By Mark Gutglueck
Coming up on her fourth year in elected office, Redlands City Councilwoman Denise Davis is testing ground only rarely explored in the past and never quite mastered by San Bernardino County’s local politicians.
So far, she has done remarkably well in embracing progressivism, becoming a model of what many other progressives hope might become the model of the region’s quintessential new politician. Nevertheless, she faces both inner and out challenges and questions as to whether she can endure in office, and if she holds on to her municipal post, how effectively she will lead going forward.
As one of the region’s first openly homosexual officeholders, she has departed from the traditional role reserved for council members – looking after the issues pertaining to municipal management, land use and development, infrastructure creation and maintenance, as well as public safety – and has instead made her appeal on what are essentially ideological principles.While her lesbianism has allowed her to capture the support of the so-called woke movement locally, there is a significant segment of those embracing hyperliberalism and progressive politics who have raised doubts about just how enlightened and committed she is, pointing out that there is a superficiality to her reformist stance, one that has twice been exposed as she has baldly engaged in power politics to promote not the cause she says she represents but rather her own political standing.
Moreover, by her continued sidestepping of taking a true position in the deepening debate in Redlands over the intensity of ongoing and future development, Davis is running a risk that a critical mass of the votes she needs to remain in officer will be cast not for her but against her. At play is an issue which has pitted virtually all elements of city government against a vocal and energized contingent of the city’s residents opposed to aggressive building. Her support of not just the development industry but her council colleagues who are and were widely perceived to have been inappropriately influenced by money filtered into their campaign coffers or pockets by those developers has left her at odds with a critical element of not only her District 1 constituency, but throughout the remainder of the city.
Davis has been a creature of Redlands for 16 of the last 20 years. She came here in 2002 when she matriculated at the University of Redlands. With the exception of a year she spent working at the University of Oregon in the immediate aftermath of her graduation, two years studying abroad and a year thereafter, she has lived in the city for the better part of the last two decades.
Professionally she has been involved almost exclusively in academia. Fresh out of the University of Redlands, the first job she landed was as an assistant complex director at the University of Oregon, supervising a complex of 10 residence halls, housing 826 students. She departed from that position when she obtained a Rotary International Scholarship to study for her master’s degree at the London School of Economics.
Two years after she obtained her master’s degree she returned to Redlands, where she obtained in 2010 a position as the assistant director of the Johnson Center for Integrative Studies, which was where she had obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree. She remained in that position until December 2013. The following month she moved into the position of Redlands University’s director of Leadership and Involvement. She remained in that post for two years and six months. In July 2016, she moved to the University of California at Riverside into the position of director of the Women’s Resource Center. She left that position after five years and seven months in January 2022 for her current one, that of the assistant director for university and institutional relations at UCR. In addition, between September 2009 and April of 2020, she was a member of the adjunct faculty at the University of Redlands.
She has described herself, as have others, as a semi-academic. As such, Davis is strong on conceptualization and advocacy.
That advocacy has been exclusively for what are considered progressive ideals.
Her one foray into publishing resulted in the academic paper Heterosexual Allies: A Descriptive Profile, co-authored with Susan B. Goldstein and published by the journal Equity & Excellence in Education in 2010.
The abstract for that treatise encapsulates it as “Forty-six heterosexual members of a college-based gay/straight alliance organization were surveyed to investigate characteristics of students who commit to acting as allies in reducing sexual prejudice. Assessment focused on the students’ history of intergroup contact and exposure to sexual prejudice prior to joining the gay/straight alliance, endorsement of positive stereotypes and immutability beliefs, perception of the ally role in terms of the potential for stigma by association, and level of intergroup communication. This study yielded a descriptive profile of heterosexual allies. Discussion addresses implications for recruiting and training members of college gay/straight alliances.”
While she was in the role of the director of UCR’s Women’s Resource Center in 2016, Davis took stock of the need she perceived for women to further enable themselves on a political level to effect the social change she felt is needed across all strata of society. Despite what she has acknowledged was a total lack of sophistication with regard to politics, she founded the Persist Women’s Political Engagement Conference in 2017.
In 2018, Redlands, which had once used a by-district electoral system to elect its council members but abandoned that process after the city’s voters in 1993 chose to return to at-large elections, resurrected the by-district voting model. Davis, as a resident of Redlands’ District 1, which entails the west side of the city along with the south side of the city north of Fern Avenue, ran for that post.
In keeping with her essential orientation toward the world as a conceptualist, it is worth noting that Davis moved straight into politics in Redlands without any real practical political experience, or prior involvement with the campaigns of others. A political neophyte, her primary boost came through her association with Emerge California, which noted her existence at the time of the Women’s Political Engagement Conference.
Emerge California is a collective of Democratic women that was chartered with the purpose of empowering self-identified women leaders within the Democratic Party in successfully running for elected office.
Davis acknowledges that when she embarked on her run for the city council, she had no command whatsoever of the mechanics of political campaigning.
“I knew virtually nothing about running a field campaign,” Davis said.
Emerge California not only tutored her on the ins and outs of both grass roots and standard campaigning, it provided her with volunteers, committed to the same progressive causes she embraced, ones she did not have the wherewithal on her own to recruit, to do the truly heavy lifting that put her over the top. Those included as many as 30 canvassers armed with her campaign fliers walking right up to the doorsteps of the district’s high-propensity voters on the Saturdays in the weeks ahead of the election and ringing doorbells to put in a good word for her and encourage those they spoke with to consider Davis’s qualifications before casting their votes.
