Membership Assails County GOP Leaders’ Endorsements Of Democrats

The center is not holding and things are falling apart on both sides of San Bernardino County’s political divide, reportedly capturing the interest of federal investigators. At issue is a mélange of backroom deals involving one of the region’s Democratic Congresswomen, her husband and one of their sons, the chairman of San Bernardino County’s Republican Central Committee, a San Bernardino County Supervisor who was formerly the county GOP chairman, the mayor of Fontana and other influential members of the San Bernardino County GOP and its central committee, the City of Fontana and millions of dollars in federal grant money currently or slated to be funneled to that municipality in the future in return for cross-party endorsements, employment promises benefiting politicians’ family members and speculation in land along a major interstate corridor potentially to be impacted by federal legislative action.
The most apparent anomaly at the core of the upheaval are endorsements some of the more powerful members of the San Bernardino County Republican Party are making of either current or hopeful Democrat officeholders. This has touched off a deep countercurrent of both resentment and resistance within the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee that was on display Thursday night at the committee’s September meeting.In 2013, Curt Hagman was then an Assemblyman who was due to be termed out of California’s lower legislative house the following year. As stepping up to run for State Senate at that point was not a viable option, he sought to continue his political career by entering the race for Fourth District San Bernardino County supervisor, representing Carbon Canyon, Chino Hills, Chino, Prado, the West End, Montclair, Ontario, Guasti and south Upland. That race initially appeared to be a contest between the incumbent Republican, Gary Ovitt, who had formerly been Ontario’s mayor, and Gloria Negrete-McLeod, at that point a one-term Democratic Congresswoman who had formerly been a State Senator and Assemblywoman.
Recognizing he would need leverage to force Ovitt out of the race and a substantial amount of money to prevail, Hagman set about deposing the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee chairman, Robert Rego, and taking on the committee chairmanship for himself. Rego, during his tenure as chairman, had built the county’s Republican Central Committee into a formidable fundraising machine, and the party had used the mother’s milk of politics in multiple venues throughout the county to maintain incumbent Republicans in office or elect fresh candidates bearing the GOP standard, outmaneuvering their more numerous but less organized, less coordinated and underfunded Democrat counterparts. Hagman knew that Rego would be reluctant to support any effort to oppose the reelection of an incumbent Republican such as Ovitt and outright unwilling to use the central committee’s money in support of a non-incumbent such as himself in an electoral effort against an incumbent Republican. In a power play that involved his coordinating with former Assemblyman and State Senator Jim Brulte who that year was gunning, ultimately successfully, to seize for himself chairmanship of the California Republican Party, Hagman utilized his available resources, which included his then-status as an assemblyman along with the talents of his Assembly office chief of staff, West Covina Mayor Mike Spence, to engage in a round of dealmaking and political horsetrading, to oust Rego as the chairman of the San Bernardino County Central Committee and install himself in that post, a perch from which he could ensure that he would be able to prioritize the spending of local party money to elect him as San Bernardino County supervisor in the Fourth District in the 2014 election cycle. Once Hagman had the local GOP party scepter firmly in hand, he persuaded Ovitt that discretion would be the better part of valor, such that it would be best for Ovitt to gracefully step aside and let him run against Negrete-McLeod. Though local – town, city, county and governmental district/agency – elections in California are by law non-partisan contests, in San Bernardino County the outcome of the races for all political offices are heavily influenced by the party affiliation of the candidates vying for them. The 2014 race for Fourth District supervisor was no exception. Despite Negrete-McLeod’s status as an incumbent congresswoman and an 11 percent voter registration advantage that Democrats had over Republicans in the Fourth Supervisorial District, Hagman, was able to rely not only on his own fundraising ability but a substantial amount of money in the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee’s bank account. Combining that financial enablement with the superior electioneering prowess of Spence, who managed his campaign, Hagman emerged victorious, with 52.11 percent of the vote in the November election.
