Split Between Fundamentalists & Accommodationists Threatening GOP’s SBC Primacy

A factional war has broken out between traditionalist conservatives and accommodationists within the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee that is threatening to destroy the spirit of coordination and purpose that has allowed San Bernardino County to remain as one of the last bastions of Republicanism in the Golden State.
The intraparty fighting is so intense that the ascendency of the GOP locally, which has remained intact against substantial odds throughout the decade-and-a-half since the sheer numbers of voters in California’s largest geographic county grew to favor the Democrats, could be shattered, such that more than a dozen Republican candidates who were previously considered shoo-ins in local races are in danger of being voted out of office.
In 2021, Phil Cothran, Sr. was selected chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Commitee. His advancement to that position seemed a solid choice. As the owner of the State Farm Cothran Insurance Agency in Fontana, his success in the business world had enabled him to become a major contributor to Republican candidates and causes beginning in the 1990s. His support of Acquanetta Warren, a Republican councilwoman in Fontana from 2002 until 2010, at which point she ran for mayor of the former steel city, was key to her victory that year and subsequently in 2014, 2018 and 2022. Consistently since her election as mayor, Warren was able to build and maintain a ruling coalition on the Fontana City Council composed of Republicans, a remarkable feat, given that for over a decade  registered Democrats have outnumbered Republicans in the city by a roughly 5-to-2 margin. Through active efforts at coordination among Republicans and drives to get out the Republican vote, Fontana long served as a model for the rest of San Bernardino County, where likewise, with only a few exceptions in the county’s desert areas, Republicans are at a numeric disadvantage to their Democratic counterparts.
By ensuring Warren’s election and reelection as well as the continuing reelection of Councilman John Roberts, a Republican, the election of former Councilman Jesse Armendarez, another Republican, the election and reelection of Phil Cothran’s son, Phil Cothran Jr. and the 2020 election of Councilman Pete Garcia, another Republican, Phil Cothran has participated in the construction of Team Fontana, which has prevented the Democrats from taking full control of the only area of the county where they hold the upper hand, that being the blue collar Central San Bernardino Valley, composed of San Bernardino, Colton, Rialto, Bloomington and Fontana.
Phil Cothran, Sr. was a valued member of the Republican juggernaut as someone willing to put his own money where his mouth is, doling out over the years what has now amounted to over $100,000 to Republican candidates for political office.
Like Warren, his was a solidly conservative, pro-business orientation, and his quarter of a century of serving on the San Bernardino County Workforce Investment Board strengthened his credentials as someone who put a high priority on economic development and expansion, at one with the Republican emphasis on enabling local businesses so that they can serve as the region’s economic engine, warding off unemployment and the creeping socialism advocated by Democrats.
Within the last two to three years, however, two of Cothran’s key allies, Warren and former San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee Chairman Curt Hagman, who has been San Bernardino County’s Fourth District supervisor since 2014, have bowed to what they say is political reality and have begun to associate with and endorse Democrat politicians, something they had never done previously.
During that time, Warren and Hagman have sought out the endorsements of Democrat Party-associated unions, taken money from their political action committees and exchanged endorsements with some of the region’s Democrat officeholders.
A major case-in-point in this regard was what occurred in 2022, when both Warren and Hagman were up for reelection, for Fontana mayor and Fourth District supervisor, respectively. They proudly accepted the endorsement of Congresswoman Norma Torres, a Democrat. In exchange, they endorsed her in her reelection bid for Congress.
It is widely understood that Phil Cothran, Sr. has no personal political ambition beyond remaining as an elected member of the Republican Central Committee. What political ambition he can be said to harbor is not on his own behalf but rather for his son. As both are key components of Team Fontana, which has Warren as its titular head, they find themselves in the position of following Warren’s lead.
Warren made things difficult when this year she not only again endorsed Torres for reelection to Congress but entangled herself further with Torres, first by arranging to have the City of Fontana hire Torres’s son, Robert Torres into an essentially unproductive sinecure, which allowed him to make a run for the California Assembly. Robert Torres, like his mother, is a Democrat. Warren endorsed Robert Torres in his run for the Assembly. Also endorsing Norma Torres in this year’s race and endorsing her son was Hagman.
Those endorsement were announced last summer. By September, dozens of members of the county Republican Central Committee were hopping mad, particularly given that Norma Torres was and is being opposed by Mike Cargile, a Republican who happens to be a member of the San Bernardino Republican Central Committee, and Robert Torres was opposed by Nick Wilson, a Republican. Cargile, who ran against Torres in 2020 and 2022, again qualified for the runoff in the upcoming November election by capturing 32,082 votes or 39.6 percent to Torres’s 39,051 votes or 48.2 percent in the March 5 primary, which also entailed candidacies by the third-place and fourth-place finishing Melissa May and Vijal Suthar. In the March 5 primary contest for Assembly in the 53rd District, Wilson captured first with 23,050 votes or 43 percent to second place finisher Michelle Rodriguez, who captured 10,835 votes or 20.2 percent. Robert Torres, who with Rodriguez was one of four Democrats in the five-person race, came in third, with 8,894 votes or 16.5 percent.
