By Mark Gutglueck
The early political jockeying in this year’s race for San Bernardino County Third District supervisor centers around the county department and the degree to which the voters who will ultimately decide the contest can be convinced that fire service is a crucial issue to them and that the firefighters employed by the county should be entrusted to have the last word on the matter.
Dawn Rowe has been Third District supervisor since she was appointed in December 2018 to replace James Ramos in that post after Ramos was elected to the California Assembly the previous month.
Ramos, a Democrat, had asked his board colleagues to elevate his assistant chief of staff, Chris Carrillo to supervisor to replace him during the last two years of his yet outstanding term as supervisor. Only one of Ramos’s four colleagues on the board of supervisors at that time was a Democrat. Because Carrillo was a Democrat as well, the board opted to appoint another Republican – Rowe – as his replacement.
San Bernardino County from the mid-1960s until the present has been under the political control of the GOP. For more four decades that was because Republicans simply outnumbered Democrats within the confines of the 20,105 square mile county jurisdiction. In 2009, the number of Democrats eclipsed the number Republicans throughout the county. Nevertheless, that did not end the Republican vice-grip on the levers of governmental power in San Bernardino County, as the county Republican Central Committee was far better coordinated, financed, committed, experienced and sophisticated in its approach to electioneering that was its Democrat counterpart. Additionally, already holding the upper hand in terms of controlling the county and having a Republican majority on 17 of the county’s 24 city and town councils, those Republican politicians were able to dole out patronage in the form of contracts, franchises and project approvals to entities – corporations, companies and individuals – who were either Republicans or sympathetic to Republicans and Republican causes and bar the door to entities who were aligned with the Democrats. As a consequence, Republican donors in San Bernardino County were better situated to be generous than were Democrat donors. Since money is, as one Democrat office holder from California’s not-to-distant past, Jess Unruh, put it, money is the mother’s milk of politics. The Reupblicans have used the wellspring of money they possess to underwrite their political campaigns, using the money to do polling to test voter sentiment, and find out where the Republicans are weak or strong and where the Democrats are weak or strong and what approaches to the issues the voters are likely respond negatively or positively to. They further use that money to purchase television and radio spots, billboard space, newspaper ads, to design, print and mail or distribute flyers, mailers and other written materials, as well as to purchase and make available to their candidates and their supporters yard and window signs. The Republicans have further demonstrated themselves to be ahead of the game in terms of not just recognizing which voters are more likely to show up to vote – those known as high-propensity voters – but designing approaches to persuade high propensity Republicans and unaligned voters to vote for Republicans while confusing Democrat voters as to who is the Republican and who is the Democrat, thereby making it possible for Republicans to capture a portion of the Democrats’ votes.
After Rowe’s appointment to the board, many anticipated, and Carrillo confirmed, that he would oppose her in the 2020 election cycle.
With Democrat support began coalescing around Carrillo in preparation for 2020, Rowe, who had been employed within Republican Congressman Paul Cook’s office as one of his field representatives at the time she was appointed to the board, resigned from Cook’s office upon becoming supervisor. She also hired three of her colleagues within Cook’s office as members of her own staff. Those were Matt Knox, upon whom she conferred the position of chief of staff, Dillon Lesovsky, who she hired as her policy advisor and Claire Cozad, whom Rowe employed as a field representative.
In addition to their role as governmental employees within Cook’s office, Knox and Lesovsky had played a crucial role in Cook’s election efforts as well as those of other Republican candidates. Indeed, Knox and Lesovsky had established themselves as ruthless political operatives, what many referred to as “dirty tricksters.” The most infamous example of their work was the below-the-belt electioneering effort on behalf of Cook against their fellow Republican Tim Donnelly when Donnelly had used California’s open primary system to qualify his candidacy in the 8th Congressional District to run against Cook in 2018. The campaign against Donnelly, following a blueprint designed by Knox and Lesovsky, was an extremely negative one which culminated in a series of accusations against Donnelly. The campaign against Donnelly, which ultimately proved successful with Cook’s reelection, alleged everything from breaking the law to defrauding the elderly to abandoning his family. It was encapsulated in a website created by Knox and Lesovsky, dubbed “Dirty Donnelly.”
With Knox and Lesovsky having obtained sinecures in Rowe’s office from which they would be able to orchestrate electioneering efforts on behalf of any number of candidates in the then-upcoming 2020 campaign season, the manner in which Cook had disposed of the Republican Donnelly in 2018 harbinged what Rowe was contemplating against the Democrat Carrillo.
Carrillo, an attorney with the law firm of Gresham Savage Nolan & Tilden, moonlighted as an assistant to his mother, who also an attorney. When she grew ill in 2019, which would culminate in her death in 2020, Carrillo became distracted with things other than politics. In July 2019, having lost his stomach for the rough-and-tumble of having to put up with the sort of things that Knox and Lesovsky were going to be throwing at him, he declared he was dropping out of the race and would not be a candidate for supervisor in 2020.