“That was probably the most challenging part of all of this, but it’s what really helped me win the election — going door-to-door and being strategic about which neighborhoods we were canvassing in, and how many times to go to those neighborhoods and when,” Davis said of the advice and the boots on the ground provided to her my Emerge California’s political operatives.
Davis, touting her liberalism as did her supporters, won decisively among five candidates for the post, capturing 2,058 or 51.62 percent of the 3,987 votes cast, despite competing within a traditionally conservative milieu. A post-election analysis showed that she was not only the top vote-getter overall, but that she had won in every precinct in the First District.
Upon being installed in office, her representation of her constituents remained consistent with her stated life-and-political philosophy and did not go much beyond it.
She succeeded in being the first Redlands city official and perhaps the first politician in San Bernardino County to sponsor and induce her colleagues to endorse gay pride month, transgender day, non-binary day and sexual assault awareness month proclamations and declarations.
She was also a prime mover in the city’s acceptance of plans to paint, onto Vine Street near City Hall, a rainbow crosswalk mural that celebrated inclusiveness, one which included a reference to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community. The rainbow mural crosswalk stands as perhaps Davis’s major accomplishment. The vote to allow the artists to proceed with it passed by a bare majority 3-to-2. That victory let everyone know of her firm belief that everyone should be included in public life and should have the opportunity to participate in the political process. A continuation of her passion in this regard was the city’s acceptance and sponsorship of the Redlands Youth Council Leadership Academy, in which she has taken a central role, an eight-month program which offers seminars held every month at City Hall that involves students from Redlands, Mentone, Banning and Loma Linda learning how they can prepare to be civically involved and shape local government, with the particular goal of “diversifying the dais,” that is, wresting control of government from the enclave of heterosexual white men who have traditionally dominated government.
Along the way, she was front and center with the city council when it took action on what are considered to be those elements of the social welfare element of government, including obtaining a $30 million Homekey Grant through the California Department of Housing to convert the Good Nite Inn located at 1675 Industrial Park Avenue into a full-dimensional shelter for the community’s chronically homeless that is to feature 98 permanent supportive housing units, each with a kitchenette. She also was a key supporter of the city’s unique utility bill assistance program.
Davis had become a political player but there was an entire dimension of the political world in which she had not involved herself, the rules and dynamics of which were as unfamiliar and unreal to her as a men’s locker room. In her purposeful focus on the woke issues that were native to her as a lesbian and advocate of the new social awakening, she had avoided entirely the very real and oftentimes quite brutal elements of gross financial interest that move politics not only at the international, national and state level, but the local level as well. Politics at whatever tier involves clashes of, and the superimposition of will, that of one people or set of people over another, ideally wrapped, usually, in a veneer of civility and surrounded by a conception, or at least hope, of fairness and justice, an ideal which is too often not achieved, as those clashes of will are usually settled based upon the relative financial power of those competing or sheer numbers or brute force. Internationally, the hard-nosed tussles between nation states involve military power, the relative size of standing armies and naval and air forces, the sophistication and deadliness of weaponry, the politics of hegemony and the relative advantages of geography, technology and available resources available to one entity over the other. At the national level, individual states evince political differences with one another over prestige, offering corporations a base of operations that have advantages other states do not in the form of geographical positioning, land upon which to function, a better educated and trained labor force, less onerous taxing and regulatory regimes and a ready access to consumers primed to purchase their goods and services, as well as access to basic resources, technology and quality infrastructure. Within the State of California and its 58 counties and vast and various regions, cities distinguish themselves from one another by emphasizing different features of communal life, stressing comfort, graciousness and opulence of residency, a cornucopia of commercial venues and shopping opportunities, industrial districts with their offerings of employment and manufactured goods or a combination thereof. It is a matter of taste and preference as to which of the state’s municipalities – which range from mere hamlets to thriving metropolises with millions of residents – represents the superior living environment.
Unaccounted for in Davis’s philosophy and her political approach was a key element of the traditional function of local government: land use policy. She made no allowance whatsoever for how ruthless the battle for position and primacy is in being able to convert bare, blighted or otherwise dormant or static real estate into all of the permutations of civilization: factories or foundries or offices or stores or shopping malls or houses or apartment buildings. Davis, who had grown up in Las Vegas, moved to Redlands to attend college and thereafter steeped herself in the ivory towers of academia, oblivious to the struggles over land use and land use policy that had taken place in Redlands before she arrived and were yet ongoing once she got here and which were yet raging when she embarked on her political career.
Redlands, which was incorporated in 1888, has long been considered San Bernardino County’s most refined city, what was in the heyday of Southern California’s era as a citrus-growing wonderland considered by many an idyllic blending of upscale homes and orange groves. With the gradual and eventual wholesale destruction of the citrus industry that began regionally in the 1950s and accelerated in the decades thereafter, Redlands residents more than those of other local cities pushed back against the urbanization trend, passing a series of controlled-growth initiatives, the first of which, Proposition R in 1978, was put in place before Davis was born. That was followed by Measure N in 1987 and Measure U in 1997. All of those initiatives were intended to reduce growth in Redlands to manageable levels and were passed with solid resident support.
