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Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

On Nov. 6, Indio voters will cast their ballots in the city’s first district-based elections, after the City Council moved away from “at large” or city-wide elections under the threat of a lawsuit to force compliance with the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.

Of the five districts newly established in Indio, District 2 is the home of the race that’s generating the most early interest. The final candidate pool will not be established until August, but so far, two candidates have announced an intention to run: the incumbent and current mayor, Mike Wilson, who has been on the council since 1995; and political newcomer and lifetime Indio resident Waymond Fermon.

In many respects, the two candidates are polar opposites. Wilson, a self-described conservative Republican, is now serving his fourth stint as Indio’s mayor. Fermon has worked for 17 years as a correctional officer, and has already garnered support from the Coachella Valley’s Democrats and liberal left.

Last year, Wilson drew the ire of many when, in the wake of the violent white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., he tweeted: “It doesn’t matter what POTUS says, liberals and the media will always attack him. It shows the real problem in U.S. is the libs and media!” In a recent phone interview with the Independent, Wilson explained the episode.

“What happened, which I explained right after, was that my intent was to say that (it was) the mainstream media and the Washington, D.C., Democrats, but in shrinking it down (to 140 characters), I didn’t really think about the response to it.”

The response turned out to be angry, swift and strong. Because of that, we asked Fermon—who currently lives in District 4, not Wilson’s District 2—if he chose to move his family to District 2 to set up a head-to-head confrontation with Wilson.

“I’m very self-motivated,” Fermon said. “I don’t need any specific target to have a goal. My concern isn’t (Mike Wilson) right now.”

Wilson and others have called attention to the carpetbagger appearance of Fermon’s decision to move his residence to, and run for office for, the new District 2.

“I’m in the planning phase of that (family move), and that will be over with real soon,” Fermon said. “Actually, I’m past the planning phase, and we’re in the transition phase right now. I know it’s public information at the end of the day, but I’m not willing to throw my living quarters (details) out there freely, but we’ll be moved soon.”

Assuming that the candidacy qualifications are met, we asked each candidate about their priorities and objectives.

“First and foremost, always, is public safety,” Wilson said. “As you know, I’m a retired fireman, and having a relationship with law enforcement as well, we need to grow our police department. Based on population and the ratio of one officer per every thousand residents, we are still quite a bit below where we should be.”

Next, he said: “Repairing our streets and roads and overpasses, etc., and building new ones is a priority for me. I sit on the Riverside County Transportation Commission and the CVAG Transportation Committee, so it’s one of my specialties. Over my years, I’ve had some great accomplishments in bringing federal, state and regional money into Indio to do these things. But (right now), we’re $36 million behind in street repairs, and we need about $6 million a year just to maintain what we have. (Moving forward, both Senate Bill) 1, that brought us more street and road money, and Measure X (the Indio sales tax measure that passed in 2016), should bring us $7 to $8 million this next year to put into street and road projects. This is long overdue for Indio, so one of my priorities is going to be catching up on that work.”

Wilson’s third priority: “Continuing our economic development and economic recovery in the city by maintaining forward progress in making the city attractive for new businesses, stores and new projects. We’ve had some success. We have new hotels being built. We’ve got a new theater project coming in. There’s a lot of housing stuff going on that’s positive. But on the top of the list is (the future of) the Indio Fashion Mall, which is on Monroe Street and Highway 111. That project has just been bought by Alex Haagen of the Empire Polo Grounds, and we’re working with him to completely reposition that whole mall property (so it) will be a benefit to the city for years to come.”

Fermon responded by saying that he’s “canvassing the residents” and “meeting and greeting” to learn about their concerns. We asked Fermon what he has been hearing from constituents thus far.

“One is public safety,” he said. “I just think that, at the end of the day, we all want to be safe wherever we go. Next, we need smart economic development, not only that will bring retail and different businesses, but we also need jobs.

“The homeless situation (is another issue),” Fermon said. “I am meeting with people who are concerned about the homeless and the growing problem that we have, but I’m also meeting with homeless people who want to be informed about the resources that are available to them currently, and want those resources to be made more easily available. I’m speaking with businesses about the homeless problem, because sometimes it can create a nuisance for businesses. So the communication seems to have broken down there, and I’m talking to all sides.”

Fermon said he also wants to focus on Indio youth. “In the district that I’m running in, I want to bring more activities for the youth in that area—recreational activities like sports, and other things they can do during their leisure time in that area. As we have it now, there’s really nothing for our youth to do in that area.”