There had been plenty of suggestions that plenty of financial support was going to come Carrillo’s way in his run for supervisor. For one thing, he had the backing of Ramos, who is independently wealthy as a member of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which runs the fabulously successfully Yaamava’ Resort & Casino in Highland. It was anticipated that in addition to the money that Ramos would provide him, he would be able to count on dozens or even scores of other San Manuel Tribe members poneying up as much a the maximum $4,100 that individuals are permitted to donate to county political candidates.
Carrillo’s exit from the race left Rowe in the catbird seat. No one other than Casrrillo had any prospect of raising enough money to engage in a contest against her. As it turned out, four challengers emerged to run against Rowe – Kaiser Ahmed, Latron Lester, Karen Ickes and Eddie Tejeda – none of whom were able to raise sufficient capital to conduct a penetrating campaign. With her own electioneering funding and the support of the Republican Party, Rowe won the election handily with 54.96 percent of the vote to 45.05 percent for the other four candidates, with Tejeda, a member of the Redlands City Council being the top vote-getter among them with 18.5 percent. Because she had captured a majority of the votes in the March 2020 primary, she did not have to compete in a run-off in November 2020.
Having now been in office for five years, to remain as supervisor past next December, she must run this year, which she is doing.
Having skipped out on being a candidate four years ago, Carrillo is back with a vengeance.
He is coming right at Rowe and he has piked up crucial support along the way while cutting Rowe off from the same.
One of the crucial elements of Republican success in San Bernardino County over the last two to three decades is that when it comes to public employee unions – which are normally supportive of Democrats – Republican officeholders in San Bernardino County have dispensed with the principle of supporting small government, conceding to the unions on both pay and benefit demands.
As an attorney, in 2016 Carrillo represented former San Bernardino County Deputy Fire Chief George Corley in an action against the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District in which it was alleged Corley was terminated because of age discrimination. After trial, the jury rendered a verdict in which it found that Corley’s age was a substantial motivating reason for the district’s termination of his employment and awarded damages for lost earnings. When the county appealed the case, Carrillo continued to represent Corley before the state appellate court, prevailing when that panel returned a published decision upholding the trial court in Corley v. San Bernardino County Fire Protection. Corley was a member of the San Bernardino County Professional Firefighters, International Association of Firefighters Local 395, which represents over 600 firemen and firewomen with San Bernardino County, Big Bear City, Big Bear Lake, Colton, Loma Linda, and Montclair fire departments. As a consequence, Carrillo is on excellent terms with International Association of Firefighters 395, which along with virtually every one of the county’s firefighters has endorsed Carrillo in the 2024 election against Rowe.
As chance would have it, the county’s four-decade-long ambulance service franchise contract with American Medical Response came up for re-examination last year, prior to which the county in December 2022 put out a request for proposals – a solicitation of bids – inviting prospective providers to provide ground ambulance service in 11 of the county’s 26 exclusive operating areas.
Responding to the request were AMR and Consolidated Fire Agencies, known by its acronym CONFIRE, a joint powers authority which provides communications, dispatch, computer information systems support, and geographic location information to its nine member agencies – the Apple Valley Fire Protection District, Chino Valley Independent Fire District, the Colton Fire Department, the Loma Linda Fire Department, the Rancho Cucamonga Fire Department, the Redlands Fire Department, the Rialto Fire Department, the San Bernardino County Fire District/Department and the Victorville Fire Department – and four contract agencies – the Big Bear Fire Department, the Montclair Fire Department, the Running Springs Fire District and the San Manuel Fire Department. An analysis of the competing proposals by an “independent review panel” declared that the competition between AMR and CONFIRE had ended in a dead heat, with AMR scoring, against a standard with 1,720 points maximum, 1,519 total points against 1,515 points for CONFIRE, a difference of less than .0027 percent. Thus, the board of supervisors felt itself at liberty to award the contract to either of the competitors. Based on a multitude of factors, including the consideration that the county could obtain federal and state funding to augment a publicly-run ambulance service as well as the consideration that International Association of Firefighters Local 395 was in favor of CONFIRE getting the franchise, the board of supervisors ultimately decided on giving CONFIRE the franchise. Prior to doing so, it was Rowe, who is now serving as the chairwoman of the board, who laid out the rationale for going with CONFIRE rather than AMR, given that the federal and state funding would become available as a consequence. The motion for doing so was approved unanimously.
In this way, Rowe came across as trying to placate the county’s firefighters and their union, a ploy by which she might have been trying to persuade them from campaigning too heavily in favor of her opponent.
