San Bernardino County Democrats Looking To Undo Six Decades Of GOP Ascendancy

San Bernardino County remains as a 20,105-square mile pocket of Republicanism within the Democrat-dominated California, one of the few areas within the 163,700-square-mile Golden State where Republicans have the upper hand. Nevertheless, Democratic Party leadership in the county is hailing advances that have been made and maintain momentum is trending their way, such that the rival party’s lock on local governance will significantly attenuated in the current election cycle and perhaps broken by 2026 or 2028.
In the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and halfway through the 1960s, San Bernardino County leaned predominantly Democratic, represented from January 1937 until January 1965 by Harry Sheppard, a New Deal Democrat. During his 14 terms in Congress, Sheppard was 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 was a firm and fast member of the Democratic establishment under President Roosevelt and then President Truman and by the time John Kennedy was elected President in 1960 he held status as one of the four or five dozen most powerful men in the country. Barely two months after the Lyndon Johnson administration had settled into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Sheppard’s political authority evaporated within the span of a few days in January 1964, when he 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 much unwanted scrutiny when it was publicly revealed the following month. Most deemed unconvincing Sheppard’s explanation that the money was his life savings that he had kept as cash in a safe deposit box since his election to Congress some 27 years previously and that he had just gotten around to making preparations to ensure his wife’s future by making those deposits. He said 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 1,175,462 registered voters, Democrats convincingly outnumber registered Republicans 472,146 or 40.2 percent to 353,518 or 30.1 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 hold 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.
Perhaps the best illustration of the strength of the Republicans in San Bernardino County can be seen in the results of the September 2021 effort to recall Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom. Statewide with 12,838,565 or 58.45 percent of the 22,057,154 total registered voters in California turning out to vote, Newsom handily turned back the challenge to his gubernatorial authority, as 7,944,092 or 61.88 percent voted against removing him from office and 4,894,473 or 38.12 percent supporting his recall. In San Bernardino County it was a much closer scrape for Newsom. Of the 575,241 votes cast in the county with regard to the recall, 286,364 or 49.78 percent of votes cast were in favor of jettisoning Newsom as the state’s chief executive, while a thin majority, 288,877 votes or 50.22 percent, were registered against the recall. Of note, there was a stark contrast in the voting that took place that year when the place or methodology of casting ballots was considered. Setting aside 2,970 provisional ballots that were eventually counted several days after the election concluded, Newsom did relatively well among voters casting mail-in ballots – 232,560 favoring the recall versus 269,294 opposing it. Among voters using the traditional method of casting their ballots at polling places, however, the vote against Newsom was overwhelming, with 51,945 supporting his ouster and 18,472 opposing taking that action.
To the extent that the Democratic Party represents itself as the representative of the downtrodden, San Bernardino County would seem a fertile expanse in which to recruit members. Fully 56 percent of the county’s population is Hispanic. According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of American Hispanic voters are Democrats or lean to the Democratic Party, while 35 percent reliably vote Republican or are Republican leaners. A significant percentage of Latino Republicans are Cuban expatriates or their descendants, such that approaching 70 percent of California Hispanics tend to favor the Democratic Party. The county’s per capita income is $31,521, which is roughly two-thirds of the  $46,661 per capita income in California and about three-quarters of the $41,804 per capita income in the United States. The median household income in San Bernardino County is $79,091, about 90 percent of the $91,551 median household income throughout the state and above the $74,755 median income throughout the Unitied States. The number of San Bernardino County residents living below the poverty level is 13.4 percent, translating into 289,277 county residents. For those under 18 years of age, that figure jumpts to 18 percent. As the Democratic Party touts itself as the representative of the downtrodden and the economically disenabled, it has made considerable headway in getting San Bernardino County residents to register with the party. Indeed, since 2009, when the number of Democrats first eclipsed the number of Republicans in the county, that lead has consistently widened to the roughly 4-to-3 advantage that exists countywide today.
