Eyebrows Raise As County GOP Central Committee Chairman Unleashes Attack On Fellow Republican

The Republican versus Republican match-up in this year’s Second District county supervisorial race has created a lurid political spectacle that is threatening to fracture the solidarity that has for generations allowed the GOP to maintain an upper hand in far flung San Bernardino County.
Most remarkable is that the county’s top Republican – San Bernardino County Central Committee Chairman Phil Corthran Sr. – is playing a central role in the contretemps.
Concern is intensifying among a growing number of the local members of the Party of Lincoln that as a consequence of the ongoing Republican-on-Republican mayhem, the traditionally meek and ineffectual Democrats just might inherit San Bernardino County.
Indeed, there is talk among a number of deep-pocketed donors to the Republican cause that a shake-up at the top of the county party is in order and that if Cothran does not step down or if he is not removed, they will close their checkbooks.
Time was when San Bernardino County’s Republicans needed fear no Democrat.In January 1964, the Democratic Party’s claim to San Bernardino County began to slip when Congressman Harry Sheppard opened three $10,000 accounts in each of eight savings and loan associations and deposited another $35,000 in banks in Washington, D.C. and the surrounding Maryland and Virginia metropolitan areas. The New Deal Democrat imploded in scandal thereafter as questions emerged about where he had gotten the $275,000 in question, and his 28-year career as a legislator came to an end when he opted not to seek reelection that year. Two years later, Sheppard’s Democratic successor as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Kenneth Dyal, was defeated by Republican Jerry Pettis, in the same election that brought Ronald Reagan to the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento.
San Bernardino County has been a Republican bastion ever since. Indeed, in the 56 years since Ronald Reagan’s first public office electoral victory, with only a few notable exceptions, Republicans have held the majority of political offices at the local agency, municipal, county and state level in San Bernardino County. Even as the rest of California was falling more and more under the sway of the Democrats, San Bernardino County resisted that trend.
For more than 40 years, Republicans simply outnumbered Democrats in the county overall, with there being only a few heavy blue collar pockets within its 20,105-square mile expanse where Democrats predominated.
In 2009, that statistical edge for the GOP ended, and for the first time in more than four decades, the number of Democrats in the county eclipsed the number of Republicans. That trend has continued, such that at this point, 472,601 or 41.3 percent of the county’s 1,144,227 total voters are registered as Democrats, while 333,863 voters or 29.2 percent affiliate with the Party of Lincoln.
Remarkably, however, local Republicans, despite the registration disadvantage they face, have succeeded in holding onto most of the county’s elective offices they controlled in their heyday, at least so far. This has largely occurred because Republicans turn up to vote in far higher percentages than do Democrats nationally, statewide and particularly locally. In San Bernardino County, as well, the party structure the Republicans have has proven far more energetic, efficient and engaged than the local Democratic Party. Republicans have had little trouble getting all of their horses hitched up to the same side of the wagon and getting them to pull in the preferred direction at once, proving far more effective at raising money than the Democrats and have more experience and are therefore more accomplished in employing the money they have to run convincing and targeted campaigns – using newspaper ads and both television and radio spots, billboards, handbills, mailers, phone banks and polls and door-to-door voter appeals – to drive Republican voters to the polls and wage efforts against their Democratic opponents. Until relatively recently, the Republicans lived by the 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” At present, four of the five members of the county board of supervisors are Republicans and in 17 of the county’s 24 municipalities there are more Republican members of the city or town councils than Democratic members.
Beginning in 2013, however, a minor rift in the county GOP opened when Curt Hagman, then a member of the California Assembly who was to be termed out of the statehouse after what was to be the end of his sixth year in state office in 2014, settled on perpetuating his political career by running for county supervisor in the Fourth District, representing Chino Hills, Chino, Ontario, Montclair and south Upland. The Fourth District supervisorial post he coveted was at that time occupied by another Republican, Gary Ovitt. Refusing to honor Ovitt’s incumbency, Hagman threatened to challenge him for the supervisor’s seat. To strengthen himself for that run, Hagman in late 2013 moved to depose Robert Rego as the chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee and assume the position himself. Rego had done yeoman’s work for the county Republican Party, raising funds and creating a well-oiled and maintained political machine to promote the candidacies of Republican candidates throughout the county. By pushing Rego out, Hagman was able to seize command of local party operations and cut Ovitt off from party support, and instead direct that assistance to his own campaign. Ovitt opted out of seeking reelection. Hagman achieved victory in 2014, running successfully for Fourth District supervisor against Gloria Negrete-McLeod, then an incumbent Democratic congresswoman.
