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Democrats in San Bernardino County Dogged by Divisiveness

A dispute over central committee membership stalls party efforts in an area of the state that's still in play.

May 08, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

At a time when Democrats dominate California politics, the Republican Party has gained an upper hand in one of the state's fastest-growing counties, San Bernardino, in part because of a drawn-out internal squabble among county Democratic Party activists.

The fighting, complete with charges of anti-Latino bias, apparently has weakened Democratic fund-raising in the county. In the last six months of 2002, the San Bernardino County Republican Party Central Committee received more than $41,000 in contributions, while the Democratic Party Central Committee received only $1,500, according to campaign finance reports.

San Bernardino and Riverside counties are among the few remaining swing areas in California politics. With Los Angeles and the Bay Area heavily Democratic and much of the Central Valley strongly Republican, statewide elections can turn on a candidate's ability to win in the Inland Empire. Some analysts also say the region could play a pivotal role in President Bush's attempt to win California in his reelection bid next year.

But in San Bernardino County, the Democratic committee has been in such disarray that, at one point, two groups claimed the leadership, with both collecting membership dues. The California Democratic Party finally intervened to decide which group had a legitimate claim to the leadership.

And the dispute rages on, with six Democratic activists complaining that they have been unjustly ousted from the committee by those who won the leadership dispute. The party leaders defended the removal of the six members, saying they failed to pay their annual dues on time.

Some of the expelled members claim animosity toward Latino members is at the root of the squabble. Others say it is a power struggle between labor union factions. But several Democratic leaders agree that, whatever the cause, the dispute has diverted the party's attention from its battle to stake a claim in a critical region.

The Inland Empire, home to more than 1 million voters, has in the past few years given strong support to Republicans including Bush and Bill Simon. But some political analysts say Republicans still cannot claim to dominate the region. In San Bernardino County, 42% of registered voters are Republicans and 40% are Democrats. In Riverside County, 48% of the voters are Republicans and 35% are Democrats.

The leadership of the local party committees has gained great influence since California voters approved Proposition 34, a finance reform measure that allows political committees to raise unlimited amounts for get-out-the-vote and voter registration drives. The law also allows the committees to distribute donations of up to $25,000 from a single donor to candidates.

Throughout the state, the county central committees help organize registration drives, raise money and provide legwork for local candidates. Members of the committee are elected by voters or appointed by local officials. Each central committee also appoints several representatives, depending on the size of the county, to the state central committee.

But the San Bernardino County Democratic Central Committee has instead spent much of the past year in a leadership squabble that some party insiders say has paralyzed the local party machinery.

"There is no party leadership at all," said Jesus E. Munoz, a central committee member who was involved in the dispute.

The squabble began in April 2002 when the central committee members met to elect the party leadership. In a close vote, the committee elected a slate of members led by party activists Mike Rayburn, who was elected chairman, and Laurie Stalnaker, who was chosen finance chairwoman. But several members, including Munoz, a contractor, and former chairwoman Nancy Ruth White, a teacher, protested, saying the election was invalid because of the lack of a quorum.

Rayburn and the new committee leadership rejected the protest, prompting Munoz, Ruth White and the other committee members to form a new central committee, which collected annual dues from 13 committee members who sided with them.

Hoping to quell an embarrassing feud, the state Democratic Party issued two rulings last year, declaring the initial election legitimate and the new board as duly elected.

But that did not end the dispute. The 13 members who paid their dues to the illegitimate board tried to deposit those dues with Rayburn's board, but the new board accepted the money from only seven of those members. The new board expelled the six other members -- Ruth White, Mark Alvarez, Gil Navarro, Timothy Prince, Munoz and his wife, Viola -- saying they did not send the proper amount of money before a July 31 deadline.

The six ousted members sued in San Bernardino Superior Court, asking a judge to force the central committee to accept their dues and reinstate them. But last month, Judge James Edwards denied the request, saying the matter must be resolved within the party system.

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