It is the perception that the key defections of Warren and Hagman did much to hurt Cargile in 2022 and are hurting Cargile and Wilson now. In September 2023, several members of the Republican Central Committee, citing the committee’s bylaws which prohibit members from supporting a Democrat in any race involving a Republican, called for banning Warren and Hagman. While Hagman and Warren were indeed past members of the central committee, they were not current members, though they participated in central committee activities from time to time. Indeed, the night of the September 2023 meeting, Hagman had been the guest speaker. An assurance was given by the central committee’s secretary and parliamentarian, Ben Lopez, that Warren and Hagman would no longer take part in the central committee.
Phil Cothran Sr., as the chairman of the central committee, was made quite uncomfortable by the contretemps with Warren and Hagman. In his role as chairman, the authority to see that the committee’s rules and principles are adhered to fell to him. Yet, as part of Warren’s circle, as a member of Team Fontana and with his son’s political future linked up with Warren, he did not want to in any way involve himself in disciplining her. For that reason, he let Lopez handle the nasty job of dealing with her betrayal of the Republican cause by her endorsements of Congresswoman Torres’ and her son.
This led to the perception among many local Republicans that the party was losing its way under Cothran’s guidance. He was more interested in assuring that his son’s political future would advance, even if that meant cutting deals with Democrats, than he was in making sure that the Republican Party maintains its identity and its upper hand over the Democrats in the ongoing election season and thereafter, many felt.
Consequently, a number of Republicans committed to the upholding the party and preventing any erosion of its effectiveness that might take place because of compromises with Democrats vied in the March 5 election for the Republican Central Committee posts. Several of those candidates won.
Elections to the county’s Republican and Democratic central committees take place every four years during the presidential primary. Members of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee are elected based upon which county supervisorial district they live in. Members of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee are elected based upon which Assembly district they live in.
In addition to those who are directly elected to the Republican and Democratic central committees in San Bernardino County, the parties grant what is called ex-officio central committee membership to those members of their respective parties who are candidates for state or federal office within the county.
In years past, the Republican Central Committee has allowed its newly elected members to begin participating in county party affairs almost immediately after the election, even though their terms do not officially begin until December of presidential election years.
At this point, the Republican Central Committee has divided into what are essentially three camps. The first is the traditionalists who embody a take-no-prisoners attitude with regard to competing with the Democrats and will brook no compromise as they push for Republican victories at the polls, capturing a majority of the seats on local governing boards such as those overseeing school, fire or water districts and the seats on city councils, as well as within the state legislature. The second group is the accommodationists, those who contend that the majority of Democrat officeholders is slowly growing and will at some indefinite point undo the historically greater Republican voter turnout that has allowed the GOP to outmatch the sheer number of Democrats in San Bernardino County. It is best to start coming to terms with the Democrats now, reaching a state of compromise that will hopefully take root and last into the future, ensuring Republicans have the ability to be heard in the coming generation in San Bernardino County, where the Republicans will no longer hold a majority of the elected positions in local government, the accommodationists maintain. The third group are those who are not sure which direction they want to go. They generally follow the direction of the central committee’s leadership.
The traditionalist conservatives who have just been elected to the central committee and their traditionalist allies already within the central committee began pushing almost as soon as the election was certified to follow the tradition of allowing the new members to be seated. At this point, however, the accommodationists within the central committee, while perhaps not numerically superior, hold the upper hand because over the last three years, the chairman, Phil Cothran Sr., by virtue of his relationship with Acquanetta Warren and Team Fontana, has made the transition from being a rock-ribbed conservative traditionalist into an accommodationist.
Yesterday night, at the May 9 San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee meeting in Ontario, there was a knockdown, drag-out fight between the two factions.
Matthew Munson, who was the Republican candidate in California State Senate District 20 in 2014 and 2018 and has been involved with the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee for twelve years, counts himself among the local county party’s traditionalists. He told the Sentinel that “Due to leadership shortcomings in the San Bernardino County Republican Party, several dozen candidates ran for central committee positions in the March primary. For each of the members there was nearly one candidate to run against them in districts Two through Five. District Two got 3 new people, District Three got 5 out of 9, District Four got 2 new people for next year’s session. Although the chairman has a decent amount of support to win a new term, he and his supporters are running like they are losing control of the organization, where they are trying to consolidate power by manipulating the rules when it comes to membership.”
Munson said Phil Cothran Sr.’s support network is repeating the same strategic mistake that previously took place in Los Angeles County where the county GOP central committee there undercut the strength of the party through “illegally removing ex-officio members from outside the county, who had districts that extended into San Bernardino County, such as myself. However, they let in non-resident electeds like [Congressman] Jay Olbernolte. It seems that the California Elections Code is merely the Elections Suggestions because there are no teeth with the legal code that governs political parties. If a county party negates the rights of its members, it seems there is no redress for the people who may be wronged.”