Despite his personal success, Hagman planted seeds of dissension within the local Republican Party. Whereas previously there had been an ethos of party loyalty among Republicans that essentially held individual personal ambition in check, Hagman’s willingness to cut Ovitt off at the pass became a model for other Republicans thereafter. Since that time there have been multiple examples of one Republican moving to challenge another incumbent Republican, efforts which have met with varying degrees of success and failure.
In 2016, four Republicans – Angela Valles, Rick Roelle, Paul Russ and Bill Holland – challenged incumbent Republican First District San Bernardino County Supervisor Robert Lovingood. The four challengers lost. That same year, Republican stalwart Tim Donnelly angled at unseating incumbent Republican 8th Congressional District Congressman Paul Cook. Donnelly failed. In 2018, Donnelly again took an unsuccessful run at Cook. Then-incumbent Republican 40th District Assemblyman Marc Steinorth challenged incumbent Republican Second District San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford. Steinorth narrowly lost. John Valdivia, then an incumbent Republican San Bernardino City Councilman, challenged Carey Davis, the incumbent Republican mayor of San Bernardino. Valdivia defeated Davis in the November 2018 San Bernardino mayoral runoff election. In 2019, Hesperia City Councilman Jeremiah Brosowske, who had made his mark in local politics as a young and energetic political operative working on behalf of a score of Republican candidates, turned on his fellow Republican and fellow councilman, Bill Holland, who had been instrumental in appointing Brosowske to the city council the previous year as a replacement for Mayor Russ Blewett, who had died in office. Brosowske heavily involved himself in a petition process to qualify a recall election targeting Holland. That effort failed, after which Holland and two of the members of the all-Republican city council, Larry Bird and Cameron Gregg, bounced Brosowske off the city council, based on their determination that Brosowske was not meeting the residency requirements to serve on the city council.
One upshot of all of this is that the rising level of acrimony among the county’s Republicans appears to be gradually weakening the local GOP.
Jan Leja had been elected chairwoman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee in January 2017. During her four years in that post, she had not proven to be a strong enough personality to curtail the Republican-versus-Republican violence. In January 2021, Leja was succeeded as central committee chairperson by Phil Cothran, Sr.
Cothran’s initiation into the Republican inner sanctum began with his support, going back some two-and-a-half decades, of Republican candidates in Fontana, where he is a leading businessman and the operator of a successful insurance agency.
Despite local elections in California being, under the Government Code and Elections Code, officially nonpartisan, in San Bernardino County local politics is shot through with considerations as to any given candidate’s party affiliation. This has been as true in Fontana as anywhere else in the county. From the advent of the Fontana Steel Mill in 1941 until its final shuttering in 1983, Fontana was a steel town, with all that implies. The Steelworkers Union was as much of an institution in Fontana as the steel mill. Thus, by default, given the Democratic Party’s close alignment with unions and its adherence to unionism, Fontana was an inherently Democratic city through and through, one of the earlier referenced areas of San Bernardino County where the Democrats were in ascendancy. With the demise of the steel mill and the eventual evaporation of the Steelworkers Union in Fontana, however, a struggle for the political heart and soul of Fontana ensued. Over the years, John Roberts, Mark Nuami, Frank Scialdone, Janice Rutherford and Acquanetta Warren have all advanced not only the Republican cause in Fontana but the Republican hold on the city. Roberts was first elected to the city council in 1992 and is yet a member of the city council and is now one of the longest serving politicians in San Bernadino County. Mark Nuami was elected mayor of Fontana in 2002, defeating then-Democratic Mayor Dave Eshleman. Frank Scialdone was Fontana’s police chief before he was elected to the council and became mayor. Janice Rutherford served on the city council before moving on to become the county’s Second District supervisor in 2010. Warren was appointed to the council in 2002 and elected and reelected to it in her own right in 2004 and 2008 before being elected mayor in 2010 and then reelected in 2014 and 2018.
Demographically, Fontana remains a Democratic city. Of its 109,285 voters, 54,355 or 49.7 percent are Democrats. Republicans within the city number 22,199 or 20.3 percent, which is less than the 24,910 or 22.8 percent who affiliate with no political party. The remaining 7.1 percent of the city’s voters are registered with Peace & Freedom Party, American Independent Party, the Libertarians, the Green Party or other more obscure blocs.