Despite that sentiment among a sizable contingent of the populace and the force of law the measures provided in limiting development, members of the city council have over the last generation proven determined to clear the way for landowners and the builders they work with to construct projects that will more than double, triple and quadruple the density of residential and commercial land use, while compacting these improvements in smaller and smaller spaces. In particular, in recent years the city’s staff members have embraced the concept of intensified development in particular in and around the city’s downtown core.
This is at least partially a function of theories and strategies that have evolved in recent decades among futurists and urban planners who consider it imperative that Americans, indeed, the residents and citizens of the world and inhabitants of the planet, end their dependence on individual motor vehicles. Such urban planning enthusiasts envision constructing cities and communities where larger and larger numbers of the population, in particular that element consisting of unmarried recent high school graduates or college graduates who are entering the workforce or married couples without children, cluster in domiciles close to commuting centers such as railroad stations, subway or bus terminals and the like, and use public transportation to commute to work and elsewhere. In Redlands this concept manifested and has been promoted by city officials in recent years by means of what is called the Transit Villages concept. That approach calls for the city to encourage the development of four heavily populated districts within the city, all of which are located within walking distance of the commuter stations along the yet-to-be-fully-realized-and-actuated regional rail system urban planners are seeking to create on the existing train line running from Los Angeles to Palm Springs. These transit villages envisioned for Redlands would come into existence near Redlands University, one downtown surrounding the city’s historic train depot, one on New York Street and another near Alabama Avenue. The transit districts will entail a series of high-rise apartments to house individuals who travel most often not by car, but use public transportation. There is some debate as to whether these residents will be families or mostly unmarried individuals or couples without children. Though urban planners say these downtown denizens will not often use their own personal vehicles, the city yet plans to make places for their cars, which will generally be parked in structures which will be subterranean or as high as six and seven stories.
There has been substantial citizen resistance to this plan, but so far those proposing projects in keeping with this vision in Redlands have been warmly received by the city council, the planning commission, city administration and the city’s planning division.
The ensuing controversy has been multi-fold, based on a number objections, contentions, realities and projections. A primary objection was that the plan called for a substantial increase in the city’s population, which in and of itself was anathema to many residents. Moreover, that population increase was to be made without any significant uprating, increase, enhancement or refurbishing of the city’s infrastructure. The multi-story residential structures – tenements in plain terms – are to be a radical departure from the character of the city and would very likely within a generation deteriorate into slums, opponents of the plan have maintained. More pointedly, it was widely recognized that members of the council were being heavily influenced by money provided to them by developmental interests in the form of campaign contributions and it was suspected that at least some of the members of the council were being influenced by illicit under-the-table payments. Opponents of the Transit Villages concept had grave concerns that the increasingly pro-development council was using the plan as a means by which the intensified density standards it contained to justify allowing “stack and pack” development to proceed. Many of the city’s controlled-growth advocates were convinced that once the council crossed the threshold of allowing development approaching 100 units per acre downtown and in the transit villages, it would then move to exploit that precedent as a ploy to allow for increasing density in other sectors of the city, including within neighborhoods that were traditionally composed of single-family homes.
Well into Davis’s first year on the city council, in 2019, a battle for the soul of Redlands erupted when the city council used its authority to place a voter initiative, designated as Measure G, on the March 2020 Primary Election ballot. Measure G called for, in one fell swoop, dispensing with the provisions of the slow-growth/controlled growth provisions of 1978’s Proposition R, 1987’s Measure N and 1997’s Measure U, essentially undoing several generations of bulwarks against overdevelopment that have been built into the City of Redlands’ mode of governance. Measure G, if passed, would have allowed developers to construct up to 27 housing units per acre, eliminate height limits on buildings in the city, relieve developers of the requirement that in completing their projects they have to provide infrastructure to maintain traffic-bearing capacity on the city’s streets equal to what was available prior to the development taking place, permit residential land use designations to be placed into the city’s general plan that did not previously exist and abolish the requirement that developers carry out socioeconomic‐cost/benefit studies for the projects they are proposing, among other things.
In the midst of this cultural war, Davis was blithely unaware, or so it seemed, of the stakes involved and the intensity of the passion that a significant number of Redlands residents had relating to development and the threat they perceived that aggressive development posed to both their way of life and quality of life.
Upon her election to the council, Davis had evinced virtually no interest or concern whatsoever with land use issues, which are a central component of the city council’s area of authority and responsibility. The subject of planning and community development held no interest for her and she made no effort whatsoever in familiarizing herself with, let alone mastering, the nuts and bolts of the planning and development approval processes. Rather, very early on in her tenure on the council, Davis essentially deferred to then-Mayor Paul Foster with regard to all matters pertaining to land use. He was mentoring her, she said, in what was for her the arcane world of community development over which the city council had ultimate authority. Foster was an old hand at such things, she said, and she indicated she trusted his judgment in such things implicitly and explicitly. So, though the voters of Redlands District 1 had put her in office as their representative who was supposed to be an independent voice, the decision-making process over the development and land use issues that would impact their living environment for decades to come had been handed off, essentially, to Foster.
When the concept of undercutting the vast wave of resident sentiment against concentrated development in Redlands materialized in the form of the initiative proposal that became Measure G and came before the city council in 2019, Davis, like the rest of her council colleagues gave no serious contemplation to the consideration that Measure G, if passed, would run counter to the principles, values and sentiments of the Redlands community as had been expressed in the democratic process time and again. She simply went along with what Foster directed her to do.