Remarkably, however, local Republicans, despite the registration disadvantage they face, have succeeded in holding onto most of the county’s elective offices they controlled in their heyday, at least so far. Like Republicans throughout the United States, San Bernardino County’s Republicans turn up to vote in far higher percentages than do Democrats. In San Bernardino County, the party structure the Republicans have – the Republican Central Committee – has proven far more energetic, efficient and engaged than the local Democratic Central Committee. Republicans have had little trouble getting all of their horses hitched up to the same side of the wagon and getting them to pull in the preferred direction at once, proving far more effective at raising money than the Democrats and have more experience and are therefore more accomplished in employing the money they have to run convincing and targeted campaigns – using newspaper ads and both television and radio spots, billboards, handbills, mailers, phone banks and polls and door-to-door voter appeals – to drive Republican voters to the polls and wage efforts against their Democratic opponents.
Nevertheless, at a glacial pace, the Democrats have made progress toward offsetting the GOP’s advantage in San Bernardino County.
Despite the consideration that San Bernardino County is California’s largest county geographically, in terms of population it is the Golden State’s fifth largest county. As such, the state Democratic Party has not put as much emphasis on San Bernardino County as it might have otherwise, a decision which, given the more aggressive approach of the Republicans, has surrendered the jurisdiction, in large measure, to its rivals. That suddenly changed two years ago, not so much as a result of action directly taken by the Democrats but rather their reaction to a move of questionable political wisdom by the Republicans.
A Republican-led insurgency manifested in San Bernardino County in the summer of 2022, one which called for San Bernardino County declaring itself an independent entity and seceding from California.
On July 26, 2022, Jeff Burum, who has historically been one of the top two or three contributors to Republican causes, came before the board of supervisors, decrying the State of California Allocation of resources, telling the panel as much as asking it to put what he termed was termed an “advisory” measure in the form of a question on the November 8, 2022 ballot that was to be worded thusly: “Do you support having the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors and all federal and state elected officials representing citizens within San Bernardino County to seek the approval of Congress and the State Legislature to form a state separate from California?” His was, Burum insisted, a “bold initiative forward.” Burum was accompanied to the meeting by two of San Bernardino County’s top tier Republican officeholders and major recipients of his political largesse, translating into thousands of dollars in donations, Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren and Upland Mayo Bill Velto, who both enthusiastically endorsed the concept.
While placing initiatives on the ballot is normally an undertaking which requires months and months of lead time, the alacrity with which the four Republican members of the five-member board of supervisors – First District Supervisor Paul Cook, then-Second District Supervisor Janice Rutherford, Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe and Fourth District Supervisor Curt Hagman – reacted stood as a testament to the influence Burum and his political contributions to the county’s officeholders had in shaping public affairs in the county.
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors had an absolute drop-dead deadline of August 12, 2022 by which it had to formulate what was to be on the November 2022 ballot. In order for citizens to place an initiative on the ballot, they must gather the signatures of 8 percent of the voters who participated in the previous gubernatorial election where the initiative is to apply. That meant that for Burum and those he was affiliated with, he would need to gather 42,981 valid signatures of the county’s voters, which was .08 of the 537,253 San Bernardino County voters who cast ballots for governor in 2018. Such a feat in the less than three weeks that existed between July 26 and August 12 was an impossibility. The board of supervisors, however, could use its authority to call upon the registrar of voters to proceed with the countywide vote on what Burum was asking for. To do so, under the state election code and the county charter, the board needed to vote on the matter and then confirm the first vote with a second vote, thereby authorizing the registrar of voters to put the question before the county’s electorate. The board of supervisors, however, had not scheduled any discussion of the secession proposal, and had only heard of it that day. Under the Brown Act, California’s open public meeting law, it could not hold an impromptu vote on something brought up during the course of a meeting, but had to schedule such a vote ahead of time by placing it on the agenda for a meeting and giving the public 72 hours preview of the agenda before the meeting took place. As things stood, the board was not scheduled to meet again until August 9, which gave the board sufficient time to put the item relating to the ballot initiative on that agenda. Still, that would be only a first vote and action to direct the registrar of voters to alter the ballot, and a second vote to confirm the first was needed. To accommodate Burum, the board scheduled an emergency meeting on August 3, at which the board took a vote calling for the ballot initiative. Then, at its August 9 meeting, it cast a second, confirming vote, directing the registrar of voters to give San Bernardino County’s voters an opportunity to secede from the State of California.