We asked both candidates what message they most wanted to convey to Indio’s voters.

“I think it’s important that experience matters,” Wilson said. “We have a council right now that’s working extremely well together. We have a vision that we share, and we work together to put that vision together. We’re very respectful of each other. Looking at the last eight years, and where Indio had been and where it is today, I think that the leadership in Indio is strong. I think that this council has earned the trust of the voters in Indio.”

Fermon responded to the question somewhat philosophically.

“What I want to leave you with is what I tell the students I work with. I have mantras, or quotes, that I internalize for each week, and this week’s is: ‘The secret to living is giving.’ It’s been interpreted many times by many people, but I first heard it from my psychology teacher at Indio High School.”

Published in Politics

On May 9, 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed former state assemblymember V. Manuel Perez to serve the remainder of the term of the late John Benoit, the Riverside County District 4 supervisor.

On June 5, Perez will attempt to hold on to the seat, but he’s facing a formidable challenge from Palm Desert City Councilmember Jan Harnik. While June 5 is considered the primary election, these two experienced Coachella Valley politicos will get no primary testing ground—because in their two-person race, one of them will almost certainly get a majority of the vote, avoiding a general-election contest and getting elected to a new four-year term.

“I think it’s important that people realize the magnitude of what this (campaign) means for the 4th District and for the county of Riverside as a whole,” Perez said during a recent phone interview. “This is the first time in years that we will see an (almost) new Board of Supervisors, and (it could be) a very diverse group, which I think is important to recognize.

“I am running because I’ve always felt a deep sense of responsibility to public service, and that dates back to me growing up as a kid on the east side of the Coachella Valley. But I’m also running because I believe that we need to have a voice that unites both sides of the valley. I believe I can do that.”

Perez is a Democrat, while Harnik is a Republican—but the supervisors’ seat is considered nonpartisan.

“I’m fortunate that I’ve always worked in nonpartisan positions,” Harnik said during a recent phone interview. “So my job has always been to do what’s best and to approach issues with logic and common sense—and, in fact, what is attractive to me in the supervisor position is exactly that. It’s nonpartisan, but, yes, I will carry my values. Yes, I am fiscally conservative, and I don’t believe in spending more than you have. But I don’t have to listen to somebody at the party and at a higher level telling me what is best.”

We asked each candidate about the most pressing issues they’d like to address.

“We have to make sure that we provide public safety in an effective manner,” Harnik said. “That’s the high-quality public safety that, I think, people deserve—but I think we have to get the budget in order before we can do much. The budget is $5.5 billion, and the revenue for that budget is $5.22 billion. Running in the red is unsustainable, and doing things like voting to spend $40 million on an outside consulting firm (KPMG, in this case) to find efficiencies and see how the county can spend their money better is a bad idea. Bringing in outside agencies to do those kinds of things are simply done now when people don’t want to make the tough decisions. … I will not shy away from tough decisions.”

Perez identified a host of critical concerns held by various segments of the county’s voters.

“I think the top issues to deal with are homelessness and behavioral-health efforts; continuing to support our veterans; and obviously, our economy and jobs are a major concern, as well as quality-of-life issues such as the Salton Sea, air pollution and asthma rates, infrastructure including sidewalks, and safe routes to schools,” Perez said.

Perez touted his governing experience and skills.

“What I think sets me apart from my opponent is not only do I have the education—having attended local schools, being a (University of California at Riverside) graduate, and then going off to Harvard University and coming back home—but I also have experience in policymaking, (on the) local city council, school board, and especially at the state level,” Perez said. “I learned how to connect the dots. I’m able to pick up the phone and call the speaker (of the California State Assembly) on a specific issue, and I’m able to text (Assemblymember) Eduardo Garcia or (U.S. Representative) Dr. Raul Ruiz and ask them how are we going to deliver a message to pass the Desert Healthcare District expansion so that we can get it in front of the voters. I think my opponent can’t compare to that—not that I’m better than her, but I’ve been very fortunate to hold these positions in my career.”

Both candidates have amassed considerable campaign chests. As of Dec. 31, Perez reported roughly $552,000 in donations, while Harnik showed close to $400,000, which included a $20,000 posthumous donation made by the John Benoit campaign fund. When we spoke with Perez in April, he updated his fundraising total to roughly $730,000.