In the March 2020 election, the city’s residents soundly rejected Measure G, with 93,21 votes or 64.88 percent opposing it and 5.052 or 35.12 percent in favor of it.
Developers and city officials appear undaunted by the intense resident resistance to high intensity, high-density development as expressed in the vote rejecting Measure G. Throughout the remainder of 2020 and into 2021 they again and again sought to press forward with one proposal after another for the development of property near the city’s core. One such project proposal entailed a density of 100 units to the acre. Another envisioned 78 units to the acre. Another called for 60.87 units to the acre. Simultaneously, the city council and its planning commission were entertaining – and giving approval to – other projects outside the downtown area that involved densities and land use criteria that many residents found alarming.
In the summer of 2021, what had once been whisperings and rumor which had gradually loudened into speculation and suggestions had reached a nearly deafening crescendo of accusations and pronouncements to the effect that Foster was out-and-out on the take.
Prior to his election to the city council, Foster had himself been a low-growth advocate, a stance which he had parlayed into community support which resulted in his November 2010 victory, by which he displaced long-serving Councilwoman Pat Gilbreath. Very quickly after he was in office, Foster transitioned from a limited-growth activist to what was arguably the major pro-development force within City Hall. Previously he had asserted that even though the city could not ban development from occurring, it could apply the strictest standards available to it under the law, statutes and existing codes to limit that growth and ensure that it was beneficial to the community rather than a drag on its infrastructure, resources and finances, such that the development community should defray the costs its projects imposed on the city. Seemingly overnight, Foster had become convinced that his past positions were in error and that both landowners and developers had rights which needed to be honored. Whereas he previously had maintained that the city was under no obligation to grant zone changes and approve or agree to variances allowing upratings in density or oblige developers with the granting of conditional use permits simply because those seeking approval for their project’s requested them, Foster grew willing to accommodate virtually any application that came before the city from a real estate speculator or project proponent.
During his last eight years in office, Foster, quite willingly, assumed the role of mentor to the several members of the council who came into their posts after he was elected, including Davis. With seemingly no exceptions when it came to land use policy in Redlands, as Foster voted, so voted the rest of the city council, such that the development proposals that have come before the city in recent years have found enthusiastic accommodation, despite virtually all of those aggressive development projects being out of favor with a large and vocal segment of the Redlands community.
In 2021, with suspicions that Foster had tainted Redlands’ official governmental and land use processes and that he had served as a zerk in the distribution of political grease to his council colleagues and underlings at City Hall, amid reports that both state and federal authorities were looking into such accusations, Foster in September of that year announced he was leaving the city council as of the first council meeting in January 2022 and moving to Camino Island in Washington State.
This year, in the aftermath of Foster’s departure and the widespread perception that his involvement in the corruption of the city’s land use decision-making process had something to do with it, Davis is seeking reelection. There is evidence to suggest that after three years of deferring to Foster on all questions or policies with regard to development in the city, Davis has come to recognize both how problematic that was and the optics it presents. Questions have been openly asked as to why she so readily went along with Foster, following his lead on practically every project proposal that the council considered while they were together on the dais.
While many assume that Davis merely accepted the political status quo with regard to planning and community development issues so that she could concentrate on what she considered to be her forte, issues of social change, acceptance of a widening definition of gender identification, the empowerment of women, and promoting diversity and inclusion, there are yet activists on her side of the ideological spectrum who dispute that she is as faithful to her stated progressive philosophy as she and others celebrate her as being. Instead, they have suggested, her progressivism is not as principled as it would appear. She has embraced liberalism and the concept of social reform and made them central to her platform political and ascent. Some of her actions, however, suggests her political ambition outruns her dedication to the progressive principles she espouses.
The first of those actions took place shortly after her 2018 electoral victory. The runner up in that year’s District 1 contest was Priya Vedula, who in multiple respects resembles Davis. An academic, Vedula has a bachelor of science degree in biology from the University of Michigan, a Master of Public Health degree from Columbia University and she is currently a medical student at the Loma Linda Medical University. She is an active member of the Democratic Party and a committed advocate of what are termed liberal causes. She has a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Michigan, where she majored in biology. She attained a Master of Public Health degree from Columbia University where she specialized in health policy analysis. Vedula ran in many of the same progressive activism circles in Redlands and Inland Empire region as Davis and both were involved with at least two of the same feminine support groups.
Though Vedula had placed second in the November 2018 Redland District 1 race, she was well off the pace set by Davis. Davis had prevailed with a convincing 2,058, or 51.62 percent of 3,987 total votes cast. Vedula claimed 676 votes or 16.96 percent, which outdistanced Andy Hoder, the third-place finisher with 628 votes or 15.75 percent, followed by Renea Wickman and Eric Whedbee who managed 438 votes or 10.99 percent and 187 votes or 4.69 percent, respectively.
Shortly after the election, Vedula, who yet had political aspirations and was contemplating running for state legislative office, texted congratulations to Davis on her council election.
In December, Davis was sworn in as District 1 Councilwoman.
On January 7, 2019, Vedula requested a meeting with then-Mayor Foster, intending to discuss the prospects for her future in politics and how she might best remain involved in politics after her electoral loss. Councilwoman Davis, having learned of the intended meeting between Vedula and the mayor, contacted Vedula via Facebook Messenger, inviting herself to the meeting with the mayor. The following day, Vedula emailed Davis, telling her that she intended her meeting with Foster to be a one-on-one encounter, but signaling she was willing to meet with her separately.