Hagman remained for a time as the party chairman, turning that post over to his longtime ally, Jan Leja, in 2017. In 2018, again with full Republican Central Committee backing, he beat Negrete-McLeod in a rematch in an even more convincing fashion than he had in 2014, dispatching her in the June primary contest with 53.41 percent of the vote, despite the Democrats’ registration advantage over Republicans in the district having grown to 14 percent. Later that year, Hagman accepted his appointment by his board colleagues to a two-year term as chairman of the board of supervisors. Two years later, in an unprecedented move, the board extended Hagman’s chairmanship of the board of supervisors for another two years.
In 2022, Hagman sought reelection to the board of supervisors, finding himself facing a challenge by State Senator Connie Leyva, a former labor leader celebrated as a progressive Democrat. Leyva had represented California Senate District 20 as it was then composed since 2014. Under the revamped term limit restrictions that had been put in place for those first elected in 2012 and thereafter, she was at liberty to run for the California State Senate one more time, but she opted against doing so because the reapportionment that took place in 2021 based upon the 2020 Census had changed the boundaries of the 20th Senate District, including removing Chino, where Leyva lives, from it entirely. Instead, Chino was placed within the newly-drafted Senate District 22, which also includes Ontario, Pomona, West Covina, and Baldwin Park, the home of incumbent 22nd District Senator Susan Rubio, also a Democrat. Leyva, who was not willing to run against her sister Democrat Rubio, instead decided to take on Hagman in the Fourth District San Bernardino County supervisor race.
Leyva’s decision to challenge Hagman appeared to be based on a sound set of political calculations. Foremost, the Democrats’ registration advantage over the Republicans in the Fourth District had grown. With the dawning of 2022, 101,876 or 44.1 percent of the Fourth District’s 230,908 registered voters were affiliated with the Democratic Party. Republicans in the district numbered 61,233 or 26.5 percent, while 52,198 voters or 22.6 percent were aligned with no party. The remaining 6.9 percent were registered as members of the Libertarian, Green, Peace & Freedom, American Independent or other more obscure political parties. Secondly, Leyva, who was born in 1967, was 54 as the campaign began, a year younger than Hagman and 24 years younger than Negrete-McLeod was during her 2018 campaign against Hagman. It was believed that Leyva not only would prove far more energetic and agile than Negrete-McLeod had been but would be able to convert the money she had in her political war chest for reelection to the State Senate into money she could use in her run for supervisor, and thereby subject Hagman, who in six straight contests in 2004, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2018 had an unbroken string of six victories, to not only the most exacting political test of his career, but outright defeat him.
Before that could occur, however, the ever politically facile Hagman formed an alliance with Norma Torres. Torres had been a councilwoman with the City of Pomona from 2001 to 2006, Pomona Mayor from 2006 to 2008, then from 2008 to 2013 succeeded former Pomona Mayor Nell Soto as the Assemblywoman representing Assembly District 61 and from 2013 to 2014 succeeded Negrete-McLeod as the State Senator representing the 32nd Senatorial District. Since 2015, Torres had been the Congresswoman succeeding Negrete-McLeod, representing California’s 35th Congressional District. Of significant note is that Torres is a Democrat. In endorsing Hagman, Torres notably spurned Leyva.
Despite Leyva’s labor and union affiliation, Hagman was able to pick up the endorsements of multiple unions, including the one that perhaps counted most, that of the Teamsters Union representing San Bernardino County employees. Torres was widely credited with giving the union bosses clearance to back away from Leyva and embrace Hagman.
One other candidate, Larry Wu, got into the 2022 Fourth District Supervisor race, though the real race was the match-up between Leyva and Hagman. Ultimately, with key Democrat and Democrat-affiliated entities having backed away from her, Leyva never got her campaign on track and in the end, in the June Primary, she proved no match for Hagman, who convincingly defeated her, with 56.867 percent or 27,906 of the 49,072 total votes cast. Leyva managed a relatively anemic 17,816 votes or 36.305 percent with Wu polling 6.827 percent.
In the June primary race for Congress in California’s 35th District, Mike Cargile, a Republican, managed to qualify to go head-to-head against Torres in the November general election. Despite the consideration that Cargile was the Republican standard bearer in that contest, Hagman felt himself obliged to, and indeed did, endorse Torres. Hagman’s endorsement of Torres had both symbolic and actual impact. Other Republicans in San Bernardino County, influenced by the then-all-powerful chairman of the San Bernardino County supervisors, were less enthusiastic about backing Cargile than they might otherwise have been. 