Indeed, what was enumerated as Measure EE was placed on the ballot, asking voters whether they supported having the elected representatives for San Bernardino County research and advocate for all methods, including secession from the state, for receiving an equitable share of state funding and resources.
Ultimately, 212,615 or 50.62 percent of the 420,054 county’s voters who cast votes on Measure EE supported it, while 207,439 or 49.38 percent opposed it.
The concept of secession inherent in Measure EE has languished for what is now 19 months since its passage. Next week, at its June 11 meeting, the board of supervisors is scheduled to accept a staff report that is to detail how the county will move ahead with Burum’s proposal. Supervisor Cook, current Second District Supervisor Jesse Armendarez – a Republican, Supervisor Rowe and Supervisor Hagman have absolute control over the county’s governmental machinery and thereby County Chief Executive Officer Luther Snoke and the remainder of county staff, who have been put in the position of having to lay out a report favorable toward proceeding with San Bernardino County’s secession.
Despite the favor shown toward the subject within the confines of the five-story county administrative headquarters in San Bernardino referred to as the Taj Mahal, there are outlying political realities that auger against the creation of the 51st State bordering California, Arizona and Nevada. If San Bernardino County is to declare its independence from California and effectively throw off the shackles that bind it to Sacramento, both houses of the California Legislature and both houses of Congress would need to approve the split. Since California was granted statehood in 1850, there have been 222 attempts to bifurcate or trifurcate the state. None have succeeded. Within San Bernardino County itself, an effort in the late 1980s and early 1990s was undertaken to remove what was essentially 90 percent of the the county’s land mass to the north and east, leaving roughly 10 percent of the jurisdiction, that being its southeastern corner from Chino Hills to Yucaipa, intact, such that the proposed Mojave County would include Hesperia, Apple Valley, Victorville, Adelanto, Barstow, Big Bear, Twentynine Palms, Yucca Valley, Needles and more than three dozen desert and mountain communities. That effort came to naught.
Of issue is financing. Burum and the San Bernardino County secession enthusiasts maintain that the State of California has deprived San Bernardino County of its “fair share” of a return on the taxes collected within its confines and that in comparison to practically all of the other 57 counties in the state, San Bernardino County is receiving the least or very nearly the least of monetary sustenance among all of its counterparts statewide from Sacramento. A study the county undertook with regard to that complaint in 2022, however, demonstrated that was clearly not the case. Moreover, the provision of state services, many of which are coordinated with or delivered through county government and its various departments, entails a bureaucracy of considerable extent. Were the county to end its connection with Sacramento, the sheer enormity and expense of recreating that end of the bureaucracy that is currently handled by the state would result in the new state of San Bernardino reducing considerably its already compromised delivery of services or having to create another taxing regime which would entirely contradict the rationale given nu Burum and others for wanting out of the State of California – excessive taxation.
Kristin Washington, the chairwoman of the San Bernardino County Democratic Party, has taken up the issue of San Bernardino secession, just as it is about to be pursued in earnest by San Bernadino County’s Republican leadership and just as the November 2024 election is around the corner.
“Putting Measure EE on the ballot was a waste of time for the voters,” she said. “This is something that will never take place. Seceding from the state is not something that is even remotely realistic, for too many reasons to enumerate and mostly because of all the steps that actually go into it.”
The San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee has also taken up issues that transcend San Bernardino County and California.