Vedula met with Foster privately.
Davis and those in her immediate circle at that point grew wary of Vedula, and there was discussion among them about what they considered to be Vedula’s intention of ultimately displacing Davis on the council in the next election cycle or otherwise thwarting Davis’s political ambition for higher office. Communications between those in Davis’s entourage dwelt on speculation that Vedula was seeking out a hairdresser so that here longish hair could be shorn to match Davis’s trademark shorter locks, that Vedula was going to cease wearing skirts and dresses and instead match the pantsuits that Davis favored, that during the 2018 campaign Vedula was “seemingly magically” showing up at the same places that Davis had been and that Vedula was texting Davis too much.
On January 17, 2019, Davis, who ten days earlier had sought to sit in on a meeting between Vedula and Mayor Foster but had been spurned in that request, spoke with Redlands Police Chief Chris Catren and Assistant Police Chief Travis Martinez, expressing concern that Vedula was shadowing or stalking her.
On Saturday, January 19, 2019, the so-called Women’s March involving a number or women’s empowerment and activist groups was held in Riverside. Among the featured speakers were Davis and Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes, who both spoke from the podium at the top of the stairs at the Riverside Courthouse. Vedula attended the event along with several of her friends. Esmeralda Vazquez, who was active as a leader and coordinator in many of the same progressive and women’s empowerment efforts as Davis and Vedula, was among Gomez Reyes’ entourage. Vazquez, who had spotted Vedula in the crowd, texted her to come to the roped-off VIP area near the speaker’s platform to be introduced to Assemblywoman Gomez Reyes. When Davis saw Vedula coming toward her near the top of the stairs, she had security stop and remove Vedula from the VIP area.
After the event, Vedula and Davis both went to the Riverside Food Lab, a short walk from the event. Vedula was there with several other progressive political activists, including Bhavin Jindal, who would successfully vie for the Loma Linda City Council in 2020. Vedula greeted Davis when both were inside the food lab.
That afternoon, Davis contacted the Redlands police department, again making an assertion to the effect that Vedula was “stalking” her. She also dashed off an email to then-City Attorney Dan McHugh, Mayor Foster, Redlands Police Chief Catren and Assistant Redlands Police Chief Martinez, citing her encounters with Vedula that day, noting that Vedula had touched her on the elbow when she greeted her in the food lab and stating, “I’m very disturbed by her persistence, and her apparent stalking my various locations.”
This prompted a return email from Police Chief Catren in which he stated, “As we discussed Thursday, none of Ms. Vedula’s actions described (including today’s events) constitute criminal behavior, but we are happy to discuss your concerns with her.”
Later that day, Martinez reached Vedula, who offered the assistant police chief her assurance that she had no ill-will toward Davis, meant her no harm and was not trying to alarm her. She explained that she had a desire to remain involved in politics and it was for that reason that she and Davis had attended so many of the same events. Martinez, while stating that neither he, the department nor Davis had the authority to order her to do so at that point, told Vedula it would be advisable for her to discontinue any further attempts at communicating with Davis by text, email and through social media and that she avoid any interaction with her.
On January 22, Vedula by email informed Martinez that she was seeking to comply with his advice and had blocked further communications with Davis via social media.
Davis contemplated seeking a restraining order against Vedula, but ultimately did not do so.
In seeking to make contact with members of the city council other than Davis in the months and weeks thereafter, Vedula found herself stymied as the council members had been instructed by City Attorney McHugh to avoid any entanglement in the matter involving herself and Davis, although Vedula did get through to Foster, who advised her it would be best for her “to stay out of Denise’s path.”
Later in 2019, Vedula applied for appointment to the City of Redlands Human Relations Commission, but on further consideration withdrew her application because Davis was the city council representative on that panel. Davis told members of the group she had founded, Redlands For Progressive Change, variously known as Redlands 4 Progressive Change, that she had effectively blocked Vedula from serving on any city commissions or committees.
Despite Davis’s contention that Vedula had been “stalking” her, on a handful of occasions in 2019 and 2020, Davis seemed to be trailing Vedula.
One activity in which Vedula had previously been heavily involved consisted of the “Solidarity Sunday” events which brought those involved in liberal political causes and progressive activism, primarily Democrats, together. She continued to attend those meetings, which were often held at activist Lisa Olson’s home. On two occasions, Davis showed up at those functions, despite her recognition that Vedula would be there.
On August 21, 2019, Vedula was scheduled to speak at the Redlands Pub Talks event, one which had been publicized. Davis showed up and insisted on moving to the front of the assembled crowd, immediately in front of the stage, as Vedula gave her presentation.
Vedula, while yet harboring political aspirations, had resolved that it would be best for her to seek office in a venue where she would not need to compete with Davis. Recognizing she had to refine her approach and improve upon her campaigning technique and public outreach, and above all begin early, she approached Emerge California for guidance in determining what elected positions she might vie for in 2020 or 2022 where she would have a fighting chance of succeeding and to learn what help might be provided her if she were to make such a run.
When Davis learned of that, she acted to persuade those in Emerge California that promoting Verdula as a candidate was not a good idea.
