Democrats Vote Their Central Committee Chairwoman Out Of Office

By Mark Gutglueck
In a stunning shake-up virtually no one saw coming, the chairwoman of the San Bernardino County Democratic Party failed in her run for election to the central committee on Tuesday.
Kristin Washington has been chairwoman of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee since 2020. Her drubbing in Tuesday’s election in any other context would be a mind-bending development, but in some quarters, it is being taken in stride as simply another indicator of ineffectual electioneering efforts within the local Democratic Party. Despite that perception on the part of some, there are indications that under Washington’s leadership, the party was beginning to undo at least some of the moves that rival Republicans had made to hold the more numerous Democrats in San Bernardino County in check.
What is unknown for a certainty at this point is whether Washington will be able to remain as a) a member of the Democratic Central Committee as an appointee of someone with standing within the party and b) as chairwoman. Another unknown is whether Washington’s possible departure will trigger a comeback by former San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee Chairman Chris Robles.
Washington’s rise into the position of chairwoman nearly four years ago was the outgrowth of several factors, including, it appears, her own ambition as a politician. It played against the backdrop of what has been for the party decades of missed opportunities during which Democratic politicians have been unable to keep a firm grip on San Bernardino County’s political scepter.
For a solid two-and-a-half decades during the mid-Twentieth Century, San Bernardino was a Democratic stronghold.
In 1936, Harry Sheppard, a former Santa Fe Railroad executive who had acceded to the position of president and general manager of the King Beverage Company, had first been elected to Congress representing San Bernardino County in 1936 as a New Deal Democrat. Sheppard would be reelected to the House of Representatives 13 more times. Along the way, he had proven instrumental in bringing a host of benefits to the district he represented, including the construction of what were then two Army Air Corps bases, which later became Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino and George Air Force Base near Victorville. He grew into a firm and fast member of the Democratic establishment under President Roosevelt and then President Truman.
One of Sheppard’s political contemporaries was Eugene Nisbet, who was first elected to the Upland City Council in 1938. Nisbet ran unsuccessfully for the California Assembly representing District 72 in 1942, but was elected mayor of Upland the same year. In 1954, after serving as mayor for a dozen years, he ran successfully for the Assembly, again in what was then District 72. He was reelected in 1956, 1958 and 1960. He unsuccessfully sought elevation to California’s upper legislative house in 1957 in a special election to fill a vacancy. In 1962, he again ran for a position in the Golden State Senate, this time successfully, and was elected to represent California Senatorial District 36. In 1966, at which point the state Senate district lines had been redrawn, he ran in the newly formed Senate District 20, and was defeated. Nisbet was also a delegate to Democratic National Convention from California in 1956, 1960, 1964.
Sheppard and Nisbet demonstrate the degree to which the Democrats had primacy in California in that era.
By the time John Kennedy was elected President in 1960, Sheppard held status of as one of the four or five dozen most powerful men in the country. But hardly two months after the Lyndon Johnson administration had settled into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Sheppard would see his personal, moral and political authority evaporate. Taken together with other social and political movements that were afoot, Sheppard’s demise as a politician would bring about the end of the Democrats’ hold on San Bernardino County, a reality that continues to this day.
In the span of a few days in January 1964, Congressman Sheppard deposited a total of $275,000 in twelve different savings institutions in the Washington, D.C./Virginia/Maryland area. Sheppard’s faux pas in opening three separate $10,000 accounts – one penny below the threshold for an automatic report to the Internal Revenue Service – in each of eight savings and loan associations and then single deposits of $10,000 into three banks and one more of $5,000 into another bank in and near the nation’s capital brought for the congressman much unwanted scrutiny when it was publicly revealed the following month. In words that would ring hollow, coming as they did from one of the more sophisticated operators in the House of Representatives, Sheppard offered the explanation that the money was his life savings that he had kept as cash in a safe deposit box since his election to Congress nearly 28 years previously. He insisted that he had just gotten around to making preparations to ensure his wife’s future by making those deposits, and that he previously did not have time to manage his investments and didn’t want the income from putting the money into an interest-bearing account because that would have pushed him into a higher tax bracket. Neither the IRS, nor the U.S. Attorney’s Office nor any other authorities took action against Sheppard, but the revelation meant the end of his political career. He did not seek reelection that year, and he left office on January 3, 1965.