The 35th District, which spreads across portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, is considered a safe Democrat district, given that 44 percent of its voters are registered Democrats as opposed to 26 percent who are registered as Republicans. Nevertheless, Cargile, fighting the dual disadvantages of the Democrats’ larger registration numbers as well as the consideration that Hagman, a key member of his own party, had undercut him by endorsing his opponent, managed a respectable showing in the November 2022 race, receiving 43,271 votes or 43.8 percent of the total 98,791 cast. Torres claimed 55,520 votes or 56.2 percent for the victory.
Torres’ reelection left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Republicans, some of whom lamented that with an even more concerted push in favor of Cargile’s electioneering effort and the undivided support of the Republican Party, including that of several of its most powerful and influential members, Cargile rather than Torres might today be representing the 35th District in the nation’s capital.
Meanwhile, Torres, who is considered by some to be a leading member of the California delegation in Congress, was suffering some recriminations from her own party over her endorsement of Hagman and the manner in which she had cut the progressive and pro-labor Leyva off at the knees.
People from both sides of the aisle began to look into what had gone into the sudden phenomenon of cross-party endorsements in San Bernardino County.
A few interesting factoids bubbled to the surface as a consequence of those inquiries.
One surrounded the City of Fontana’s hiring of Torres’ son, Robert.
Robert Torres was, in the footsteps of his mother, elected to the Pomona City Council in 2016. From 2013 until 2017 he had been employed as a district director for then-52nd District Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, who represented Pomona, Chino, Ontario, Montclair and portions of unincorporated San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties in California’s lower legislative house. In 2017, Rodriguez, a Democrat, fired young Torres. 
From 2017 until 2021, Robert Torres was unemployed beyond serving in the capacity of city councilman in Pomona. Those four years of unemployment drew to an end when he was hired to serve in the newly created position of public affairs manager with the City of Fontana, a post that came into being at the behest of Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren.
Corresponding with Fontana’s hiring of Robert Torres were efforts by his mother in her capacity as a congresswoman to obtain federal grants and other funding for the City of Fontana.
Shortly after Robert Torres’ hiring in Fontana, Norma Torres obtained for both Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties as well as six of the cities that fall within her Inland Empire district $2.75 million in clean energy grants, funding that was provided through the Department of Energy’s Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program. Congresswoman Torres was a champion of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which provided a total of $550 million in Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants distributed nationwide. After Los Angeles County, which received the lion’s share of that grant funding at $1,344,700 and San Bernardino County, which received $393,590, Fontana was given the largest portion of the money reserved for the 35th District’s cities. The City of Fontana received $230,640; the City of Ontario got $218,330. The City of Pomona, where she had been mayor and where her son was a councilman, received $188,070. The City of Rialto was gifted $151,580; the City of Chino, $147,470; and the City of Montclair, $76,320.
The federal government’s generosity toward Fontana as a direct result of Congresswoman Torres’ advocacy has grown. Four months ago, Torres unlocked $15 million in RAISE grants, a discretionary funding program for investments in surface transportation infrastructure, specifically earmarked for Fontana.
With the progression of 2023 toward the election year of 2024, candidates for political office in the next election cycle, which will manifest first with the March primary, are readying for their electioneering efforts, including scouring the political landscape to size up the competition or possible competition, raising money, securing support, lining up endorsements and forming alliances.
A number of Republicans inching toward, or committed to, running in 2024 have been disheartened to learn that just as occurred in 2022, several of their party’s most prominent and influential members – including the chairman of the Republican Central Committee, Phil Cothran Sr – have committed to supporting the Democrats they are going to run against.