The Sentinel has obtained communications between Davis and other progressive issue activists which trashed Verdula.
The Sentinel is in possession of text messages between DC Lozano and Davis in which Davis says of Vedula, “[M]y experiences with her show here to be an opportunist at best & a political plant at worst. She’s done many, many questionable things that I’ll keep to myself. I just want to ask you & others to be careful in promoting a candidate who is extremely conservative & who endorses values that are very far from those we hold dear. Shining too many positive lights on her would be detrimental to all of us. She’s not what she seems & I think it’s dangerous to allow someone who is not a progressive in any way, who is not honest about many things, be a part of any of it.”
Her experience with Davis ultimately led Vedula to abandon her resolve to run for elected office, although it has not dissuaded her from being politically active altogether.
Vedula said the use of the term “character assassination” in describing what Davis did to her was not too strong of a term. There was, Vedula said of Davis, “malevolent intent on her part.” It was clear, Vedula said, that Davis was seeking to destroy “any future opportunities I had.”
In an interview with Mark Parker of the Redlands City Journal, which was recorded and posted to the internet as a podcast, Vedula said Davis had abused her status as a councilwoman to employ city resources, in this case the Redlands Police Department, to not only intimidate her but damage her reputation in a way calculated to end her political viability.
“I don’t think it was fair,” Vedula told Parker. “I don’t think they understand what that did to me.” She said bringing the police in to investigate her on what were “false pretenses, completely made-up pretenses” left her uncertain about whether she might be arrested for engaging in activity she had freely engaged in previously as an activist and as a candidate. It chilled her willingness to participate in civic affairs, she told the Redlands City Journal. “I wasn’t sure where I could be in public,” Vedula said. “I wasn’t sure of what I could do and where I could go and couldn’t go.”
She initially restrained herself, but gradually re-immersed herself in public affairs, she told Parker, after her friends assured her they would accompany her whenever she ventured out to ensure that she would have witnesses if any further false allegations were lodged against her.
Ultimately, Vedula said, she learned that the police had concluded that Davis’s accusations against her had no validity, but that Davis engaged in a “perpetuation of the lie, the perpetuation of the allegations which were already told to her are not true.”
He perspective now, Vedula said, was that Davis “saw me as a political threat but couched it as a physical threat. She should stop saying that I stalked her because it’s so wrong to continue that lie.”
Vedula said there was a “surreal” element to what she was experiencing in that she was being accused by Davis with being obsessed and stalking her when it was actually Davis who was constantly bird-dogging her.
Davis was monitoring her activities and when she learned Vedula was seeking to participate in the “Emerge California program, she interrupted it,” Vedula said. “She called the program and told them not to take me.” This drove her to ask, Vedula told the Redlands City Journal, “Why is she keeping tabs on me? There were multiple other times where I felt she was cornering me in small areas for a lot of Democratic events, just coming into areas where I was, and she knew I wasn’t going to say anything.”
Vedula told Parker that Davis’s attacks on her were damaging to the progressive ideals she thought they both embraced.
“We’re in a group,” Vedula said. “I’m not sure how what I’m doing could be a threat to anybody else. We’re all just fighting for the same cause.”
As a consequence, Vedula told the Redlands City Journal, she is through with entering the political fray herself as a candidate.
“I’m not looking to run,” she said. “I’m not that threat. I think we are all hurt and are harmed when we treat people like this. It’s traumatizing to have to talk about and relive it. It’s also embarrassing in a way. If this is politics, I don’t what anything to do with it. I don’t want to ever partake in running for office, especially against her ever again.”
Vedula indicated that she felt Davis had political potential but there was something Nixonian about her in that her desire to obtain and hold onto power overran her commitment to principle.
“She abused her power, and she needs to see that,” Vedula told Parker. “She needs to acknowledge that. She could be a great leader someday but what she did showed me she may not be ready for that yet.”
In 2020, Councilman Eddie Tejeda, who had first been elected to the council at-large in 2016, ran for election in District 2 unopposed and was returned to the council. In that same election cycle, Jenna Guzman-Lowery captured the District 4 post over three other candidates.
In Redlands, the mayor is selected from among the council by the council every two years, generally in the month following the election, along with the mayor pro tem or vice mayor. Among San Bernardino County’s 24 municipalities, 13 cities hold direct mayoral elections and 11 elevate a member of the council to wield the mayoral gavel. Generally, the cities that appoint the mayor from among the council do so on a rotational basis, selecting the member of the council with the most seniority who has not yet been mayor, with the caveat that the person chosen has the time and/or freedom/leisure/lack of other professional commitments to attend ceremonial functions during weekdays such as ribbon cuttings, groundbreakings and so forth. In Redlands, Foster had served as mayor for three two-year terms running since 2014 because his retirement status allowed him to attend the festivities held Monday through Friday and because two members of the council who during that span would have logically otherwise served in that capacity – Paul Barich, who was first elected in 2014, and Toni Momberger, who was appointed to the council in 2017 after the death of Councilwoman Pat Gilbreath and then was elected in 2018 to fill the remaining two years of Gilbreath’s term, demurred because their professional commitments would have prevented them from attending many of the weekday events the mayor was called upon to take part in. In 2018, after her maiden election, the city council had chosen Davis to serve in the post of mayor pro tem, i.e. as vice mayor, an uncommon but not unheard of early honorific.
