Warren Gerrymanders Fontana Electoral Map To Keep Rival Out Of This Year’s Council Race

A controversy erupted in Fontana this week with the mayor’s and city council’s consideration and selection of what has become universally recognized as a gerrymandered electoral map to be used in the 208,393-population city for the next decade.
After considering a number of potential voting district configurations based upon the city’s population numbers in the 2020 Census, the city council came to Tuesday night’s meeting with its options limited to three potential maps, all of which had been manipulated to protect Mayor Acquanetta Warren’s primary ally on the city council from being challenged by a former local office holder considered by political handicappers to be his strongest competitor.
Acquanetta Warren has been an officeholder in Fontana since 2002, when she was appointed to fill out the last two years of Mark Nuami’s council term after he was elected mayor that year. Two years later, Warren ran for election to the council in her own right and won. That was followed by her council reelection in 2008 and her election as mayor in 2010. From that time forward, Mayor Warren has been the dominant political personage in the former steel town, which has grown to the point that at present it is in a not-too-distant second place position behind the county seat of San Bernardino for the title of the county’s most populous city.
Warren, a Republican, has assembled around herself a ruling coalition consisting of three other Republicans – Phil Cothran Jr, Pete Garcia and John Roberts.
The Republican primacy in Fontana is a remarkable phenomenon. Though in California municipal, county and local agency races are considered nonpartisan ones, in far-flung San Bernardino County, party politics plays a substantial role in every contest for public office. That the Republicans hold any elective offices in Fontana at all is remarkable from a statistical standpoint. Looking at the party registration numbers in Fontana shows that Democrats have not just a lead but a commanding one in that regard. As of this week, of the 107,806 voters in the city, 53,606 of them or 49.7 percent are registered Democrats, while 21,681 or 20.1 percent are registered as Republicans. Not only are there just shy of two-and-a-half Democrats for every Republican in the city, the number of voters in Fontana who have chosen to align themselves with no party is 25,021 or 23.2 percent, outrunning the number of Republicans in the city. The remaining 8 percent identify as Libertarians, Greens, American Independents or as members of the Peace & Freedom or other obscure parties. In the last thirty years, the Republicans in Fontana have maintained their edge by spirited and cohesive campaigning, coordinating, communicating and achieving high voter turnout percentages and simply outhustling their Democratic rivals, all of which have hinged on aggressive fundraising.
Over the last generation, Phil Cothran Sr, a successful insurance salesman and landowner in the city, has been active in those fundraising drives for Republican causes and candidates in Fontana, including for Warren, and he has been a major contributor himself. The father of Phil Cothran Jr, he and Warren have mentored and groomed his son to take on a political role in the city.
In 2018, Cothran Jr ran successfully in the first by-district election held in Fontana history, competing against three others, including former Fontana Unified School District Board Member Shannon O’Brien, in the city’s newly formed District 1. Young Cothran, like his father a Republican, defeated O’Brien, a Democrat.
Slowly, indeed at a glacial pace, the Democrats in Fontana are developing the sophistication and tools to seize a political position more in keeping with their numerical superiority, including waking up to the need to engage in both fundraising and then learning and mastering the mechanics of political campaigning to drive voters to the polls or cast mail ballots, actions which in tandem with the local Democratic Party registration advantage raise the significant possibility that Warren and her Republican cohorts could lose their hold on City Hall.
Shannon O’Brien and her husband, Jason, are at the forefront of the Democratic vanguard seeking to flip Red Fontana Blue. Jason, a Los Angeles Police Department detective, succeeded his wife on the Fontana Unified School District Board of Education from 2016 until 2020. During each of the times when the O’Briens were on the school board, they served as a bulwark against the bloc of officeholders on that panel who had been placed into office with Warren’s assistance, as the mayor’s political machine had and continues to spread itself to all elements of the community.
This year, Shannon has thrown her hat in the ring as a candidate for mayor. Also this year, in January, Jason filed a form 501 candidate intention document with the City of Fontana through the city clerk’s office, signaling he was going to run for councilman in the First District. The O’Briens live on the north side of Fontana, well within the city’s original First District, basically located within Fontana’s northwest quadrant. Their home was safely within the First District boundaries and it was a logical assumption that with the completion of the voting district map for the City of Fontana, the O’Brien household would remain within the First District.
For reasons that have not been publicly specified, however, Fontana’s effort to establish the electoral map that is to apply in the 2022, 2024, 2026, 2028 and 2030 election cycles has been drawn out, making Fontana one of the last jurisdictions in San Bernardino County to set its district map. The boundaries for the council districts were not set until this week, at a point well after candidates, potential candidates and contemplated candidates have begun their analyses of the political winds to ascertain if they are going to seek office and what offices – agency or municipal, local, state or federal – they would vie for. Indeed, Fontana did not set its council district boundaries until after the filing period had opened and then closed for county, state and federal offices in this year’s primary election.