There was a trade-off in her doing that, however. Historically, there are, essentially, three major groups who get heavily involved in donating to political campaigns in San Bernardino County. One of those is public employee unions. Another is the development community, consisting primarily of the building industry and landowners or reals estate interests. The third are companies which sell or provide goods or services to the county’s governmental entities. All three have a heavy finanical stke in influencing the decision of governmental leaders. In going along with giving the ambulance franchise to CONFIRE, Rowe may have held out an olive branch to the International Association of Firefighters Local 395. Still, the decision was one that was unfavorable to AMR, a private company with interests before the county which has made it into one of the most generous of political donors to members of the board of supervisors since the 1980s.
At this point, for Rowe how much money from AMR, its corporate officers and its employees she is missing out on may be an irrelevancy, as she has accumulated and is continuing to accumulate sufficient money to run her campaign for the March primary election and, if it proves necessary, the November election.
As of June 30, 2023, she had $291,678.16 in her electioneering fund. Since that time, she has collected another $66,000 in contributions, such that she at present has over $350,000 to utilize in this election cycle, with more money pouring in virtually every day.
As significant as the amount of money is where much of it is coming from.
Some $9,800 of it came from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, which is an indication that Ramos and his tribe could be amenable to Rowe remaining in office. It is worth noting that those donations were made in January 2023, before Carrillo had given a full indication that he was committed to running. There is enough wealth within the tribe as an entity and among its members for it to pivot and get behind the Carrillo candidacy and effectively promote it. Whether it will do so, however, remains to be seen, as a perception may be growing that Rowe’s continuation in office is inevitable.
Equally if not more notable is the attitude of the county’s public unions. While the firefighters’ union has come down decisively on Carrillo’s side as has the Redlands Firefighters Association, other public employee unions have not.
Recently, on December 21, the Service Employees International Union provided Rowe with $5,500, the current limit that a member of the board of supervisors or candidate for the board can receive from a single donor. On November 21, the San Bernardino County Public Attorneys Association, which reprsents the county’s deputy district attorney, its deputy public defenders and the lawyers who work in the county child support division, donated $5,251 to Rowe.
A union that represents workers in the public sector, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 477, appears to be playing both sides of the street, having provided both Carrillo and Rowe with the maximum of $5,500.
Money is flowing in to Carrillo, but not in the quantity that Rowe is getting. Since Carrillo was not an officially declared candidate before June 30, 2023, he did not file a report of the contributions he had received up until that point, as did Rowe with her disclosure of the $291,678.16 that was in her coffers at that time.
Incumbency is generally considered an advantage, which would give Rowe a seeming edge going into the contest. There are other important factors to be considered. At present, registration in the Third District favors Republicans and therefore Rowe. Of the 241,252 registered voters in the Third District, 88,543 or 36.7 percent are affiliated with the Republican Party and 81,785 or 33.9 percent identify as Democrats. Still, a significant contingent, 47,370 or 19.6 percent have no party affiliation, while 9.8 percent are registered with the Peace & Freedom, Libertarian, Green and American Independent or more obscure parties. Party affiliation is nevertheless an important element in San Bernardino politics and with Republican turnout generally exceeding that of the Democrats in San Bernardino County, it would appear that Rowe has a leg up over Carrillo in that regard. The numerical difference between Republicans and Democrats in the Third District is not overwhelming, however, and is far exceeded by the number of unaligned voters together with the non-mainstream party members. In addition, Rowe’s affiliation with Knox and Lesovsky is still remembered by some, most particularly those Republicans who supported Donnelly, which may redound to Rowe’s detriment.
A crucial factor is that in the March primary, two others, Graham M. Smith and Robert W. Block are competing alongside Rowe and Carrillo. In the 2020 race, Rowe’s four opponents managed to poll an average of 11.2625 percent of the vote. Assuming Smith and Block can do as well as that and that Carrillo will be able to poll 30 percent or more in March, the circumstance would seem to portend a November run-off between Carrillo and Rowe. Carrillo, who has some degree of name recognition based upon his longtime incumbency as a member of the East Valley Water District Governing Board, is likely to have enough funding to be able to campaign sufficiently to appeal to all of the Democrats in the Third District who will turn out to vote. If he succeeds in getting simply one fourth of the remaining non-Democrat votes, that would position him for a head-to-head battle against Rowe in November, at which point the Democrats, intent on breaking the Republican stranglehold on public offices in the county, might vector some real support Carrillo’s way. For that reason, Rowe, who enjoys the advantage of having more than $350,000 at present to campaign with, might seek to replicate what she achieved in the March 2020 Primary, and hut Carrillo out of the equation by gaining more 50 percent of the vote two months from now by a heavy electioneering blitz between now and then.