As Foster was nearing the end of his sixth year as mayor in 2020, he was looking forward to seeing the mayoral duties passed along to one of his colleagues. Barich, who had two more years’ experience on the council than Tejeda, was the logical choice to succeed Foster. Barich, however, owns and runs an insurance company in Redlands, and he was reluctant to take on the burden of being mayor. It thus appeared, and most of those with an eye on City Hall expected, that Tejeda would be entrusted with the mayoral gavel in December 2020. At the December 15, 2020 meeting where the selection was scheduled to be made and the transition anticipated, however, Davis had asked for the council to consider her proposal for the establishment of a regimented mayoral selection process, one which called for not two-year mayoral and mayoral pro tem terms but rather one-year terms. Additionally, she proposed that the system include an assignment schedule and sequencing of responsibility by which the mayor’s slot would be filled by the individual who had most recently served as mayor pro tem. In making the pitch for the system she was proposing, Davis was essentially seeking to propel herself into the mayoral position. The council, which had been primed to follow what was essentially tradition and most likely elevate Tejeda to the mayoral post, was caught flatfooted by Davis’s proposal. The council agreed to defer the mayoral appointment while they contemplated the scope and merit of the procedure Davis had articulated and took the opportunity to consult with city residents about their perspective and take up the consideration of who should mayor in January 2019.
Davis poured on the coal in an effort to put an unbearable heat beneath the remainder of the council – in particular the three male members of the council who made up a majority of the panel – and force the issue in a way that would lead to her appointment as mayor. Redlands’ history was replete with “backroom conversations” which inevitably led to “backroom deals” by which “rich White men” had “perpetuated the status quo” to “marginalize… women and minorities” while “suppress[ing] minority votes” to “prevent” anyone other than themselves “from assuming leadership roles,” she charged.
Her proposal, she said, would “guarantee minority representation and diverse leadership… rooted in equity.” She saluted the shift to by-district elections in 2018, which she said was long overdue since it meant that each of the city’s five “representatives are elected equally. Therefore, each should have an equal chance to serve as mayor and mayor pro tem.” She said her proposal, with its one-year mayoral and mayoral pro tem terms instead of the current two-year terms would double the degree of diversity and fair distribution of the city’s leadership.
She pointed out that in all of Redlands history there had only been three women mayors, but failed to note that the city had only had two Latino mayors and that her proposal as she was framing it would in all likelihood, if it were to achieve the goal she was apparently setting for the city, result in keeping the Hispanic Tejeda from taking up the mayoral gavel as he was about to just before she intervened with her mayoral succession proposal.
As might have been anticipated, Tejeda, who under the existing and traditional system stood next in line to be mayor, objected to the imposition of her selection strategy with its implied favoritism toward distaff members at the exclusion of its agnate members as part of a deliberate strategy to undo what she implied were generations of inequity and a lack of diversity, one which would thus logically lead to her immediate selection as mayor and Tejeda’s immediate exclusion from that municipal leadership role. Tejeda’s reaction provoked from her the observation that he “obviously had ambitions to be in a leadership role himself.” In this way, she seemed to impute malevolence to Tejeda’s ambition, while making no such association with her own ambition.
Ultimately, in January 2019, when the council took up her proposed succession procedure and the mayoral succession question, the council failed to adopt her suggestions with regard to an automatically rotating one-year duration mayoral term. When Councilwoman Guzman-Lowery nominated Davis for mayor, Davis seconded the nomination, but her selection failed on a 2-to-3 vote, with Barich and Tejeda opposed. Tejeda nominated Barich, which Foster seconded. Barich was then elected mayor, by a 4-to-1 vote, with Guzman-Lowery dissenting.
Heading toward four years after her 2018 victory over Vedula and two years after her effort to cut in front of Tejeda, Davis is once again in the thick of a political fray, her race for reelection in the First District. By certain yardsticks, she is as strong as, indeed stronger than, before. She has at her back the wind of incumbency. She has as opponents three white men who by their numbers are dividing up between themselves and diluting the vote of the unprogressive forces that might, if they were undivided, prevail against her and keep her from a second term on the council. She has the endorsement of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee. She yet has many of those progressive activists – advocates for women’s empowerment, diversity, equity and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community who are willing to go to the mat for her and keep her in place. She has as well the advantage of having been able to use her sponsorship of the Redlands Youth Council Leadership Academy to recruit a cadre of fresh-faced and energetic protégés anxious to get involved in the political process who are willing to support her as she is out on the hustings.
As importantly, there is the fight that exists within Davis herself, the recognition that she is on the track toward higher office and if she can remain in place on the Redlands City Council and bide her time, in the future – two years, four years, six years hence – there will be an opening for legislative office in Sacramento or maybe Washington D.C. and if the ever-liberalizing trend in California politics continues, she will be ideally vantaged to vault into a position that will match her ambition.
Still there are other metrics that apply to her and the situation she finds herself in.