According to Munson, “The problem is that the governing faction of the San Bernardino County Republican Party fears all these new voices challenging their orthodoxy. They do not want conservative voices and they want yes men and yes women to be part of the clique in which they do not want their governance challenged. In the past, ex-officio candidates who are nominees who did not win their elections have been able to appoint alternates who did not live in the district. I appointed an alternate who lived in Fontana, which was not in my district in 2003, I also appointed an alternate who did not live in my district in 2015, and Toni Holle [who ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for State Assembly in the 52nd District in 2018, 2020 and 2022] appointed an alternate who did not live in her Assembly district for the last four years when she was nominee. They are trying to find a way to block the conservative voices from participating in the organization as alternates for the ex-officio members.”
According to Munson, Cothran and his faction are selectively enforcing and ignoring the rules relating to the operation of the central committee to preserve Cothran’s primacy over the committee and doing so in a way that is inconsistent with past practices.
“They are, unfortunately, reading Elections Code § 7406 as blocking nonincumbent ex-officios from appointing people outside of their election districts,” Munson said. “County Party Treasurer Robert Rego recently interpreted that code in a way to prevent people such as Agnes Gibboney [the Republican nominee for Congress in the 2020 election to represent California’s 31st District] and myself from being alternates for the county party. However, it was not a problem for the county party for over twenty years during the leadership of Bill Postmus, Curt Hagman, and Jan Leja. This new interpretation is designed to make sure those in power are not being questioned. The problem with this part of the Elections Code is that with the recent redistricting, some districts have smaller voter pools in the county such as Assembly District 58, which only has Grand Terrace to seat an alternate in the committee.”
Munson gave a further example of the inconsistent application of rules that is angled to benefit those now in charge.
“Another part of the contention is how write-in candidates are being handled in the county party,” Munson stated. “Sharon Stein ran as a write-in candidate in Assembly District 50 due to the failure of the county party leadership to run a ballot-qualified candidate. Sharon did not want the county party to snag the delegate spot due to a lack of a candidate running and was hoping to be seated as an ex-officio member in the county party. They were refusing to seat her in the May 2024 meeting of the county party in Ontario. They consider her candidacy illegitimate, due to her not making the top two runoff. However, Ben Lopez, the Montclair City council member and San Bernardino County party secretary was in Sharon’s shoes in 2014 as a write-in candidate for Congress in District 35. He was considered ex-officio and was seated as a member that way. Ben has been a very good city council member, but in terms of county party leadership, he has become very tyrannical when it comes to leading the county party in the executive committee. I warned Sharon that Ben may not be amicable when it comes to county party affairs. I do perceive that Phil Cothran and the executive committee feel threatened by the new crowd that wants to take hold in the party affairs because they are conservative. The manipulation of the Elections Code also comes to the seating of ex-officios as well as their alternates. Since Ben was seated, Sharon deserves to be seated in the next meeting of the county party. There is a perception that they did not seat her because they do not want divergent voices.”
Munson observed, “We have a historical precedent in which people were seated in the county party as write-in nominees, from Ben in 2014 and Toni Holle in 2016.” He asked, “Why is it being handled differently in 2024? There needs to be a consistent application of the elections code where there are no shades of grey when it comes to reading the chapters involved.”
A consequence of Phil Cothran’s effort to maintain a vice grip on the Republican Party machinery is that the cohesiveness of the GOP in San Bernardino County that has allowed the Republicans to stay a step ahead of the Democrats for 15 years, even though the Democrats have more registered voters countywide than the Republicans, is being lost, Munson said.
“The majority faction has a chance to improve, but their methods of doubling down on their ineffectiveness only leads to grassroots activists working independently from the county party organization,” he said. “With a lack of fundraising and critical legislative races to be challenged, I do fear for our incumbents. If we end up losing some State Senate races or Assembly District 47, the knives will be out for the leadership. We have a fractured party and the chairman along with his friends couldn’t care less that we have a division within the ranks where we should be fighting Democrats instead of ourselves.”
In the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and halfway through the 1960s, San Bernardino County was dominated politically by the Democratic Party. 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 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.
By the time John Kennedy was elected President in 1960, Sheppard held status 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 enclaves 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.
As of this week, over the entirety of San Bernardino County and its 1,173,409 registered voters, Democrats convincingly outnumber registered Republicans 472,485 or 40.3 percent to 352,491 or 30 percent. Still, engaged Republicans outhustle engaged Democrats and do a far better job of convincing their less active party colleagues to get out and vote than do their Democrat rivals. Of the five positions on the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, four are held by Republicans. On the 22 city and two town councils among the 24 incorporated municipalities in San Bernardino County, 17 have more Republican members than Democrats. While the Democrats ihold their own against Republicans in the state and federal legislative arenas of the California Senate, Assembly and the U.S. Congress, representing San Bernardino County, that is only because several of those districts straddle San Bernardino County and areas in Los Angeles County, where Democrats are predominant.
There is now and has been for some time general alarm within the local Republican Party that party members, indeed ones generally considered to be party stalwarts such as Cothran Sr., are losing their resolve and, for a variety of reasons, are allowing their party principles to be compromised by virtue of backdoor deals with Democrats. Ultimately, those concerned Republicans say, this will lead to the Democrats supplanting the GOP as the dominant political entity in San Bernardino County.
-Mark Gutglueck

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