By Bobbi Jo Chavarria
Mayor Acquanetta Warren is using her authority and status to manipulate the political landscape in 208,393-population Fontana to maintain the ironfisted sway she has over City Hall. To keep her ruling coalition intact, she has flooded several electoral zones with ersatz Hispanic candidates to dilute the Latino vote and gerrymandered districts to insulate her handpicked candidates from their strongest rivals. In doing so, she has created pockets of residents who will need to go six years before they will have the ability to choose the member of the city to council to represent them.
Machiavellian though her tactics may be, Warren has played within the rules of politics as they exist under California law.
Remarkably, Warren, a Republican who heads up a ruling council majority that includes three Republican men, has carried this off in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.Warren was first appointed to a vacancy on the city council in 2002 and was elected as an incumbent in her own right in 2004 and then reelected in 2008. In 2010, she ran successfully for mayor, gaining reelection in 2014 and 2018.
As one of San Bernardino County’s leading African American Republican politicians, Warren has accumulated a considerable political war chest, one which currently totals more than $331,325.16 after having spent $72,263.53 so far this year on campaigning. The money in her electioneering account over the years has allowed her to lend support to her allies. Thus, she has sustained the incumbency of John Roberts, a Republican who has been in office longer than she has, and in 2018 and in 2020 was instrumental in installing two other Republicans, Phil Cothran, Jr. and Pete Garcia, respectively, in office.
Despite the consideration that among the city’s 109,320 voters, Democrats who number at 54,409 or 49.8 percent overwhelmingly outmatch Republicans, at 22,186 or 20.3 percent, the only Democrat currently on the Fontana City Council is Jesse Sandoval.
Warren has used the money she has to campaign by means of billboards, mailers, radio and television spots, phone banks, handbills and newspaper ads on her behalf and those of Roberts, Cothran and Garcia. Because they represent four solid votes on the council, Warren and her three allies were able to control the redistricting process that takes place every ten years in the aftermath of the U.S. Census. By controlling the electoral district lines in the city, Warren is looking to sway the outcome of this year’s election, in which Cothran must vie to remain as District 1 councilman and Roberts is running again in District 4.
A majority of Fontana residents in District 4, as it was originally composed by the Fontana City Council in 2017 when the city moved to district elections after 65 years of at-large contests for its council seats, will not have a chance to vote for new city council representation this November because of Warren’s gerrymandering.
When the redrawn maps are in place after November’s election, Peter Garcia, the current District 3 council representative who was elected in 2020, will represent a good chunk of the former District 4 community. However, Garcia’s new district encompasses a near-totally different community, representing voters who never voted for him and who will not get a chance to vote again until 2024.
Mayor Warren worked with the city’s redistricting consultant to submit and then select a carefully drawn map that appears to serve several political purposes while contradicting some of the very principles required by law and which the city affirms are requirements.
An email from Acting City Clerk, Ashton R. Arocho, to Mayor Warren requested a link to the map Warren presented during a one-on-one meeting with Doug Johnson from the National Demographics Corporation, the city’s redistricting consultant. In the email, Arocho wrote that Johnson “has reached out to me requesting the direct redistricting link for your map that you presented to him during your 1:1 meeting.”
This makes it clear that the map Warren proposed and which the city council eventually adopted with some changes and which was not included in the original proposals from the National Demographics Corporation, came solely from Warren. The maps from the National Demographics Corporation were sent to Arocho on January 13, 2022 for publication on the city’s website and numbered 101-103. An email response from Warren with the links states, “Make him aware it did change from when he saw it last.” One of the links specifically points to a file on Warren’s campaign site: www.aquanetta.org.
Previously, 52.5 percent of the city’s voters resided within the two districts on the north end of the city. Following the redistricting, 56.1% of the city’s voters live in the city’s two northernmost districts. The redistricting leaves a substantial number of community members in the south of the city who were previously scheduled to vote this year shut out from electing their council representative for the next two years. Voter turnout is substantially disparate between the two areas, as well: in 2018, voters in the north end had a 59.38 percent turnout rate with 15,570 votes for council seat 1, while only 9,992 voters cast a ballot for council seat 4, for a turnout rate of 51.76 percent.
Additionally, the mayor’s proposed map, originally Map 104, nearly gerrymandered Councilman Jesse Sandoval out of his district, again, as was done in 2017. During a discussion of the maps, Sandoval asked the city attorney whether, since District 4 would be up for election in 2022, he would be able to run for that seat, challenging Roberts, and even if he didn’t win, would he still have two years remaining on his current position. The attorney affirmed that was the case, and at the April 14 meeting when the final resolution was brought to the council for approval, an amended map, now 104b, was presented for a vote with a change that moved the district line separating Districts 2 and District 4. This was a move by Warren to prevent Sandoval, who has a substantial wellspring of support in Fontana, from directly challenging Roberts. Sandoval is now not able to challenge Roberts, but was not forced out of his seat, which the original 104 map had done.
The disenfranchised voters in the south area of the city are the same community members who had spent a good deal of the last four years rallying against warehouse project after warehouse project and the continual expansion of the Southwest Industrial Project overlay, a district zoned by the city to accommodate warehouses, distribution centers, foundries and factories. The Southwest Industrial Project has grown to nearly double its original size, has wiped out some residential neighborhoods, rezoned housing areas, and put gigantic warehouse projects right next to homes and schools. One such action as part of this overlay resulted in California Attorney General Rob Bonta filing a lawsuit against the City of Fontana last year, based on its cavalier disregard of environmental safeguards. That lawsuit was settled with the city agreeing to adhere to stricter resident safety standards and more intensive environmental regulations with future warehouse projects. That lawsuit and efforts by community organizations were also instrumental in the proposed Assembly Bill 1547 Good Neighbor legislation proposed by Assemblywoman and Democratic/Majority Leader Eloise Gomez-Reyes, who represents Fontana and would have required a minimum of a 1,000 foot buffer between warehouses and homes, parks, and schools. That bill was withdrawn from the current year’s legislative cycle.