Despite the seeming overwhelming numerical advantage the Democrats enjoy in Fontana, four of the five members of the city council are Republicans – Warren, Roberts, Pete Garcia and Phil Cothran Jr.
Since the 1990s, Phil Cothran Sr. has bankrolled Republican candidates for the Fontana City Council, including Roberts, Nuami, Rutherford, Scialdone and Warren, among others. In 2018, with Warren’s backing, Cothran’s son and namesake ran for city council, successfully. Two year’s before Phil Cothran Jr. joined Warren on the council dais, Jesse Armendarez in 2016 was elected to the council. Two years before that, in 2014, Armendarez had been elected to the Fontana Unified School District Board of Trustees, also with Warren’s assistance.
Armendarez had gotten into Warren’s good graces primarily on the basis of money. Like Cothran, he was a successful businessman, in his case, selling real estate. He was not hesitant to put money into local campaigns. As it turned out, Republicans were on a roll in Fontana and Armendarez, astutely for someone who must stay on the right side of City Hall, was risk averse, meaning he felt it best to support incumbents rather than challengers. His continuing and steady support of Warren and her handpicked candidates ingratiated him with her. In 2014, she rewarded him when he indicated he might be interested in a political career himself, and she gave him a boost in landing the school board slot. In 2016, she supported him for city council in an effort defeat one of her primary rivals on the panel, Lydia Salazar-Wibert. With a combination of his own money and some more Warren was able to scare up for him, together with the guidance of political consultants, Armendarez defeated Salazar-Wibert.
From the time she was first elected mayor until the present, Warren had held the advantage of having a ruling coalition of Republicans on the dais with her. She has converted the advantage of incumbency into hefty campaign contributions from business interests who must obtain permits and project approval from the city. The combination of the money she has raised on her own and the money provided to her by both Armendarez and Phil Cothran Sr., the father of her council ally, Phil Cothran Jr., has made her into a virtually unstoppable juggernaut.
In the meantime, Phil Cothran, who has long been active with the County of San Bernardino as a member of the Workforce Development Board, was looking to further his political reach, strengthen Warren’s political machine and enhance his ability to assist his son in his political career. He ran for and succeeded in capturing a position on the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee.
In 2020, when Jesse Armendarez was due to stand for reelection to the Fontana City Council, he took a shot at running for the position that was opening up on the county board of supervisors in the Fifth District. Josie Gonzales, then the lone Democrat among the supervisors, was being termed out after serving four terms. Armendarez figured he would run, hoping he might overwhelm a single opponent if there was only one other person in the race. If more than one candidate jumped into the contest, he figured, four things could happen: He might win outright; Another candidate might win outright; he might finish first or second without anyone getting a majority of the vote, meaning he would have the opportunity to compete in a runoff; or he might finish in third or lower, such that he would be out of running. If he won, that was that and he would be the next Fifth District Supervisor. If he qualified for a runoff, he would run as hard as he could for supervisor come November. If he lost in the primary, he would lick his wounds and run for reelection to the city council.
Gonzales had endorsed her chief of staff, Dan Flores, another Democrat who was also a member of the Colton Joint Unified School District Board of Trustees. Also competing in the contest were Nadia Renner, who had no party affiliation, and Rialto Councilman Joe Baca Jr, a Democrat.
By the time of the March 2020 primary election, $336,299.86 had been deposited in Armendarez’s election fund, of which $27,688.83 was a loan from himself. Flores had $312,966.39 in his campaign war chest. Baca had deposited a total of $116,443 in political donations into his campaign fund. Renner had $19,100 to carry out her campaign.
Armendarez bested Flores and Renner in the March primary election but ran behind Baca. Thus, in the November 2020 runoff, it was the Republican Armendarez vs. the Democrat Baca. Armendarez pulled out all of the stops in the final, throwing a lot of his own money into the contest, including $91,076.83 in loans to himself. Ultimately, $507,164.08 was contributed to Armendarez’s supervisorial campaign fund in what was a losing cause. By contrast, between January 1, 2020 and the end of the election, Baca raised $353,450. Despite outspending Baca, Armendarez was not able to overcome the five-to-two Democratic voter-to-Republican advantage of his opponent, and Baca prevailed, capturing the position of Fifth District supervisor.