On January 24, it passed a resolution demanding “an immediate bilateral ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas Conflict.”
The resolution states, “Whereas, we affirm that the right to human life according to the Geneva Conventions must be protected even in warfare; WHEREAS, on October 7, 2023, the terrorist group Hamas attacked lsrael to capture, hold hostage, and kill more than 1,100 innocent lsraeli, American, and other international civilians, and in response, the lsraeli government invaded Gaza; and Whereas, unfortunately, this assault on Palestinians in Gaza has escalated into an unspeakable tragedy with lsrael’s disproportionate retaliation killing more than 24,000 residents of Gaza to date, decimating their homes, schools, and hospitals; then we resolve that the indiscriminate killing must stop. lsrael declared war with Hamas – not innocent Palestinians. We, the members of the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee, who care deeply about the lives of all people, call for an immediate bilateral ceasefire to preserve civilian lives and rush humanitarian aid and supplies to the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians who are running out of food, water, and time; negotiate the release of innocent hostages; reduce the threat of a regional or worldwide conflict; and allow our shared humanity a chance to illuminate the way forward. We ask that the California Democratic Party join us in our efforts to demand an immediate bilateral ceasefire, coordinating with the [Joseph] Biden Administration to use its considerable political, financial and military influence to bring about an immediate de-escalation of this world tragedy happening before our very eyes.”
The San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee, as led by Washington, is also pressing forward with making a high profile statement regarding Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual Queer plus rights, believing doing so will hit a resounding chord with the San Bernardino County’s voters.
Simultaneously, their Republican counterparts believe that to be a mistake, one which they welcome the local Democrats to make.
In recent days and weeks, two of San Bernardino County’s cities took contrasting positions with regard to this issue. In San Bernardino, for the first time, the San Bernardino City Council and its mayor proclaimed that it would recognize June as “Pride Month” for those whose sexual orientation does not conform with the traditional heterosexual norm. In Redlands, a divided city council voted 3-to-2 against flying the lesbian gay bisexual transsexual queer rainbow pride flag along with the American, California and Missing In Action flags at City Hall.
In making its statement, which was attributed to Washington as the committee’s chairwoman, the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee saluted the action by the San Bernardino City Council while remaining silent on the vote by the Redlands City Council.
“As we join the nation in a glorious, month-long celebration of the lesbian gay bisexual transsexual queer plus community, we want to highlight this week’s news that the City of San Bernardino just proclaimed June Pride Month for the first time,” the central committee posted on its website. “At a time when anti- lesbian gay bisexual transsexual queer plus activists throughout the country are banning lesbian gay bisexual transsexual queer plus themed books, inclusive curriculum, and recycling harmful lies about lesbian gay bisexual transsexual queer plus educators and mentors, we need more city leaders to stand tall, risk pushback from hate-filled groups, and show support for the members of the lesbian gay bisexual transsexual queer plus community.”
Washington’s committee webposting continues, “At a time when an unprecedented number of anti- lesbian gay bisexual transsexual queer plus bills have been introduced in various states that are sometimes passing in state legislatures and are often targeting lesbian gay bisexual transsexual queer plus youth and specifically transgender youth, we need more leaders to use the power of their position to protect members of our communities and our youth from such dangerous attacks. That is because these are the times we’ve heard about; when leaders do what is right, even when it feels uncomfortable.”
The posting continues, “While the San Bernardino County Democratic Party has no flagpole on which to fly a flag, we will continue ‘flying’ the flag this month on our Social Media sites and other forms of communication, because we know that the pride flag is not merely a symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, but it’s a symbol of love, of struggle, and sacrifice. Next year, we hope more cities will celebrate pride month along with us, not only with a proclamation, but by flying the pride flag, too. And we look for the County of San Bernardino to follow the lead of the progress just made by the County of Los Angeles, by flying the flag with pride throughout San Bernardino County.”

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