Harry Sheppard’s demise coincided with the eclipsing of the Democratic Party by the GOP in San Bernardino County and California as a whole. For two years, another Democrat, Kenneth Dyal replaced Sheppard in the U.S. Congress, but in 1966, Dyal was replaced by a Republican, Jerry Pettis, in the same election during which Ronald Reagan became California governor. Republicans took control of San Bernardino County from that point forward.
For the next four decades, the number of registered Republicans in San Bernardino County outran the number of Democrats. With some notable exceptions, those elected to state legislative office, to the board of supervisors, district attorney, sheriff, and to the city councils and to the mayoralties of the cities within the county were by and large Republicans.
In the late 1990s/early 2000s, the Golden State as a whole fell into the hands of the Democrats once more. Still, San Bernardino County remained one of California’s last remaining bastions of Republicanism.
In 2009, for the first time in 40-plus years, the number of registered Democrats surpassed those registered as Republicans in San Bernardino County. Remarkably, however, despite the demographics that had swung in favor of the Democrats and more than a few scandals that local Republican officeholders had managed to embroil themselves in during the first decade of the Third Millennium, the GOP continued to dominate San Bernardino County.
In 2012, Chris Robles wangled the position of San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee Chairman. Robles was a political consultant who made his way in the world by running campaigns for aspiring officeholders or incumbents, generally in local and state races. The expectation of many of those in the central committee who had elected him as chairman was that he would use his expertise to run dozens – indeed scores – of campaigns of Democrats locally running for school board, fire board, water board, city council, mayor, Assembly, State Senate and U.S. Congress, right out of the central committee headquarters. The expectation of many was that Robles would do so at no cost. It didn’t quite work out that way. Robles did provide some advice to Democrats seeking office, but he did not intensely focus on those races as had been anticipated.
Moreover, Robles and the Democrats were up against some pretty sophisticated operators on the Republican side. A case in point was Curt Hagman.
In 2013, Hagman, the former mayor of Chino Hills, was coming to the midway point in his third term in the California Assembly. Under the term limit rules then in effect, he was prohibited from running for Assembly again. To remain in the state legislature, he would need to run for the California State Senate. The staggering of state senate terms and his fellow Republicans occupying any state senate posts that he would conceivably be qualified for made ascending to the state senate unviable for Hagman. Thus, he set his sights on running for Fourth District San Bernardino County supervisor. It just so happened that Gloria Negrete-McLeod, who had been elected to Congress for the first time in 2012, had wearied of the cross-country flights serving in Washington, D.C. entailed, and she was herself determined to run for supervisor.
This set up an interesting contest. McLeod, seemingly, had multiple advantages Hagman did not. First, there was the roughly 11 percent lead in registered voters that the Democrats had over Republicans in the Fourth District. Beyond that, McLeod, as a member of Congress, was significantly higher up the political evolutionary chain than Hagman, as member of the California legislature. While certainly Hagman would be able to count on certain political donors, ones perhaps drawn most especially from within his Assembly district and to some extent within the State of California, the world was Negrete-Mcleod’s oyster, and she could call in all sorts of chits that she had been accumulating as a member of Congress, such that she could tap into the generosity of deep-pocketed donors throughout the United States and even, if she were energetic enough to go after it, international money. That money, what one-time California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh called “the mother’s milk of politics,” could be used to fund an aggressive and in-depth campaign that would very likely carry Negrete-McLeod to victory.
To offset that advantage, Hagman in 2013 militated to depose the then-chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, Robert Rego, and install himself in that post. Having done that, Hagman then commandeered the machinery of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee and devoted much of its energy, time, capital and resources to promoting his candidacy for supervisor. This put him toe-to-toe with Robles.
What ensued was an object demonstration of Hagman’s level of competence, creativity, verve, intensity, desire and determination vis-à-vis that of Robles. As the 2014 election for Fourth District supervisor would play out, Hagman prevailed. He prevailed as a candidate for supervisor over Negrete-McLeod and he prevailed as a competing county central committee chairman over Robles, doing so despite the voter registration advantage the Democrats had and despite the potential superior donation drawing capacity that Negrete-McLeod represented over Hagman.
