-knuckled fight with Armendarez would hurt the Republican Party and virtually assure that neither would get elected, guaranteeing that the post would remain in Democratic possession.
As it turned out, Armendarez captured second place in the Fifth District supervisor contest among four candidates held in conjunction with California’s March 3, 2020 primary election, qualifying him for the November runoff against Rialto City Councilman Joe Baca, Jr., the Democrat’s strongest candidate in the race. Presented with a fait accompli, Warren had no choice but to accept that Armendarez was to be the Republican standard bearer in the Fifth District supervisorial contest. In a show of party unity, Warren transferred $4,700 from her committee, Citizens and Friends of Acquanetta Warren for Mayor 2022, into Armendarez’s political war chest. That, however, barely masked her anger at the fashion in which Armendarez had allowed his ambition and impatience to override the spirit of cooperation, comity and respect among Republicans, and had cut her ally Clifford Young, who many considered to be the Republicans’ strongest potential candidate, off at the knees. Moreover, the participation of Cothran, Crowther and Taylor, whom she considered members of her team, in the effort to supplant Clifford Young and instead promote Armendarez was an indication to her that her hold on her council coalition was far more tenuous than she realized, and the members of her political machine way less reliable than she had thought.
Things were even worse than just that. As the 2020 campaign progressed and the November 3 election loomed closer, polling the Armendarez camp did in July and August indicated that the numbers were running against the Fontana councilman and in favor of the Rialto councilman. In a desperate ploy, those affiliated with the Armendarez campaign attempted to use hit pieces, mailers sent from what was ostensibly represented as an independent expenditure committee, the California Taxpayers Alliance, to move Democratic voters away from Baca. The mailers, which were sent exclusively to high propensity Democratic voters, attempted to link Baca with then-President Donald Trump. “Right-Wing Super PACs Spent Millions For Trump And Have Supported Career Conservative Joe Baca, Jr.,” read one mailer’s all capital letter headline. The mailer’s summary stated, “Keep the Trump Team Off Our Board of Supervisors. We need to defeat conservative Joe Baca, Jr.”
The tactic failed, as the vast number of the district’s Democratic voters found implausible the suggestion that Baca, a Democrat and the son of a longtime Democratic congressman, was affiliated with the Republican president while he was engaged in an electoral contest against the Republican Armendarez.
The use of Republican money to make an attack on Baca by way of bashing President Trump perturbed Warren.
Armendarez, Warren’s protégé whom she established as a member of the council in 2016, is gone. Yet, for the time being, at least, the comfortable 4-to1 voting margin that existed when Armendarez was a member of Warren’s council coalition still exists, as Armendarez has been replaced by Peter Garcia, who was elected in November with assistance from Warren’s political machine. So far, Warren and Garcia, the man considered to be her latest protégé, appear to be getting along swimmingly. Nevertheless, there are storm clouds fringing the horizon.
The signature element of Warren’s tenure in elected office has been the proliferation of warehouse development in the city, particularly in the last decade, which corresponds with Warren’s mayoralty. Her embrasure of warehouses has earned her the sobriquet “Warehouse Warren.” While she has indulged the developers of warehouses and distribution facilities, she has justified doing so because those projects represent, she insists, economic development, the provision of construction jobs while they are being built and the prospect of employment of warehouse workers once they are in place. Moreover, she has asserted, Fontana’s location along the 10 Freeway at its south end, along the 210 Freeway at its north end, and its relative proximity to the 15 Freeway on its west end makes Fontana a natural host for the logistics industry, and warehousing a logical land use for much of the property in Fontana.
Still the same, there are residents, urban planners, economists and environmentalists who decry the overbuilding of warehousing in Fontana and in the Inland Empire in general. They cite the logistics industry’s low wages, the consideration that the advancement of automation is in any case displacing warehouse workers, that the increase in trucks and delivery vehicles into and out of warehouses results in the bane of traffic gridlock and an inordinate danger from collisions, unacceptable emissions from diesel- and gasoline- powered trucks and vans, as well as the unknown and unregulated presence of hazardous materials and chemicals.
In Warren’s case, her willingness to welcome warehousing into Fontana has been prompted in no small measure by the generous political donations landowners with properties converted to warehouses, warehouse developers, and the owners of warehouses and the operators of warehouses and distribution facilities have provided her. That money has contributed to her success and continuation as an elected official. That money has been spread around to members of her coalition.
While politically Garcia is now a member of the Fontana City Council and a putative member of Warren’s coalition expected to adhere to her dictates in terms of what direction the city is to take in accommodating development, professionally he is a scientist with the California Environmental Protection Agency. At present, he is the Southern California regional executive manager for the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s Site Mitigation Program. As such, Garcia is responsible for protecting human health and the environment from hazardous substance-contaminated properties throughout California. Warren’s expectation that Garcia, who has a bachelor of science degree in biological sciences from Loyola Marymount University, will simply go along with her agenda of allowing transportation intensive warehousing to spring up at all order of locations around the 42.4-square mile city which has now grown to nearly 220,000 population, is perhaps a miscalculation on her part. Thus, Warren’s protégé established on the council in 2020 might not be reliably counted upon to maintain her domination of the city’s political direction.