Cothran is a member of Team Fontana. Team Fontana counts among its members Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren; Phil Cothran Sr’s son, Fontana Councilman Phil Cothran Jr; Fontana Councilman John Roberts and Fontana Councilman Pete Garcia. Warren, young Cothran, Roberts and Garcia, all of whom are Republicans, compose the ruling coalition on the Fontana City Council. The lone Democrat offering a counterweight to that quartet is Fontana Councilman Jesse Sandoval, who is routinely outvoted by the four on any issues of substance in the city. Warren has been able to form that coalition and sustain it, despite the Democrats having an overwhelming 49.4 percent voter registration advantage over Republicans in Fontana, where the Party of Lincoln maintains 20.9 percent voter registration. The Republican political primacy in Fontana is based in large measure upon the willingness of Republican donors and the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee to commit money and electioneering support resources to assist Warren and her crew of handpicked Republican candidates in the former steel town.
Within the last 30 days, members of the Republican Central Committee first heard and have since confirmed that Team Fontana and Hagman, among other Republican luminaries, have already endorsed not only Congresswoman Torres, but Robert Torres, who is vying for Assembly representing the 53rd District in next year’s election. The current 53rd District was formed in 2021 with the redistricting that took place based upon the 2020 Census. District 53, for the most part, replicates the previous 52nd Assembly District, and is currently represented by Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez, who formerly employed Robert Torres as his district director in District 52 before he terminated him in 2017. Freddie Rodriguez is to be termed out of the legislature next year. His wife, Michelle, is purposed to run in District 53 in his place. 
Dozens of San Bernardino County Republican stalwarts, including what appears to be a majority of those members of the central committee, were outraged, particularly as Cargile is intent on once again carrying the GOP flag in an effort to unseat Norma Torres, while Nick Wilson, a recently retired police officer residing in Chino, has declared that he is vying for the Assembly against Robert Torres in the 53rd District.
As chance would have it, at this month’s San Bernardino Republican Central Committee meeting, which was held in Upland on September 14, Hagman was scheduled to speak in the guest’s spot. A number of central committee members, including Cargile and Agnes Gibboney, who in 2020 was the Republican candidate against incumbent Democrat Pete Aguilar in California’s 31st Congressional District, were intent on grilling both Hagman and Cothran Sr with regard to their support of Democrats over Republicans, both past and present.
Hagman gave an upbeat presentation about the function of the county and his role as supervisor, including his participation on more than a dozen subcommittees and joint powers authority boards, which he said took up much of his time on an almost daily basis. Hagman expressed his view that the county, while dealing with challenges and problems, had made substantial progress with regard to a number of pressing issues. He noted that the county had “dealt with COVID with distinction” and had resisted the Democratic administration of Governor Gavin Newsom by “not shutting down businesses. We sued the governor [over COVID precautionary mandates]. We lost several times, but still sued him.” He congratulated himself and the board of supervisors for putting an initiative on the November 2022 ballot, Measure EE, calling for the county to secede from the State of California, noting that for decades the Bay Area and Los Angeles would “get more than their fair share of state resources back in tax dollars.” Hagman suggested the ploy had worked, since the state in this year’s budget appropriated more to San Bernardino County than its residents had paid in state taxes.
“We have a pretty flush budget in San Bernardino County,” he bragged.
When the time came for Hagman to field questions from those in attendance, Secretary/Parliamentarian Ben Lopez passed over Gibboney, who had come armed with a litany of inquiries about why Hagman and other members of the central committee were turning their backs on Republicans and embracing Democrats. Cargile and one other central committee member, however, were able to press Lopez and Hagman on the issue of cross-party endorsements. Why was he endorsing Robert Torres in the 53rd Assembly District race, Hagman was asked, when the Republicans had an earnest and strong candidate in Nick Wilson?
“I thought I might be asked that question,” Hagman began. Then, half apologetically but half boldly, he said, “Sorry, Nick,” essentially indicating he would not be rescinding the endorsement of Robert Torres, nor of Torres’ mother. Hagman indicated it is folly to “think we are all perfect.”
Nevertheless, he justified his support for Congressman Torres and her son by briefly reminiscing about when he was yet mayor of Chino Hills between 2006 and 2008, before he was elected to the California Assembly.
“When I was mayor, she [Norma Torres] was mayor of Pomona,” he noted, saying he got along with her well at that time. More recently, he said, she had carried legislation that was of benefit to San Bernardino County and as such was a valuable resource at the federal level for local government.