Four years later, Robles would get a second bite at the apple when Negrete-McLeod again threw her hat in the ring and opposed Hagman for reelection. Over those four years, the Democratic voter registration advantage in the Fourth District had grown to nearly 14 percent. Again, Robles’ skill as a campaign manager was put to the test. In an effort to help Negrete-McLeod make a better show than she had in 2014, her campaign undertook, using what dwindling resources were at that point available to it to drive voters who would support her to the polls. In doing so, Robles advised Negrete-McLeod to use the money she had to send out mailers promoting her candidacy to high-propensity Democrats in the district. The term high propensity refers to voters who have a demonstrated pattern of voting virtually every election, generally defined as those who have voted in five or six out of the last six elections or six or seven out of the last seven elections or seven or eight out of the last eight elections. Negrete-McLeod followed this advice and still lost, such that Hagman won even more convincingly in 2018 than he had in 2014, despite his being at an even larger disadvantage in terms of the Democrat-to-Republican voter registration split.
At once, armchair political analysts found fault with Robles. It was well understood, they said, that high-propensity voters of either party – Republican or Democrat – are highly involved and highly engaged in politics and they would recognize without having to be told what party candidates for political office belong to, even in nonpartisan races such as that for county supervisor. Thus, those political Monday morning quarterbacks reasoned, Negrete-McLeod already had the support of high propensity Democrats and it would have been far more beneficial for her to expend what money she had in trying to reach the lower propensity Democrats to induce them to go to the polls to vote for her or to try to reach the substantial number of high propensity voters who were unaligned with any political party.
The upshot of the two losses by Negrete-McLeod in 2014 and 2018 was that many in the Democratic Central Committee began to question both Robles’s competence as a political consultant/advisor and his effectiveness as a party leader altogether.
Even before the 2018 election, there was enough discontent with Robles that an effort to remove him as chairman had been made. Shortly after he was reelected to the central committee chairman’s spot in 2016, a number of the central committee members who were disenchanted with him sought to depose him as chairman. That effort failed, as Robles made skillful use of parliamentary procedure and the alliances he had made among the committee’s executive board to stave off that coup attempt.
An important element of Robles’s retention of control over the Democratic Central Committee consisted of his support by two of its high-ranking members, those being Jim Gallagher, a resident of Chino Hills, and Mark Westwood, a resident of Yucaipa, both of whom Robles had put into positions as members of the committee’s executive board. Westwood, a 6-foot-six-inch, 380-pound bear of a man, would use his physical size to intimidate anyone who tried to challenge Robles. Gallagher would insinuate himself into the various factions that were intent on getting rid of Robles, gather information about what they were up to, and report back to Robles, who would then be well informed enough about the insurrection in the ranks to head it off.
Kristin Washington became involved in the Redlands Democratic Club. In 2018, having been bitten by the political bug, she ran for the Area Two representative post on the Redlands School Board, vying against Ricardo Ruiz and Michelle Rendler. In the polling that occurred on November 6, 2018, Ruiz prevailed, with 2,482 votes or 41.6 percent. Rendler finished second, polling 1,971 votes or 33 percent, followed by Washington in third place, with 1,518 votes, equal to 25.4 percent.
Soon, Washington had acceded to the position of president of the Redlands Democratic Club.
In the March 2020 California Primary, Mark Westwood finished seventh among eight candidates vying for the Democratic Central Committee representing Assembly District 42. Since only six of the top vote-getters in that jurisdiction were selected to the central committee, Westwood was out. Thus, Robles had lost a crucial point of support within the central committee and on its executive board. The dominoes were falling. At some point along the way, Gallagher made a true rather than staged defection from Robles’s camp. A move was on to supplant Robles with Washington, which succeeded.
During her three-and-a-half-year tenure as central committee chairwoman, Washington has had some notable successes and some daunting challenges. Among the latter have been manifestations of racial tension within the central committee.