It was early in 2021 that Armendarez’s friend and supporter, Phil Cothran Sr., made his move to capture the chairmanship of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee. With Armendarez’s support and that of the entirety of the Fontana Republican contingent as well as other committee members from around the county, the gavel of the Republican Central Committee was bestowed on Cothran Sr.
The redistricting of the county’s electoral districts was undertaken in 2021 based upon the 2020 Census. Whereas previously, the east-west dividing line between the Fifth District and the Second District ran through Fontana such that about three-fifths of the western side of the city was in the Second District and two-fifths of the city on the east side was in the Fifth District, after the 2021 redistricting, all of Fontana was placed in the Second District. In this way, both Armendarez and Renner, who had run for Fifth District Supervisor just two years previously, were eligible to run for supervisor in the Second District this year. That is indeed what they both did.
Also competing in the race were Luis Cetina, a board member of the Cucamonga Valley Water District; Dejonae Shaw and Eric Coker. Ultimately, Cetina captured the most votes among the five candidates, with 14,848 or 33.01 percent. Armendarez was not too far off the pace, with 13,257 or 30.51 percent, for second place.
Like Armendarez, Cetina is a Republican.
A nicety that is observed in California politics, which is not a civility at all, is that candidates try not to directly attack their opponents. Though that practice is not always observed, the idea is that a candidate, in his speeches and literature, makes a presentation of himself by putting his own best foot forward and through expounding on what his qualifications are and what he intends to do or accomplish if elected. It is considered poor form for a candidate to make attacks on his opposition. Instead, such distasteful assignments are left to an “independent” expenditure committee, one that, ostensibly or supposedly, is not connected to or tied in any way to the candidate. Under the rules laid out in the election code, these “independent” committees are not to interact with or coordinate with the candidate but exist so that the public at large – or whoever has the money and means to operate an independent expenditure committee – can make his or her or their feelings known. The expressions of an independent expenditure committee are supposed to be separate from the candidate.
What an independent expenditure committee does is offer a candidate a fig leaf in attacking his opponent. If his opponent or his opponent’s supporters or the public at large finds the attack to be false or mean-spirited or in poor taste or vulgar or reckless or small-minded, the candidate can maintain he had nothing to do with it and did not approve it.
In reality, more often than not, the product of an independent expenditure is not independent at all but a weapon against his opponent the candidate does not want to be accused of using.
Following the June 7, 2022 Primary Election, there was a three-month lull, at which point the campaign for the November 8 election began in earnest. As September progressed, mailers began landing in mailboxes throughout the Second District relating to the Armendarez-Cetina match-up.
The first round of mailers were ones that originated with either campaign, with those sent by Cetina presenting him as a wholesome family man who works for the Metropolitan Water District, oversees the operations of the Cucamonga Valley Water District as a board member and has some ideas about how the county should be run. Those sent by Armendarez presented him as a wholesome family man who runs a successful business, once oversaw the operations of the City of Fontana as a councilman and has some ideas about how the county should be run. The next round of mailers touted either candidate as one who believes in public safety, safeguarding public money and has endorsements of other known public figures. All of those originated either with Cetina’s campaign or Armendarez’s campaign.
Thereafter, intersticed with the positive mailers about each came a fusillade of so-called “hit pieces,” all of which targeted Cetina. Virtually all of those were selectively sent. Some were sent to Democrat households. Some were sent to Republican households. Assiduously, the material sent to voters who were Democrats celebrated elements of Cetina’s life and character that might appeal to Republicans but which, generically at least, are anathema to Democrats. Those mailers were not provided to Republicans. Similarly, the mailers that were sent to Republicans celebrated Cetina as having leanings or feelings or ideas that would appeal to your garden variety Democrat, but which were a bit off-kilter with Republicans. The upshot of the message to Republicans was: Cetina is a Democrat masquerading as a Republican. The message to Democrats was: Cetina is a Republican.
The mailers originated from different “independent” expenditure committees, some of which had names or titles which connoted that they were created to deal with political issues in general. Others had names or titles which suggested they exist primarily to deflate Cetina’s candidacy while advancing Armendarez’s prospect of election.
One of those, “Cucamonga Valley Ratepayers to Oppose Cetina and Support Armendarez for Supervisor 2022,” dispensed with any semblance of independence, making no bones about being in league with Armendarez. Its mailer dwelt on the consideration that while Cetina has been on the board of directors for the Cucamonga Water District, the rates on the price of water has increased. The mailer did not mention that while Armendarez was a member of the Fontana City Council, he voted along with Warren and the rest of the council to increase the rates paid by the city’s residents with regard to one of the utilities he oversaw, that being the city’s trash service.
