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SAN BERNARDINO ELECTION

Mud-Splashed Path to Mayor Seat

Anger is a prime ingredient in an ailing city's campaign, which features hints of a video smear, a reported death threat and bitterness over a lawsuit.

November 04, 2005|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

The race for San Bernardino mayor has turned into a roller-coaster campaign, with the front-runners bickering in forums and mailers, and one candidate, the longtime city attorney, making accusations about doctored videos and death threats.

When Mayor Judith Valles declined to seek a third term leading the seat of San Bernardino County, five candidates jumped into the fray, promising to mend the city's legal, economic and image woes.

But the campaign has unfolded like a cafeteria food fight, particularly between Superior Court Judge Pat Morris and City Atty. James F. Penman, who took office in 1987 and last faced an election opponent a decade ago.

In a way, the race has turned into a referendum on Penman, whose brash behavior has endeared him to some and embittered others. The city attorney last month said someone had scrawled death threats against him in the men's bathroom at City Hall, and police were investigating.

"It's been a long time since I've seen it this muddy," said Councilwoman Esther Estrada, who backs Morris and was a mayoral candidate in 1993.

If no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, the mayor will be chosen in a Feb. 7 runoff election.

The new leader would take office in March under a revised city charter that charges the city manager with juggling day-to-day duties and frees the mayor to oversee the manager and fire and police chiefs; break tie votes on the seven-member council; and wield veto power.

San Bernardino is still reeling from last decade's massive job losses -- including the closure of Norton Air Force Base -- and high crime and poverty rates. The three most prominent candidates have vowed to hire more police officers and target petty crime.

The city logged 50 homicides last year, and the last census showed that almost a quarter of families in San Bernardino live in poverty. The new mayor will have to wade through proposals to reinvigorate downtown, though regional economist John Husing said jobs and residents should continue to march inland.

"There's no reason that San Bernardino should be the weak sister in the Inland Empire -- it's by the I-10, it's got land, it's the county seat. The political leadership holds it back," Husing said. "It's a very small political environment and one of the nastiest you'll ever come in contact with."

Morris, 67, who helped create the county's drug and mental health courts, has campaigned on plans to establish a homeless court, encourage home construction in the city's thousands of vacant lots and more aggressively use county jail inmates to pull weeds and clear debris. He called City Hall "deeply dysfunctional," often touting his collaborative style.

Valles has endorsed the judge, as have the two area newspapers, the Press-Enterprise in Riverside and the San Bernardino County Sun.

Penman, 58, says his 18 years at City Hall allow him to be "ruthless" on crime. Penman wants to establish a squad of retired police officers to respond to panhandling, graffiti, loud parties and burglar alarms. He said lowering the city's crime rate can attract and retain businesses. The city's police, firefighters and public employee unions have endorsed him.

Morris and Penman have each amassed more than $200,000 to campaign.

Another mayoral candidate, Councilman Chas A. Kelley, 36, paints himself as a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" type. Along with planning anti-crime measures, he intends to resurface pothole-riddled roads and improve trash service, city parks' baseball diamonds and soccer fields. He has raised about $50,000.

Also running are Michael Ellison-Lewis, 30, a former staffer for Rep. Joe Baca (D-Rialto), and contractor Rick Avila, 42, who sued the city over a failed public works project that involved him. Avila promises to investigate Penman's office and halt the city's "frivolous defenses" in legal cases such as his own. Ellison-Lewis has collected about $2,200 in campaign funds and Avila $15,300.

Council members and observers said the race's high jinks -- including mailers that depict Morris as easy on criminals and Penman with a Pinocchio nose -- have muted discussion about how candidates would solve San Bernardino's problems.

"This is why the city is in the fix it's in. Politicians who live here deal in the politics of personal egos," said Jim Mulvihill, a Cal State San Bernardino professor of urban planning who is volunteering for the Morris campaign and has run for City Council.

The nasty politics have spilled into City Council meetings. In a September session, Penman and Councilman Rikke Van Johnson introduced dueling proposals for criminal investigations into the mayoral campaign.

Van Johnson wanted the district attorney's office to look into whether Penman had used city phones, computers and fax machines to aid his campaign. Penman countered by requesting that the district attorney investigate all elected officials. The council shelved both items.

When the council in October looked at updating the city's sexual harassment policy, two speakers resurrected allegations from the early 1990s that Penman had harassed city employees. Penman called the charges a "falsehood" and launched into the next campaign plot twist.

He said an anonymous caller and a former mayor had warned him that competitors had superimposed his face on photos and videos that would show him doing "bad things" unless he withdrew from the race.

"I will not be forced out of the race by sophisticated harassment and political mudslinging," he said.

At a recent candidates forum, Kelley summed up the race to a crowd at Arrowhead Country Club: "You can elect a judge that will spend his time fighting with the city attorney.... You can elect a city attorney that will have a hard time dealing with the council on city issues."

"Can't we all just get along?" Avila replied, to the crowd's laughter.

Times researcher Lois Hooker contributed to this report.

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