From the onset of Warren’s tenure as mayor in 2010, many residents in the south were dissatisfied with city leadership, as the annexation and rezoning on the south end began in earnest during Warren’s first several months leading the city council. In 2018, the first year of by-district voting in Fontana, District 4 community members narrowly re-elected John Roberts by 33 votes, who received 40 percent of the votes cast in an election against two other candidates. One candidate, Patricia Gonzalez, was supported by Warren ally Phil Cothran and the Inland Empire Business Alliance PAC, and did not mount a serious challenge. She had no signs, no mailers, and provided no campaign information to voters by way of a candidate statement, a website, nor even a Facebook profile. A call to her early in the campaign affirmed that she was not seeking the Sierra Club endorsement and she offered no further information about her candidacy.
Thus, it appears that Gonzalez was a political plant, whose candidacy was promoted by Warren’s political machine as part of an effort to split the Hispanic vote in District 4 and keep Glenda Barillas, who had the support of the South Fontana Concerned Citizens Coalition and other environmentalists, from being able to engage Roberts in a one-on-one match-up.
Warren, while winning with 51.4% of the vote citywide in 2018, secured only 48.6% of the vote that year in District 4 against numerous candidates, including Councilman Jesse Sandoval and an unknown challenger aptly named Carlos Sandoval, who is no relation to Jesse Sandoval and was induced to run by Warren because of that similarity and was largely absent to the community in the campaign cycle.
Map 104b now excludes Warren’s most vocal opponents in the upcoming election cycle. The adopted map moved the majority of the 2017 District 4 and its residents into District 3, which will not have a city council election until 2024. There is no doubt that voters on the south end of the city have been deprived of voting on new representation this coming election, John Roberts should be defending his seat against someone supported by those activists animated about the issues facing south Fontana and there were community leaders who were interested in the opportunity to challenge him. Instead, he is facing off against Brian Kolde, a political neophyte who is not sophisticated enough to have placed a candidate statement on the ballot and was who was not involved in the environmental movement on the city’s south side. This gerrymandering is seen as yet another Warren-orchestrated ploy to further silence the community. City activists had capitalized on COVID-19 restrictions, which enabled virtual participation in council meetings, marshalling scores of public comments to oppose further warehouse development in the city during some meetings. In contrast, the mayor, to whom admirers and opponents apply the sobriquet “Warehouse Warren” when referring to her, had used her control of parliamentary procedure to ensure that the public hearings and comments regarding redistricting were available for in-person participation only.
The newly-drawn District 3 is where the vast majority of the new warehouse projects are being proposed and built. Complaints from community members, homeowners, and parents extend to the close proximity of industrial warehouse projects to their homes and schools, as well as streets inundated with diesel truck traffic from a number of warehouse projects. Many of these community members have joined organizations like the Sierra Club, which has led a handful of legal challenges to the warehouse projects in Fontana. Many have organized their own grassroots organization, the South Fontana Concerned Citizens Coalition, and have partnered with other organizations like the Community Center for Action and Environmental Justice, GROW Fontana, the Black and Brown Alliance, Concerned Citizens of Bloomington, and the Progressive Alliance of the Inland Empire.
In 2017, community members rallied against what were perceived to be very irregularly-shaped districts that ensured nearly every district reached into the north end of the city, enabling a Republican majority status quo on the council to be maintained in the predominantly Democratic city. Without a legal challenge, those were the districts that served as Fontana’s by-district representation in the 2018 and 2020 elections. The new district map, rejected by the community but adopted by the council, will likely secure the council seats for both John Roberts and Peter Garcia.
Jason O’Brien, a Los Angeles Police Department detective and former member of the Fontana Unified School District Board of Education, lives in north Fontana, a resident within what was formerly District 1. A member of the Democratic vanguard seeking to flip Red Fontana Blue, O’Brien last year was contemplating, indeed had committed to, running against Warren’s key ally in District 1, Phil Cothran Jr.
In drafting the borders for District 1, Warren arranged it so that all three of the final district map options considered by the city – one designated as Map 103, another designated Map 402 and a third designated Map 104B – removed O’Brien’s residence 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 O’Brien lived 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.
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, the council voted 4-to-1, with the council’s lone Democrat and nonmember of the Warren coalition, Jesse Sandoval, dissenting, to select Map 104B.
Having witnessed what had been done to O’Brien, Alfred Gonzales, who had served with O’Brien as an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department until his recent retirement and who lives in Fontana’s District 1, jumped into the race against Cothran.
In response, Warren recruited Ricardo Quintana to get into the District 1 race, a move meant to split the Latino vote and ensure Cothran’s retention on the council.
This year, Warren is being challenged for the mayor’s seat by Councilman Jesse Sandoval as well as by Jason O’Brien’s wife, Shannon O’Brien. While several factors indicate Warren’s political considerations may have had a substantial impact on the final map that was adopted, the majority of voters in Fontana will largely be unaware of the machinations at play in the coming election, and many in the southern area of the city will be similarly oblivious to just how severely they have been disenfranchised.
By Bobbi Jo Chavarria