In 2022 John Roberts, who was first elected to the Fontana City Council in 1992 and is one of the longest serving local elected officials in San Bernardino County, is due to stand for reelection. It is not known whether he will choose to remain in office past that point. His departure would potentially diminish Warren’s hold on the council.
It is widely assumed that Warren, who will have achieved the milestone of two decades in elective office in 2022, will seek to perpetuate her run as Fontana’s overlord at that time. Indeed, she has altered the name of her standing electioneering committee to Citizens and Friends of Acquanetta Warren for Mayor 2022, which strongly suggests she is going to seek reelection. Indications are, nonetheless, that the circumstance is ripening for a challenge of her primacy, in particular by Warren’s protégé established on the city council in 2018, Phil Cothran, Jr. Phil Cothran, Sr. was elected chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee last month. That puts him into position to further his son’s political career. There is no question that Phil Cothran, Jr. has available, through his father, sufficient funds to vie, and most likely successfully, for the next logical position up the political evolutionary chain. To some, that logical position consists of Fontana’s mayoralty. The biggest roadblock to that eventuality is Warren. If she opts to remain as mayor, her incumbency, her name recognition and her existing political war chest, which stands at more than $350,000, would make her, most political handicappers believe, the odds-on favorite to win, even against young Cothran, with all of his advantages otherwise.
Still, Warren has had a good 20-year run, and many people believe it is time for the 63-year-old to either move on to higher office or for her to leave politics altogether. If the Cothrans resolve to double down and force the issue by having Cothran, Jr. mount a campaign for mayor in 2022, Warren would be without a major source of direct campaign funding – Phil Cothran, Sr. – going forward, as well as without the support of the other donors that the senior Cothran has influence over in Fontana, as well as all over San Bernardino County.
As importantly, as chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, Phil Cothran would be in a position to deny Warren the local Republican Party endorsement, which would rob her of the novelty of being an African American female who is distinguished as a favored Republican standard bearer, a status which has given her political currency for nearly two decades. More concerning still for those in Warren’s circle is that those with whom the Cothran juggernaut has taken up – Cothran, Crowther, Taylor, Armendarez, Brosowske, Dustin, Sevy, Farooqi, and Wessel – have demonstrated themselves as having the ability, the stomach, indeed an affinity, for engaging in attack politics, which is a test Warren has never had to hold up under during any of her elections so far. As members, once, of Warren’s team who had entrée into her inner sanctum, Cothran, Crowther, Taylor and Armendarez have knowledge of her vulnerabilities and secrets that might make effective fodder for political hit pieces. Like Clifford Young, Warren could well find herself in a position where running for reelection as mayor could do more damage to her and the Republican Party than she would care to experience. At the same time, if she were to agree to step aside as mayor to allow Phil Cothran, Jr. to advance, it is conceivable that the alliance she has incubated in her 18-year career as a politician could yet sustain itself, in perhaps a form that would be to her benefit.
In 2010, prior to her run for mayor in that year’s general election, Warren sought higher office, vying for the Republican nomination against six others in the District 63 Assembly race. She placed fourth among the seven candidates. In 2022, redistricting will have occurred, based on the 2020 Census. At present, Fontana falls within California Assembly District 47, represented by Democrat Eloise Gómez Reyes, and State Senate District 20, represented by Democrat Connie Leyva. The redistricting that will occur could result in districts that include Fontana and the area of San Bernardino in which Gómez Reyes lives or Fontana and the section of Chino in which Leyva resides. That redistricting, however, might create an electoral map on which either or both Gómez Reyes and/or Leyva find themselves residing in districts that no longer include Fontana. 2022 might be the year that represents Warren’s best opportunity to seek a position in the California legislature. If she does so, making a graceful and early announcement of her intention to depart as mayor at the end of her current term in a way that avoids a head-on rivalry with her one-time protégé Phil Cothran, Jr., Warren might yet tap into Phil Cothran, Sr.’s largesse and support, as well as receive the endorsement of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee in her effort to retain her political viability by seeking state office.
In previous years, the money Warren and her one-time fast and firm Republican allies husbanded was used judiciously in well-planned and efficiently executed electioneering efforts against Democrats. Now, unless Warren is resolved to vault from her municipal position to an elective office in the state legislature or a county position that will come up for election next year such as assessor or treasurer, there stands a real possibility that the Republican members of Warren’s once-cohesive team will be training their considerable firepower on one another.
By Mark Gutglueck