James Rufus Koren, Staff Writer
Posted: 11/21/2009 07:25:11 AM PST
Five years ago, Republicans reigned in San Bernardino County.
In 2004, the local GOP raised more than $350,000, supported candidates in 16 city council races and held a sizeable lead over Democrats in voter registration.
Over the past two years, however, Democrats have seized the majority of registered voters as the local party was wracked with instability and scandal.
“Our party is hurt,” said Robert Rego, who took over as chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Party in August. “We’ve gone through a lot of trials and tribulations.”
Rego and other party leaders attribute the party’s current plight to a variety of factors, chiefly former chairman Bill Postmus’ divisive run against a fellow Republican and the national Republican Party’s lack of a clear message.
Under Postmus, who served as party chairman from January 2004 through June 2007, the county party raised hundreds of thousands of dollars which it used, in part, to support candidates for the county board of supervisors as well as for numerous city council races.
In some cases, though, the county party supported one Republican over another – not standard practice for a political party. Rego called it “kingmaking” and said the practice “alienated a lot of good Republicans.”
The most telling example came in 2006 when Postmus, then chairman of both the county party and the board of supervisors, ran for county assessor against incumbent – and fellow Republican – Don Williamson.
Postmus has the party – or at least its money – on his side.
“The county party operation was really the base and the heart of Bill’s assessor campaign,” said Drew Mercy, an aide to high desert state Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, who represents the Victorville area. “Everything was run out of there by Adam Aleman.”
Aleman, a former party executive director who later worked in the assessor’s office under Postmus, was arrested in June on suspicion of destroying public property and preparing false evidence related to a grand jury investigation into a political operation being run out of the assessor’s office.
The county party spent more than $13,000 supporting Postmus’ primary campaign and did not support Williamson.
“They shouldn’t have ganged up on me,” Williamson said of Postmus and the party. “(Postmus) should have been helping me get elected instead of running against me.”
Rego, a member of the county party’s central committee at the time, said he isn’t sure who made the decision to spend party dollars to help Postmus.
“The determination of spending of funds was made either by the executive committee or by a select group within the executive committee,” Rego said. “It’s not clear.”
Postmus, as chairman, headed the executive committee. He did not return calls for comment.
Ken Willis, who also served a brief stint as party chairman this spring – he inherited the role after Adams resigned, then resigned himself saying the job was too time-consuming – did not invoke Postmus’ name. But he said previous party leaders had alienated party members.
“The one complaint I hear over and over from central committee members is that, in the past, they felt they had little or no say in what the party was going to do in terms of endorsements and fundraising,” he said.
Willis said it’s hard to know what affect the party’s previous power structure – or the drug and corruption scandals that unfolded around Postmus in the past year – have had on the party’s recruitment, registration and fundraising efforts, but he’s sure it’s a factor in the party’s troubles.
Jack Pitney, a professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College, said Postmus’ leadership style and his more recent troubles could sap the party of energy.
“Bad morale can spread quickly,” he said.
But Pitney said part of that morale problem is at the state and even national level.
“In recent elections, it’s been hard to get Republicans excited and motivated,” he said.
Rego, too, said the party’s problems aren’t all local and that San Bernardino County Republicans are struggling for the same reason Republicans failed to win the White House last year: The Republican message isn’t convincing voters.
“People are concerned with success in their vocations, with safety at home, safety at work, safety in the community,” Rego said. “We haven’t articulated any clear message about how we can take care of those issues.”
That means, Rego said, people don’t have a clear reason to become active in the Republican Party.
“There are a lot of individuals who are not happy with the Democratic Party, but, because of their experiences with our party, they’re not quite sure we’re really a party that can make a difference,” he said.
When President Barack Obama won San Bernardino County in 2008 – a big shift from 2004, when George W. Bush had a 12 percent margin of victor in the county – Rego said it showed how the local party had failed to reach out to voters.
First among Rego’s priorities is getting the party focused on voter registration. He said the party, under Postmus, was too reliant on paying contractors to register new voters.
He wants a more locally based campaign. Even that, though, he said will cost money. He said he’s like the party to spend between $200,000 and $300,000 in the coming year.
Raising that funding will be difficult. In the first nine months of 2009, the party raised just $84,925. Most of that – $50,000 – came in the form of a loan forgiven by one of Postmus’ campaign committees. As of Oct. 3, the party had $3,522 in the bank and outstanding debts of $8,534.
“The basic problem in the party raising money is that money is tight everywhere,” he said. “With these economic conditions, businesses and supporters just don’t have the available funds to donate to the party.”
Rego said the party will need to reach out for small donations from individuals instead of large ones from companies and elected officials.
He said elected Republicans should help raise money for voter registration drives and that the party might try to bring in Republican celebrities for a fundraising events.
But, Rego added, with a bad economy, he doesn’t expect fundraising will be as successful as in the past.
As the party struggles to rebuild, state political observers say San Bernardino could see, for the first time in years, a right race for the high desert’s 36th District State Assembly seat.
“There’s been a large influx of people of color moving into the Antelope Valley and the Victor Valley area,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a political strategist and publisher of the California Target Book, which handicaps political races in the state. “And people of color lately have not been voting Republican.”
In 2008, Democrat Linda K. Jones came within 3.2 percent of Republican Steve Knight, a result Hoffenblum called “almost a monumental upset.”
Drew Mercy, Knight’s campaign manager, said the campaign had its own volunteers working in the Victorville area.
“At that time, the county party was still rebuilding,” Mercy said. “The fallout from the Postmus corruption scandal had still kind of thrown everything for a loop.”
Then-chairman Gary Ovitt, also chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, was “working hard just to rebuild the reputation of the county party,” Mercy said.
That didn’t impact Knight’s campaign because, Mercy said, while the outcome was closer than expected, no one thought Jones had a real chance and Knight spent time supporting other Republicans.
“As far as the county party organization, he didn’t really rely too much on it,” Mercy said. “We were operating under the impression we could focus on other races. We were going down to help (Tony) Stickland in his campaign.”
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