“We knew early on that this was going to be a very expensive campaign,” Perez said.

We asked both candidates whether it was appropriate that they were receiving funds from donors who list their addresses as being not just outside of Riverside County—but completely out of state. The year-end reports showed nearly 3 percent of Perez’s contributions came from out of state, as did 5.4 percent of Harnik’s.

“I did notice that she had quite a lot of contributions from throughout the U.S., and it’s perfectly legal, so OK,” Perez said. “If I had access to all those individuals, I would probably be doing the same thing. I will say, though, that Riverside County is a bit antiquated when it comes to the rules around fundraising.”

Harnik said the large number of donors she has is evidence of her appeal.

“I hope you noticed how many donations I have; I have far more donors, because these are real people donating to me,” she said. “Now, the issue with the geography: Keep in mind that a lot of these people will say, ‘Well, I don’t vote here, so why would I donate to your campaign?’ Quite often, my answer is, ‘Because you own a home here, and you bought here because you like the quality of life here. You may not vote here. You may vote somewhere else because you’re only here three, four or five months a year, but you want to maintain the quality of life, and you want to protect your investment.’”

We asked the candidates if they had a specific message they wanted to share with voters.

“Never in close to eight years on the City Council have I missed a City Council meeting,” Harnik said. “That’s a great example of my work ethic. I work hard, and I come to every meeting prepared. I believe in this region, and I do believe there are some things that we really have to look at differently than we have. I can do that. I have the energy. I have the work ethic, and I’ll show up.”

Perez said: “I’m very honored to be in this role, and I don’t take it for granted. I know that people really loved former Supervisor John Benoit. I know I have to continue some of his legacy, and I have to create my own. I get that. It may not seem either sexy or specific, but I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to pass and carry policy, and keep staff as well as hire new staff to keep the momentum going (while) learning the nuances of the infrastructure at the Riverside County level. It’s a lot of work.”

Published in Politics

An independent political action committee paid for an ad slamming Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom—partly with money from groups that are backing his run for governor.

Welcome to the wild ways of campaign money, circa 2018.

The ad comes courtesy of the Asian American Small Business Political Action Committee, one of scores of campaign organizations that, by law, must be disconnected from candidates who may benefit from their spending.

Its name aside, the Asian American Small Business PAC is funded by Chevron, AT&T, Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and many other big business and labor organizations that are political players in Sacramento.

The anti-Newsom ad, like many of its ilk, employs ominous music, fuzzed-up photos and a narrator who uses innuendo as she cites an affair Newsom had in 2005, revealed in 2007, when he was San Francisco mayor. All that is typical of attacks by independent campaign groups. What sets this one apart is its funders.

One is the California Teachers Association, which has endorsed Newsom for governor and donated $29,200 to him in December. A few months earlier, the teachers’ union gave $25,000 to the Asian American Small Business PAC.

The California State Council of Service Employees (SEIU) donated $29,200 to Newsom for Governor in February, at about the time the ad surfaced. A year earlier, the SEIU, which largely represents government workers, gave $10,000 to the Asian American Small Business PAC.

Same with the Union Pacific Railroad, the PricewaterhouseCoopers accounting firm, the San Francisco-based garbage and recycling company Recology, and the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, which owns casinos in San Diego County. They and others donated to Newsom’s election effort and to the PAC, which seeks to derail Newsom’s campaign.

Top executives with 21st Century Fox gave to Newsom for Governor, while the corporation gave to the PAC. Donors to Newsom's gubernatorial campaign accounted for more than a fourth of the $420,000 raised by the PAC in 2017.

For now, the ad lingers on the committee’s website and has not been broadcast. But as of Dec. 31, the committee had $256,000 in the bank, which means it could fund wider distribution as the June primary election nears.

Dave Low, executive director of the California School Employees Association, called the ad a “complete surprise.” The union, which represents public-school employees who are not teachers, donated $29,200 to Newsom in February and $12,500 to the PAC last year.

Low said he called Bill Wong, the longtime consultant to the PAC, demanding that the ad be taken down. When his request was rejected, Low decided that the school employees’ union no longer would give to the committee.

“It’s not something CSEA would fund or back,” Low said.

Wong, who declined to comment, left as the committee’s consultant in November and now is a top aide to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, overseeing Assembly Democrats' campaigns.