Hagman then came to the crux of the matter. “She stood up and endorsed me over Connie Leyva,” he said. Consequently, he said, he had endorsed her. This year, when Torres’ son jumped into the 53rd District Assembly race, he endorsed him, too, Hagman said.
That was meant as no offense to Wilson, Hagman said. “So, before I even knew he [Wilson] was running, I endorsed him [Robert Torres].”
After Hagman was put on the spot, Cargile pressed further with regard to the Team Fontana endorsements of Democrats.
“We have members who have opted to endorse Democrats,” he said, before citing the central committee’s bylaws and California Elections § 7413, which states, “A committee may remove any member, other than an ex officio member, who during his or her term of membership affiliates with, or registers as a member of another party, who publicly advocates that the voters should not vote for the nominee of this party for any office, or who gives support or avows a preference for a candidate of another party or candidate who is opposed to a candidate nominated by this party.”
This presented an awkward moment for Lopez as secretary and parliamentarian, who was presiding over the proceedings from the dais at the front of meeting room while Cothran Sr and Cothran Jr were some 20 feet or so away, seated in the front row of the gallery.
While no reference was made to either Cothran specifically, Cargile extracted from Lopez the assertion that neither Warren, nor former Councilman and current Supervisor Armendarez nor Councilman Jon Roberts are members of the central committee. At that point Cargile dropped his effort to steer the entire body toward taking action to remove any members who had endorsed Democrats.
Thereafter, the meeting adjourned into an executive session from which members of the public or non-executive committee members were excluded.
After the meeting concluded, the Sentinel was informed by one of the executive committee members that the topic of cross-party endorsements by committee members was discussed by some of the committee’s executive members.
After the meeting, Cargile told the Sentinel that he was satisfied, at this point, with the incremental step of ascertaining that those Republicans and/or former central committee members who had made the endorsements of Democrats were now acknowledged to no longer be central committee members.
Today, Gibboney told the Sentinel, “I believe that any candidate who seeks the endorsement of the SBGOP and endorses a Democrat should immediately be removed from the central committee and barred from attending or speaking at the SBGOP meetings. It seems that the Republican Party has been infiltrated by RINOs [Republicans in name only] and progressives, which is destroying the morale of our party. It’s like a clique. If you go along with everything, you are in. If you disagree, you are shunned.”
Gibboney said, “We need real Republicans who care to preserve our party.”
Another Republican Central Committee member, Matt Munson, said, “I think the basic statement from most of the policymakers is that our county has dominant pockets of Democratic Party voters where leaders would rather just surrender to the Democratic Party than to grow the territories involved so we can change the districts for the better. I understand that policymakers like [Republican Ontario City Councilman] Alan Wapner and Acquanetta Warren want stuff done for their cities, but it should not mean endorsing these politicians so early in the cycle. If politicians want the Republican Party endorsement, they should be tied to the state and county party bylaws and have fidelity to the Republican Party. If they do not have fidelity to the Republican Party, then these individuals should be prohibited from being endorsed by the state and county parties for their next election.”
Munson asked, “Why have a county party when we are just here to surrender to the Democrats? We are not here to find the least toxic Democrat in office. We are here to find the best Republican possible to be nominated for major offices such as state legislature and Congress. Robert Torres might be the least toxic Democrat for AD 53, where Curt Hagman and Acquanetta Warren may not want Connie Leyva’s endorsed choice for State Assembly, Javier Hernandez. However, Republican Party voters want bold colors of Republican Party candidates, such as Nick Wilson, instead of the pale platitudes of alleged centrist Democrats who will be whipped to submission in the floor where they will not vote for bills to stop the influx of crime. Robert and Michelle Rodriguez [another Democrat vying for the Assembly in the 53rd District] will vote for most of the tax increases, making it harder for working families and retirees to survive in California.”