For some Republicans, the effort to demonize Cetina crossed a crucial line with a mailer, sent by the Inland Empire Business Alliance. That missive informed voters that “Luis Cetina opposes a woman’s right to choose,” calling upon voters to “Stop Luis Cetina from cutting funding for woman’s health clinics that provide safe and legal abortions.”
The board of supervisors, the panel Cetina and Armendarez are vying to join, has no say in and no sway over the legality or availability of abortion at the local, state or federal level. Moreover, Armendarez, in seeking the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee’s endorsement, enunciated his opposition to abortion. That is omitted from hit piece.
The independent expenditure committee behind the mailer is the Inland Empire Business Alliance Political Action Committee. Phil Cothran Sr. founded the Inland Empire Business Alliance Political Action Committee. Of note is that Cothran in the past has made much of his Christian faith and his opposition to abortion. Cothran Sr. has made three yet-outstanding loans to the Inland Empire Business Alliance Political Action Committee, one of $240.13, another of $3,697.89 and another for $13,549.93, for a total of $17,487.95, all of which are shown on the political action committee’s disclosure form for the period between January 1 and June 30 of this year. Cothran Sr.’s money has recently been augmented with a $25,000 contribution from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians;  $1,000 from Tri-Land, Inc, a company jointly owned by Bill Postmus and John Dino DeFazio; James Previti of Frontier Enterprises, who put up $24,000; Burrtec Waste Industries, Inc, which donated $20,000; DW Development owner David Weiner, who provided $49,000; Singh Trucking of Riverside, which put up $32,000; Coarchi, Incorporated of Corona, which supplied $17,000; Frontier Homes II, owned by James Previti, which provided another $25,000; another $70,000 from the David Wiener Family Trust; $35,000 from the Friends of Acquanetta Warren: $70,000 from Jeff Burum; another $45,000 from James Previti; $10,000 from Michael G. Rademaker; $5,000 from the Colonies Crossroads, Inc,; an additional $70,000 from the Survivor’s Trust under the David Wiener Family; and $6,000 from Brentwood Consulting, among multiple other contributions.
As the founder and director of the Inland Empire Business Alliance Political Action Committee, Cothran Sr. had total discretion on how the funds entrusted to the political action committee were to be utilized. There are multiple examples of the Inland Empire Business Alliance Political Action Committee’s money being brought to bear in hit pieces damaging to Republican candidates, as in the case of what was done to Cetina.
Agnes Gibboney, the Republican standard bearer in the 2020 election when she ran, unsuccessfully, against Democrat Pete Aguilar, the incumbent congressman in California’s 31st District, said, “I was shocked to learn who is behind the attacks on the reputation of county supervisor candidate Luis Cetina. Cetina has been a registered Republican for 18 years, supported Republican candidates, donated regularly to our county party, and served four years on the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee. The mailers and ads mocking and attacking Cetina’s reputation are from a PAC [political action committee] heavily funded by a corporation owned by Phil Cothran Sr. The most shocking is an ad critical of Cenina because he is opposed to abortion. This is from a PAC created by Phil Cothran, the Inland Empire Business Alliance, which now has his associate Danielle Holley as the principal officer.”
Gibboney said, “Our county party leadership has taken the GOP 11th Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republcan,” shredded it, doused it with gasoline, burned it and buried the ashes. Their judgment and actions seem to be directed by a blind allegiance to fellow Team Fontana associates. It is hurting Republican candidates and our party’s reputation. If we cannot display ethical values and conduct, the value of our endorsement is diminished. This needs to change.”
In examining what is happening to Cetina, some harkened to the closing weeks of the November 2020 Second District supervisorial race, when polling done by the Armendarez campaign showed that he was running behind Baca. Despite assertions that the Armendarez camp was not coordinating with any of several independent expenditure committees that were militating on his behalf, an end-stage blitz of mailers began landing in the mailboxes of the Fifth District’s high propensity Democrat voters which associated Baca with then-President Donald Trump, implying Baca, who is a Democrat, was a Republican. The ploy did not work. Baca prevailed in the contest, 69,710 or 58.49 percent to 49,471 votes or 41.51 percent.
Efforts to reach Phil Cothran Sr. through the Republican Central Committee and his Fontana insurance office prompted no response.
-Mark Gutglueck

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