In the past, Wong was an adviser to Treasurer John Chiang, another Democrat running for governor. The Asian American Small Business PAC contributed $20,000 to Chiang’s gubernatorial campaign in 2016. Chiang has denied any responsibility for the ad.

By law, donors to the PAC and other outfits like it cannot dictate how their money is spent. They gave believing their money would benefit Democratic candidates who are Asian-American, and that their donations would help ingratiate them with Asian-American lawmakers.

Jennifer Webber, an Oakland consultant who works for the committee, sent an email to justify the ad: “People from within and outside the Capitol are calling for its culture to change. The PAC felt it was important to raise these questions about Newsom so Californians can evaluate whether he is the person who can lead that change. We don’t think he is.”

Rebecca Zoglman, of the California Teachers Association, called the spot "disappointing" and said it “screams a little bit of desperation.” It fails to focus on issues that matter, such as public education and health care, Zoglman said.

Donors who were shocked by how their money was spent should have considered the group's history. Although it's run by and supports Democrats, it spent $124,000 in 2015 against state Sen. Steve Glazer, a Democrat from Orinda.

To help Glazer's Democratic opponents, the committee tried to prop up a Republican candidate who had dropped out of the race and endorsed Glazer. In attack mailers sent to Republican voters, the committee said Glazer had been "advising liberal Jerry Brown" and managed Brown's 2012 campaign for a ballot measure that raised income and sales taxes to help fund schools.

The statements were intended to inflame Republicans who were considering supporting Glazer. Leaders of the unions who gave to the committee winked at the duplicity in 2015, because they hoped to replace him with a labor-friendly Democrat.

Not one to forget, Glazer said in an email that "the people behind this committee are sleazeball operators without integrity or conscience who have no business working in California politics." That, of course, assumes integrity and conscience are part of the job description.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

As California’s Democrats wrapped up their party’s annual convention Sunday, they left San Diego as they arrived: a party still fraying at the seams after the 2016 election, held together by one strong bond—a unifying dislike of President Donald Trump.

Split between their traditional moderate-to-liberal faction and lefter-leaning progressives, the delegates refused to endorse in key races and snubbed a few of their own incumbents, notably longtime U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Their emotional differences over hot issues such as single-payer health care and rent control were on display. Yet through it all, dissing Trump was a reliable applause line.

“Let us find what unites us at this convention,” said Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, who’s been discussed as a Democratic presidential prospect, on the opening evening. “Republicans and Internet trolls and Vladimir Putin (are) laughing every time we’re fighting with each other and not fighting against the Republicans.”

Billionaire progressive activist Tom Steyer used his keynote speech as an opportunity to reinforce his public campaign calling for impeachment. “Does anyone in this room believe that Donald Trump is fit to be president of the United States?” If anyone in the convention hall thought so, it was impossible to hear them over the jeering.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters of Los Angeles got some of the biggest cheers of the weekend by building on that theme. Her speech questioned the president’s loyalty and mental health, finishing with a rousing chant of “Impeach 45!”

For a party still smarting from a vicious 2016 presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders—one that had escalated into a contentious party leadership battle last year—it’s nice to find something that everyone can agree on.

“Obviously we have a variety of different views. That’s what parties are about,” said state Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento. “We have differences about how we look at things, but we’ve got to protect our country.”

Still, those differences could be important come June. In a number of toss-up congressional races, a surplus of left-of-center candidates threaten to split the primary vote, allowing two Republicans to progress to the November ballot. Shutting Democrats out of contention in those races could jeopardize party plans to re-take control of the U.S. House.

Though the party had hoped to winnow some of the field this weekend by making endorsements in some of those seats, in the races to replace Southern California GOP Reps. Steve Knight, Darrell Issa and Ed Royce, there was no such luck. Under party bylaws, the delegates were too divided to make an official choice.

Failing at those official channels, party Chair Eric Bauman resorted to old-fashioned guilt from the convention hall stage on Sunday in an attempt to thin the herd.

“We have an overpopulation problem,” he said. And then to some of those surplus candidates: “Isn’t there some other way to express your public service? … The voters in those districts want to elect a Democrat, (and) they’re tired of the right-wing hateful agenda of Donald Trump.”

Indeed, both party organizers and aspiring Democrats candidates aim to bring national news scandals to the local level.

“In 2016, Russians and Republicans were very good at sewing discord within our party, so I think we learned a lesson from that election,” said Andrew Janz, who is running to replace GOP Rep. Devin Nunes in his San Joaquin Valley district.