Munson, who was the Republican candidate in California State Senate District 20 in 2014 and 2018, said, “Yes, Curt [Hagman] may have a personal relationship with Norma Torres, even though they may not agree on issues such as abortion. Norma did not necessarily endorse Curt due to this personal relationship; she personally had a vendetta against former Senator Leyva and did not want to see her promoted to the county board. I do believe most Republican activists feel that Curt sold his soul to get another term on the board. Yes, I would rather have Curt as my supervisor, but in 2026 he should do it without the endorsement of the San Bernardino County Republican Party. I can envision that Alan Wapner, Jesse Armendarez and Curt Hagman will have ads paid for by Robert Torres trying to deceive Republican voters. This is one reason I would like to see individuals such as Curt blackballed from any endorsement for a cycle.
“There are countless examples of local elected officials who at one time asked for our endorsement and then went against the grain and decided to stab our candidates in the back, such as Rancho Cucamonga Mayor Dennis Michael endorsing [Democrat Assemblyman] James Ramos in 2020,” Munson continued. “This is the reason we are losing in our county. If our local registered Republican leaders such as city council members or county supervisors do not like our candidates, then simply abstain on endorsing them instead of supporting Democrats for higher office. Why endorse individuals who will make it harder for our state legislative and congressional candidates to run for office? Then we will have a literal uniparty of political eunuchs. If we want California to improve, we need to vote for the Republican instead of the least toxic Democratic Party candidate in the primary.”
Another member of the Republican Central Committee, former San Bernardino City Councilman Henry Nickel, said, “If any elected member of the Republican Central Committee chooses to support a Democrat in any race where there is a Republican opposing that Democrat, I believe that member should be removed from the central committee.
“We have had that discussion before, Nickel, who vied for the State Assembly in 2018, went on. “When I ran, there were certain members who chose to endorse my opponent, a Democrat. I cannot make exact citation of the state election code and our bylaws, but we have the authority to remove any elected member who endorses someone from another party. I don’t think we can remove ex officio members, but we have the authority to remove elected ones who are not in line with the party. I think every member of the party has a mandate to endorse a Republican candidate and not a Democrat in any race that takes place.”
Nickel lamented that “Our party is not as potent of a force as it was before. It has fallen victim to those fringe elements that get us off message and away from what concerns most voters. I do not like to say it but I think our party has become fractured. I think we have become largely undisciplined, and a few vocal members have created discord within the county party. We need to remain focused on the issues that distinguish us from the Democrats.”
Concern about the cross-party endorsements in San Bernardino County has not confined itself to the local politicos who have one dog or another in the hunt. The deviation in expected affiliations has caught the attention of personnel with no fewer than four federal governmental agencies who are seeking to make sense out of what has occurred.
Those with one of those agencies in particular – the U.S. Department of Transportation – are perhaps closer than the others in sizing up the fuller picture, as they have a window on the dimensions of what some of the county’s political players, at the municipal, county, state and federal level, are involved in. While some less steeped in the intricacies of both U.S. and California statues pertaining to conflicts of interest were surprised to learn that an offspring of an elected official is not prohibited from realizing a financial benefit as a consequence of his or her parent’s action or vote, investigators examining the manner in which Robert Torres glided into a sinecure with the City of Fontana recognized early on that there was no real criminal implication therein. Nevertheless, other connections and actions which might have proved of benefit to the major players involved in making the cross-party endorsements in San Bernardino County are being explored for potential criminal implication.
One item of interest that has come up is the opportunity for profit that exists in speculation in land within and adjacent to the high-speed rail corridor running from Las Vegas and first to a station in Victorville/Apple Valley and then to Rancho Cucamonga, penultimately to Anaheim and ultimately to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. It is unknown whether Norma Torres and/or her husband, Louis Torres, and/or her son, Robert, are getting in on that action, nor is it known whether Hagman or Acquanetta Warren are looking to or have picked up any land out in San Bernardino County’s Mojave Desert running along the I-15 Freeway, which in most spots in the desert closely parallels where the train line is to be constructed.
Norma Torres is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, including its Subcommittee on Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies.
Hagman is a member of the San Bernardino County Transportation Agency, as is Warren.
In those capacities, they would conceivably have input, impact or control, direct or indirect, on where stops along the line, other than those in Victorville/Apple Valley, Rancho Cucamonga and Anaheim, are to be located.
-Mark Gutglueck

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