When the Fontana City Council at last this week got around to making its final call as to how the city’s electoral map is to shape up, it considered only three of the nine maps and map variations that had been drawn up during the reapportionment process carried out this year in Fontana. The city’s consultant, the National Demographics Corporation, had drafted four primary maps, those being 101, 102, 103 and 104. Additionally, the public submitted least four maps for consideration. Three of those – 401, 402 and 403 – like the National Demographics Corporation maps, called for the city to remain being divided into four districts, each represented by one council member, with all residents voting to elect an at-large mayor. A fourth map submitted by the public, Map 604, would have created six council positions, entailing six council districts, in addition to the at-large mayoral position. Prior to this week, the National Demographics Corporation had tweaked some of the basic maps, giving them nomenclature which retained the original number from which the map deviated augmented with a letter. Ultimately as of Tuesday night, the maps submitted overall had been reduced to three finalists, two of which originated with the National Demographics Corporation and one which had been submitted by the public. The council’s final options were the map designated 103, another designated 402 and a third designated 104B.
Remarkably, all three removed the O’Briens from District 1. Both maps 402 and 104B displayed a radical use of gerrymandering. Map 402 featured a jetty that jutted out westward from the main body of District 3 to include the neighborhood in which the O’Brien residence is located. In the case of Map 104B, a similar jetty or peninsula extended west from District 2. Map 103 was less obviously gerrymandered, with district lines that were more uniform and linear. Nevertheless, it too, moved the immediate neighborhood in which the O’Briens live out of District 1 and into District 3. Meanwhile, all three maps left Phil Cothran Jr. in District 1. Those maps which left O’Brien and Cothran in District 1, thus creating a scenario in which they would run against one another this year, were eliminated from consideration before the council met on Tuesday.
A not unreasonable interpretation of what had occurred was that the council majority – that being the four-member ruling coalition headed by Warren – had given itself options that were designed to lock in its existing electoral/political advantages and which compromised the ability of the political opposition to mount any sort of effective challenge.
Ultimately, on Tuesday evening, the council, by a vote of 4-to-1 with the council’s lone Democrat and nonmember of the Warren coalition, Jesse Sandoval, dissenting, Map 104B was selected.
During a significant amount of the discussion and public debate leading up to the vote, the focus was not so much on the north end of the city where the O’Briens live but on the south end of Fontana.
All three maps the city council seriously considered Tuesday night – 103, 402 and 104B – divided the southernmost area of Fontana into two districts, representing a change from the map that was put in place in 2017 and has been in effect until now. A roiling issue in Fontana is what many consider to be the overbuilding of warehouses, in particular at the city’s south end, and activists intent on limiting or ending further warehouse development in the city wanted the city to maintain a single district in south Fontana to prevent the anti-warehouse popular vote that exists there from being diluted. The city council Tuesday night was confronted by members of both the South Fontana Concerned Citizens Coalitions and the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, who pushed for the council to resurrect a map that had been previously rejected and was not being considered Tuesday night, Map 401. They touted Map 401 as one which would, in the words of several, “keep communities of interest together.”
Members of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice questioned why the city seemed so committed to maps 103, 402 and 104B, all of which created not only the possibility but the likelihood that a city resident living in central Fontana perhaps as far north as Arrow Boulevard will represent those at the south end of the city who are confronted by far different living and quality of life issues.
Some of those opposed to the city’s limitation of its districting options to maps 103, 402 and 104B suggested that what was ongoing was the council majority’s effort to “gain a political advantage.”
Jason O’Brien brought that charge full circle when, in a remark to the Sentinel this week he connected the observations of what was happening at the south end of the city with regard to the city’s political mapping there with what was happening toward the north end of the city.
“Acquanetta has always tried to stop me from running,” Jason O’Brien said.
In her action this time around, he suggested, Warren is looking to keep him from loosening the vice grip she has on the city’s governmental machinery by challenging, and potentially defeating, Cothran Jr, who is up for reelection in the city’s First District this year.
“She was able to remove me from District 1,” O’Brien said. “You will notice District 1 and District 4 are up for election in November 2022, forcing me to wait until 2024 to run.”
This is not the first time Warren used underhanded tactics to try and undercut him politically, Jason O’Brien said.
“In my 2020 school board race, Acquanetta financed and endorsed black candidates to unseat me by dividing up the black votes,” he said. “One of those candidates was Shelly Bradford. I also suspect Oliver Christian, but we have no paperwork linking him to the mayor. Christian didn’t campaign. We suspect he was placed in the race to further split my vote.”
Warren dismissed assertions that the city’s electoral map was being drawn with immediate political considerations in mind.
“This is for ten years,” she said, “So we have to look at not just today, but what’s happening down in those areas,” meaning the city’s southlying districts.
-Mark Gutglueck

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