The lesson: Stick together, and focus on the common political enemy.

Outside the room where Janz’s endorsement by the party was to be voted on, one delegate, social activist Emily Cameron, complained about the candidate’s single-minded focus on his opponent. “If you look at his Twitter, it’s like every tweet is about Devin Nunes,” she said, arguing that the candidate should focus more on the economic interests of the Central Valley and less on the Russia investigation and the ties between Nunes and Trump. “It’s not what people care about!”

But evidently, enough delegates did: Janz won the endorsement.

In a state where only a quarter of adults approve of the president’s job performance, emphasizing Trump above all else isn’t a bad strategy. Katharine Marrs, the party’s state field director for 2018, said opposition to Trump has been a “gateway” cause for bringing political neophytes into the world of left-of-center party politics.

“Sometimes we ask people what their top issue is at the door, and instead of giving us healthcare or the economy, sometimes their top issue is Trump,” she said. But can party unity built around opposition to a single candidate last past a single election?

“What we’ve seen is that it’s sustainable for now,” said Marrs. Finding areas of common agreement is a “slower process.”

And for now, the party base appears to be tacking left.

When the nearly 3,000 delegates voted to endorse the statewide races, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom won the top vote share in the gubernatorial contest. Together with the former state superintendent of public instruction Delaine Eastin, both of whom support a state-funded single-payer health-insurance program, the progressive bloc captured 59 percent of the delegate vote.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is skeptical of the state’s ability to implement or fund a single-payer system, and who has taken positions opposed by many organized labor groups, came in at 9 percent. That followed a tough weekend for the former mayor of Los Angeles, who was repeatedly heckled by party activists.

In the U.S. Senate race, state Senate leader Kevin de León received a majority of delegate votes over Feinstein, whom many delegates considered too hawkish on foreign policy, and too dovish on President Trump.

The fact that de León didn’t clear the 60 percent threshold means that the party didn’t officially offer an endorsement—but the body as a whole clearly had a preference. Between de León and progressive dark-horse candidate Pat Harris, just more than 59 percent of the delegates cast their votes to the left.

“Resistance doesn’t just mean saying no. You have to move on a parallel track with a positive proactive agenda,” said de León, suggesting progressive policies like a higher minimum wage and stronger environmental protections were needed. But he also warned against trying to “cajole” or “negotiate” with President Trump, whom he compared to the scorpion in the fable of the scorpion and the frog—a malevolent force unable to control its own destructive impulses.

Rather than write him off, last year Feinstein expressed hope that Trump could learn to become “a good president,” to the chagrin of many on the California left. According to the website FiveThirtyEight, she has voted in line with the president’s preferred legislation 28 percent of the time, placing her roughly in the middle of all Democratic and independent senators. California’s junior senator, Kamala Harris, who also spoke at the convention and has been mentioned as a presidential contender, voted with the president just 15 percent of the time.

De León was careful to specify that he was not comparing his opponent in the Senate race to a frog. But he did say that his unrelenting opposition to the administration made for a meaningful difference between the two of them.

President Trump “holds the most powerful position in the world, and therefore, he’s in a position to go out of his way to hurt California,” he said. “So why not be proactive, be preemptive, and position yourself—as opposed to be reactive? Because the onslaught is going to happen.”

In the end, of course, delegates to the convention may or may not accurately represent all Democratic voters statewide—not to mention independents inclined to vote Democratic. Feinstein knows that well, having been booed at her own party’s convention for declaring her support of the death penalty when she was running for governor in 1990. All the while, her campaign was gleefully filming the moment—turning it into a campaign ad to underscore her independence.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

It’s once again (or still?) election season in the Coachella Valley—well, it is in at least part of the Coachella Valley.

That whacky central-valley city of 18,000 people, Rancho Mirage, likes to do things its own way—and so it holds its city election at a time (April 10) and via a method (mail) that are different from every other city in the valley. Speaking of doing things one’s own way, it’s also worth noting that Rancho Mirage is the biggest opponent of the proposed valley-wide CV Link pathway, and that the city just declined to participate in a valley-wide traffic-signal synchronization project.

It’s kind of like this: Rancho Mirage city government is the metaphoric equivalent of an old man yelling at people (in this case, the rest of the valley) to get off his damn lawn!

I mention all of this for two reasons: One, to highlight the fantastic coverage of this year’s Rancho Mirage city election by Kevin Fitzgerald, which can be found here and here; and two, to talk about endorsements.