For starters, the veneer of a polite young woman who was earnestly seeking to test the limits of what her advocacy and activism could do with regard to advancing the liberal causes she espouses has been hewed off by the reality of the continuous sandblast that is politics. She has had to function in the dog-eat-dog atmosphere of holding political office, in the process of which just how ruthlessly ambitious she is has been exposed. A corollary to that is the revelation of the actual depth of the progressivism that she embodies. Nowhere is that more aptly demonstrated than by the series of defections that have come from the Redlands For Progressive Change group which she had founded, the members of which were instrumental in her 2018 victory. The contretemps with Vedula, in which Davis was seen actively, and in the minds of many, gratuitously and mean-spiritedly militating against a woman of color whose political orientation embraced so many of the liberal and forward-looking ideals of those within her own camp, gave many of Davis’s allies pause. While few doubt the sincerity of Davis’s championing of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer struggle for acceptance and liberation, what was raised by the vitriol she displayed toward Vedula was an uncomfortable question among her woke and progressive allies as to whether she is as committed to ensuring the inclusion of other traditional societal outcasts who were historically rejected not because of sexual orientation or unconventional gender identity but on the basis of race or ethnicity. When she derailed what had otherwise appeared to be Tejeda’s virtually assured progress toward becoming Redlands’ second Latino mayor as a consequence of her effort at promoting her own mayoral bid, for many of her supporters and allies the question with regard to Vedula’s travail, which had previously been circulating obliquely, was now being stated bluntly and openly in the form of whether Davis was a racist. For at least some, the answer was: Indeed, she is.
There were several defections from Davis’s fold over the Vedula and Tejeda issues, including Angela Barnes, who had been her campaign manager, and DC Lozano, the administrator of the Facebook page for the Redlands For Progressive Change group that Davis founded.
For some others, accusing her of being a racist was perhaps a bit much, but there was undeniable indication that on Davis’s hierarchy of social injustices and ills that needed to be redressed, curing society of racial discrimination took a backseat to, was a lesser priority, than advancing the political power of and enabling the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community. For a cross section of progressive activists and those in the local Democratic Party there was consternation, indeed anger, at the way in which Davis had conducted herself, creating tension and dissension within San Bernardino County’s liberal coalition, threatening a reversal of the strides that the Democratic Party had made in the last few election cycles.
In Redlands, where she holds office, among the hundreds of the city’s residents who are animated by the city council’s consistent votes over the last several years in defying their sentiment against aggressive development, there are those who are baffled and angered at Davis’s indifference to their concerns about the threat they believe the development industry poses to their living environment and quality of life. Some have expressed befuddlement at Davis’s acceptance of the city establishment’s determination to disregard the will of the slow growth/controlled growth preferences of the most vocal element of the community, given her representation of herself as the champion of inclusiveness.
There is a mixed take on what her surrendering of her autonomy and vote on development issues to Foster meant. While some remain suspicious that Foster was cutting her in on access to political contributions and pay-offs from individuals and entities with projects pending before the city, others have expressed doubt that Davis was on the take. In their interpretation, Davis is simply a land use lightweight who has neither the desire nor interest in municipal planning or development issues to master even the rudiments of what must go into such decisions, and she merely deferred to Foster because she had no real understanding of what the full implication of the project proposals that came before the city council were. Throughout Redlands, there is scattered concern that Davis’s retention on the council will result in a continued disregard of a substantial cross section of the Redlands community’s misgivings over the accelerated pace of development in the city.
For at least some of those in Davis’s orbit, upon the revelation of the degree to which Foster was so facile in exchanging political donations and monetary support for his votes as a member of the council in combination with the votes of his council colleagues to approve the development proposals of those providing that money, there was disappointment that Davis so readily and smoothly aligned herself with Foster, a traditionalist heterosexual male, who had been not only resistant to but hostile to woke principles and other progressive philosophies Davis and her allies and support network have embraced. In particular, some were bothered that Davis’s support of several of those projects enabled the continuing advancement of Foster’s political viability through increased donations to his political war chest by those whose projects had been given go-ahead by the city. Foster’s abrupt decision last year to abandon local politics and retreat out of state in the face of intensified scrutiny of his participation in a pay-to-play ethos as the dean of a stridently pro-development municipal ruling regime has left Davis in an uncomfortable position, unaccustomed to dealing with land use questions on her own.
In an abbreviated defense of her votes on development-related issues, Davis told the Sentinel, “In terms of housing, I am pro-housing, especially as California is in a housing crisis. I have advocated for smart growth and development, and am excited about the Transit Village concepts and how they will come to fruition. Especially as we are in a climate crisis, I just started a climate policy group that has had great discussions on how to make Redlands more sustainable, walkable, etc.”
As to her having a virtually indistinguishable voting record from that of Foster on issues relating to development proposals that came before the city council, Davis said, “I don’t have a record of all of the action taken by the city council in front of me, but by memory, I remember times when I voted differently than he did. I don’t think we voted in lockstep all the time.”
She insisted, “I did not attack Priya Vedula, ever.”
She added, “I am proud of my record supporting diversity, equity and inclusion in Redlands, which includes advocating for ‘equity and inclusion’ to be in our strategic plan for the first time, as well as co-sponsoring the Racism is a Public Health Crisis Resolution, the Black History Month proclamation, Hispanic Heritage Month Proclamation, and Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month Proclamation. I worked with NextGENUnited – the Black initiative to co-host two online conversations about racism in Redlands and racism within our school system in 2020. The list goes on. I have supported diversity, equity, and inclusion in Redlands on a public stage and in my private life as well.”
Davis said, “Your question about Mayor Pro Tem Tejeda assumes we had an order of who should go next as mayor, and that’s precisely what I was advocating for – an equitable order for everyone to get their turn at being mayor, similar to many cities in the region and across the state.”
By Mark Gutglueck