The first of these came early in Washington’s tenure as chairwoman, during the run-up toward the November 2020 election. Earlier that year, Rialto Mayor Deborah Robertson, an African American, found herself involved in a degree of controversy, which had come into public focus when the City of Rialto undertook an investigation into a conflict of interest that grew out of the city’s pass-through of community development block grant funding to a nonprofit organization headed by Robertson’s daughter. Consequently, some in the central committee wanted to depart from an earlier pattern of having endorsed Robertson in her runs for office in Rialto, as previously her opponents, or some of them, were Republicans. Running that year for Rialto Mayor was Ed Palmer, a Republican, and Lupe Camacho, a Democrat. Using a twist of parliamentary procedure under Roberts Rules of Order and the San Bernardino County Central Committee’s bylaws, some committee members at the August 27, 2020 central committee meeting arranged for a motion to be made to substitute Camacho for Robertson as the county party’s endorsed candidate. A vote was taken, and it was determined that more than 50 percent of those participating wanted to endorse Camacho. Nevertheless, it was asserted that Camacho had received less than 60 percent of the votes cast, a threshold needed to endorse a non-incumbent. Subsequently, however, it was asserted those abstaining or not casting a vote were being counted as no votes. In running the numbers, the regional director confirmed that was the case, such that when the cast votes were tallied, Camacho had received more than the 60 percent of the votes, thus seemingly being qualified for the endorsement. Washington stated she would take that information under submission, but did not reverse the decision to deny Camacho the endorsement. As a consequence, the Democrats made no endorsement in the race, which some Hispanic members of the central committee resented.
Five months later, in February 2021, Victorville Councilwoman Leslie Irving, like Washington an African American woman with political ambition, abruptly resigned from the Democratic Central Committee, giving as her reason for doing so a characterization of at least some of her fellow and sister Democrats and the county’s party structure as “racist.” The incident involving Irving, who had run unsuccessfully for the Victorville City Council in 2018 before again running, successfully, in 2020, briefly highlighted a not-often-seen-or-acknowledged level of tension – based on race and ethnicity – within the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee. Complaints were surfacing that decisions with regard to whom the party would back in electoral efforts was driven by racial considerations. Some suggested that white/Anglo Democrats were being passed over for candidates of color. What is more, it was said, there was cutthroat competition between African American and Latino/Latina political hopefuls. Quietly, several members of the Democratic Party who had vied for political office in San Bernardino County took leave of the central committee.
Overall, according to central committee members, Washington had done well in being more accommodating of ideas and free-ranging discussions during party conclaves. She has done this, reportedly, by being less formal in her approach to conducting the meetings and dispensing with procedural rigidity and protocol, which cuts both ways but has allowed her to be inclusive of virtually every one of the central committee members who want to weigh in during discussions in a way that contrasted favorably, some say, with the manner in which Robles oftentimes slighted committee members, particularly the ones who were gunning for his ouster.
It appears, based on results in several of this week’s elections, that under Washington’s guidance, the Democratic Central Committee has made strides in offsetting the longtime advantage that the Republicans have enjoyed in San Bernardino County by utilizing mail-in voting in greater numbers than the Democrats. Based upon races this year where Democrats have gone head-to-head with Republicans, those Democrats who have chosen to be energetic have matched their GOP rivals or, on occasion, overmatched them in terms of attracting ballots submitted by post.
On Tuesday, both Republicans and Democrats throughout the county voted on who would represent them as members of their respective central committees. Republicans elect their central committee members based upon supervisorial districts. In the First Supervisorial District, seven Republican representatives are chosen to serve on the Republican Central Committee; eight in the Second Supervisorial District; five in the Fourth Supervisorial District; and three in the Fifth Supervisorial District. This year the Democrats selected six from among their ranks to represent them from Assembly District 45; six from Assembly District 50; and six from Assembly District 53. In addition to those elected to the central committees by this direct vote, the central committees have designees of those officeholders in partisan races, such as for Congress and the state legislature as well as ex officio members, those being the Democrat or Republican officeholders themselves, who are honored with a position in the central committee because of their elected status. Those who obtained their party’s nomination for a partisan office and did not get elected to that office can also serve as ex officio central committee members.
On Tuesday, Washington vied for the Democratic Central Committee representing Assembly District 50. In the contest with her were 11 others – Nancy Glenn, Kareem Gongora, Tariq Azim, Bobbi Jo Chavarria, Lorraine Enriquez, Kassandra Wilson, Christian Shaughnessy, Stacey Ramos, Chris Robles and Iwona Roberts. With six slots open, to get onto the central committee for the next four years, Washington had to outdistance at least six of those competitors. In fact, despite the consideration that she is the chairwoman of the central committee, she place 12th, behind all of her competitors. She polled 2,046 votes or 3.98 percent.
Of note, Robles was reelected.
Whether Washington can remain on the committee as an ex officio member is possible, although by no means guaranteed.

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