Over the years, we’ve been occasionally asked why we don’t do endorsements in political races. At first, we didn’t do endorsements because the Independent was such a new publication that endorsements would have caused more harm than good: Why would people care what an unestablished and unknown publication thought about a political race?

Today, more than five years into our existence, the Independent is known and fairly well-established—but we still don’t do endorsements, because it takes a lot of time and effort to do endorsements right. And we don’t do things here at the Independent unless we can do them right.

Newspaper endorsements can make a difference. In city elections, races can often be decided by hundreds or just dozens of votes—and there are definitely voters who use newspaper endorsements as a de facto voting guide. We distribute 16,000 copies of the Independent; if we published an endorsement, and just 1 percent of those copies somehow swayed a voter … that’s 160 votes. And we’re not even counting the online edition.

However, at this time, there aren’t enough Independent staff members or contributors talking to enough candidates for me to feel comfortable putting the weight of the newspaper’s name behind a candidate. That’s not to say this won’t change in the future—and that’s not to say we aren’t tempted to issue endorsements at times … like, for example, when a certain city government keeps metaphorically yelling at everyone to get off their damn lawn! But for now, the Independent is staying out of the endorsements game.

As always, thanks for reading—and please drop me a line if you have any questions or comments. Also: Be sure to pick up a copy of our March 2018 print edition, hitting the streets of the Coachella Valley this week and early next week.

Published in Editor's Note

When voters in Rancho Mirage mail in their ballots on or before Tuesday, April 10, they won’t simply be voting for the City Council candidates they prefer; they’ll be voting on the direction in which the city goes.

If residents like the status quo, they can re-elect incumbents Dana Hobart, Charles Townsend Vinci and Iris Smotrich. If they want change, they can vote for Michael Harrington, Robert Mueller and Kate Spates.

The Independent recently spoke to five of the six candidates for the three seats up for a vote this year. Incumbent Dana Hobart declined to make himself available for an interview.

It’s worth noting that the two incumbents with whom we spoke said they wanted to be viewed as a united entry against their three challengers.

We asked each candidate what their top priorities would be if elected, and why they thought they were the best candidate for the job.


The Incumbents

Iris Smotrich, who at 74 continues to manage her family’s varied real estate investments along with her husband, Tom, spoke about the challenges she sees ahead for her city.

“Safety is always a priority,” Smotrich said. “Our budget is always a priority to make sure that we are fiscally responsible. And then, energy is a priority. Our new energy program goes into effect on May 1. It is a way that our businesses and our residents are going to be able to save, in the beginning, 5 percent—and someday, we hope it will be a larger amount.”

Smotrich is referring to the new program through which the city will decide how and where to buy electricity—rather than simply purchasing energy from Southern California Edison.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 10.1 percent of the population of Rancho Mirage lives in poverty—yet homelessness does not appear to be a pressing issue within Rancho Mirage’s city limits. Still, Smotrich noted: “Homelessness is important to everyone. (The Coachella Valley Association of Governments) and many of our cities are working hard to find dignified ways to provide housing, some education, some therapy and, really, a better way of life for those who want it. Not all, but a significant amount, of homeless people do drugs and want to live unrestricted and do what they want, when they want. But with all these professional, caring and loving civic and health leaders working together, I can’t help but be optimistic that we’re all heading in the right direction for all concerned.”

We asked Smotrich if she thought Rancho Mirage had any problems.

“I don’t think so,” she replied. “And if we do, we solve them immediately. We have just added two full-time (police) officers, not because we needed them, but because this is Rancho Mirage, and we want to provide the best.

“I’d just like people to know that the (current) council members all get along. We’re all friends, and we love our staff. We’re not seeking any higher office. We are here to stay. I serve on 18 different committees, commissions and sub-committees, and so do the other City Council members. We don’t just show up at a council meeting and vote ‘Yes.’ We know what we’re doing, and we do it the best way we can. We are not ‘a silo in the desert,’ as one of the other candidates described us. Instead of calling it a silo, I think it’s really more like the Statue of Liberty that is standing for our community rights.”

Charles Townsend Vinci, the current mayor (a position rotated among City Council members), is 76 and a four-year City Council member who retired last year from his Rancho Mirage-based high-end furniture business. We asked him about the issues on which he would focus during a new term.

