Valdivia’s One-Time Council Ally Nickel Now Challenging Him For Reelection As Mayor

Former San Bernardino Fifth Ward City Councilman Henry Nickel has joined with Treasure Ortiz, Helen Tran, James Penman, Mohammad Khan and Gabriel Jaramillo in vying against incumbent John Valdivia for mayor in this year’s San Bernardino municipal contest.
Nickel is the newest addition to the race. It has long been known that Ortiz and Tran will attempt to unseat Valdivia, who has been steeped in controversy since even before he was sworn in as mayor in 2018. Penman, the former city attorney when that position in San Bernardino was an elected one who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2005 and 2009 and San Bernardino County District Attorney in 1994, announced he was running for mayor again last August. Khan and Jaramillo are more obscure candidates who nevertheless vow they are in the contest for real.
Less than a month after he was elected mayor in November 2018 and before he acceded to that position, Valdivia was on the premises of an unlicensed marijuana marketing facility just shortly before it was robbed at gunpoint and the principal in the business shot. Reports ensued that Valdivia was there to shake the company down. Captain David Green of the police department conducted what the department maintains is a classified investigation of what had occurred. That report has never been released. Green was subsequently promoted to assistant police chief and is now the acting police chief.
The day Valdivia was sworn in as mayor, December 18, 2018, he initiated an effort to fire then-City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller. He achieved that goal by June 2019. Shortly thereafter, nearly a dozen applicants for commercial cannabis licenses and permits in the city came forward, stating that Valdivia had taken money from them in exchange for assurances that he could facilitate the approval of their marijuana-related operations. There were further reports of Valdivia taking money in exchange for arranging city council approval of city contracts, franchises and development proposals. One by one, a majority of the members of the ruling coalition on the city council that Valdivia considered his allies and whom he called upon to achieve his goals as mayor – Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra, Councilman Ted Sanchez and Nickel – disassociated themselves from him. Thereafter, three women working in the mayor’s office – Mirna Cisneros, Karen Cervantes, Jackie Aboud – and Alissa Payne, one of his appointees to the city’s Arts and Historical Preservation Commission and the San Bernardino Parks, Recreation and Community Services Commission, came forward with allegations that he was making sexual advances toward them. Cisneros and Aboud augmented those claims with allegations about political corruption in which Valdivia took official action in exchange for money. The accusation that Valdivia was taking money in exchange for government action was repeated by Don Smith, who had worked on Valdivia’s campaign for mayor and was subsequently hired by the city to serve as Valdivia’s part time field representative at the city. Matt Brown, who was brought in to serve as Valdivia’s chief of staff in August 2019, supported the charges of the others employed in the mayor’s office. Ultimately, Cisneros, Cervantes, Aboud, Smith and Brown retained attorney Tristan Pelayes and sued Valdivia and the city over their experience in working for Valdivia.
Ortiz has been critical of Valdivia from the outset of his mayoralty and has remained his most vocal opponent.
Tran was San Bernardino’s human resources director. She came in for a round of criticism for failing to prevent or stem Valdivia’s mistreatment of Cisneros, Cervantes Aboud and Smith while she was still employed by the city. She left the city’s employ relatively early after the revelations about Valdivia’s interactions with his staff members. Some have suggested that Tran’s connection to the city administration during this critical span of inaction will doom her mayoral candidacy. Others have said they will withhold judgment to see if she will ultimately utilize the inside information she attained while with the city and utilize her campaign as a forum to engage in a wholesale exposé of the dysfunction at City Hall and the full depth of Valdivia’s depredations.
Penman was long a Valdivia supporter, having been instrumental in Valdivia’s political rise in 2011 when he was elected Third Ward city councilman. He continued to support him, including in Valdivia’s campaign to unseat then-incumbent Mayor Carey Davis in 2018. Some found this curious, given Penman’s representation of himself as a reformist and the indications that were already extant of Valdivia’s willingness to conform his votes as a councilman to the will of those providing him with political donations or other payments. Penman now says that he is disappointed in Valdivia’s comportment as mayor.
Mohammad and Jaramillo are relatively new arrivals on the San Bernardino political scene. Not much is known about them, although some feel there is grounds to believe that Jaramillo is actually a stalking horse for Valdivia. Jaramillo has not leveled any criticism at Valdivia, and instead has made public statements decrying Ortiz as a divisive force in the community, implying that her tirades against Valdivia are unwelcome and uncalled for. Jaramillo’s addition to the field of mayoral candidates, by the calculation of at least some political prognosticators and San Bernardino mayoral race handicappers is a benefit to Valdivia, who has substantial name recognition, the power of incumbency and $318,426.56 in his campaign war chest, which at present is far ahead of the $132,859.53 Tran has committed toward her electoral challenge and the $47,146.72 Penman has in his electioneering fund. The other candidates are well under those totals. Most election analysts concur that the more opponents who run against Valdivia in the June primary race, the better it is for him. They believe that based on his current name recognition and incumbent status, he will need to spend only about one-fifth to one fourth of the amount of money he has in his campaign fund to ensure first or second place in the June race, and thus a berth in the November run-off. He will then be able to utilize the remainder of his money, which at this point would run to more than $200,000 and will by then be far more based on the donations he can anticipate receiving between now and them, to ensure a victory over whoever his opponent is. Conversely, with more and more candidates getting into the contest, for any of the current crop of challengers to ensure so much as a second-place finish in June, he or she will need to spend virtually all of his or her currently available funding, leaving whoever that is at a tremendous disadvantage to Valdivia in the fall.
Nickel in the 2015 to 2018 timeframe while he and Valdivia were both councilmen had evolved into Valdivia’s closest ally on the council. That has now changed. Nickel grew wary of Valdivia as the latter’s megalomania in the role of mayor became apparent and he threw caution to the wind in seeking ever more money, both in the form of political donations, consulting fees and what most people consider to be payoffs.
In his 2020 stand for reelection, Nickel was damaged, on one hand, with some voters for his past association with Valdivia. On the other hand, he reaped little benefit by braking with Valdivia, since Valdivia, who was in a position to do so given his fat campaign fund coffers, offered Nickel no financial assistance in his reelection bid. Nickel was beaten by Ben Reynoso for the Fifth District council post.
“Over the past year, many fellow residents have asked if I would consider running for mayor given my prior six years of experience as an effective collaborative council member,” Nickel told the Sentinel. “I have decided to do so. We are concerned the hard-fought gains made since the city exited bankruptcy in 2017 are now threatened by a return to the bad old days of constant bickering and dysfunction that brought the city to insolvency 10 years ago. We must move forward. We must create a safe, clean and prosperous community for all. We must demand experience, commitment and integrity in the office of mayor. We must bring together our community and city council. We must set aside egos, selfish ambition, greed and petty squabbles. We must deliver results for those who elect us and pay our salaries. If we devote ourselves as a community to these objectives, we will become a truly world class city. This is my promise should the voters decide I am their choice for mayor.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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