“Development is one. Business coming into Rancho Mirage is another. Those are things I’d be working on,” he said.

“The homeless situation is another. I sit on the CVAG (Homelessness Committee), which Rancho Mirage and I personally support. The other main thing is keeping a balanced budget for Rancho Mirage. We have a $63 million reserve, and that reserve is not just laying in an account getting 1 percent (in interest). That $63 million is divided into separate categories, including infrastructure, earthquake problems, problems with City Hall or any of our annex buildings, and it’s also for redevelopment funds, so it’s all earmarked.”

According to the Rancho Mirage two-year budget for fiscal 2017-18 and 2018-19, the city’s reserve funds currently total roughly $68 million.

While each Rancho Mirage City Council member receives roughly $33,000 per year, plus benefits (along with an additional annual expense reimbursement of up to $2,700), Townsend noted: “When you’re in a council with these cities down here, you’re not in it for raising a family. You’re not in it to make money. I’m not in it to advance to Sacramento or Washington and use it as a stepping stone to higher office. I’ve been living here for 24 years, and I have a vested interest in Rancho Mirage. I’m not just jumping in and thinking that I can throw everything up into the wind and change things. The next four years will be very important to our development and achievement.”

When asked what else he’d like constituents to know, Townsend replied: “I think they should look at the record that has been set over the last 10 years for their council. In the four years that I’ve been on it, and going back, there’s been a list of accomplishments and achievements that have been done for the best of the city. One of the main things is the pension fund. We paid ours off, and we saved millions of dollars in interest payments. … This council—and I’m not just talking about the three of us (standing for re-election in 2018), but the five of us—have a great spread of wisdom and knowledge and background, and all five of us are dedicated to the city of Rancho Mirage.”


The Challengers

Michael Harrington, 59, is back on the ballot after losing a 2016 bid for a Rancho Mirage City Council seat. A practicing lawyer who has lived in the city for 15 years, Harrington said he feels strongly that the current council is not providing competent or transparent leadership.

“My motivation is to improve the city,” Harrington said. “I think we’re falling behind other cities in the valley. Somehow, the council just has stopped dealing with modern ideas. That doesn’t mean we have to have radical change; it just means that you have to be able to adapt to change, and they seem to have stopped being able to adapt. That will lead to deterioration, which I believe we’re already seeing. There’s an increase in property crime. We’ve seen businesses opening up, then shutting down, because other cities offer them more.”

What would Harrington’s immediate priorities be if elected? “I’d put public safety first as a broad category, which includes road and pedestrian safety, public lighting needs and overall attention to the needs of pedestrians, joggers, pet owners and bicyclists.

“Second would be revitalizing our business community. We have one grocery market, and I think it’s going to stay, but we had to struggle to get just the one Gelson’s market to come here. They’re doing well now, but we could have sped up the permitting process. With shopping in general, people have been going more to El Paseo, and now they’re starting to go to Palm Springs. We can do more with our shopping experience. What about a free shuttle? People like that, and it brings a good feel to the shopping experience. We could look into private-public tax-sharing agreements that have helped revive local cities like Coachella, where more businesses are opening.

“Third, we need more civility and transparency. Right now, we don’t have the civility in dealing with our neighboring cities’ officials. That probably comes from the false fear that’s been propagated (by the current City Council): ‘We don’t want to have anything to do with any of those people, or any outsiders, or other cities. They’ll ruin our city.’ And as for transparency, they should have open discussion. Usually, when the City Council votes, they’re 5-0 on every issue. A City Council member said, ‘We do have vigorous discussions.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Well, where do you have them?’ I don’t see them on the dais at the public meetings I attend. I want it out in the open.”

A first time candidate is Robert “Bob” Mueller, who, at 70, offers considerable executive business experience, but no previous political involvement.

“I moved to Rancho Mirage four years ago,” Mueller said. “When my partner and I were building our home here, during the construction, the City Council took exception to some of the designs, and we wound up having to make some extremely expensive changes. We asked the City Council to let us speak with a City Council member, and when we presented our concerns and asked for some consideration from them, we were told these exact words: ‘If you don’t like the way we run this city, you are free to live anywhere else in the valley that you want.’ Of course, at that point, we had already purchased the land, so it was too late to make a change—but that served to burnish my opinion that the residents of Rancho Mirage can’t feel that the council is receptive to any thoughts that don’t originate with the council itself. So it’s time for a fresh voice.”

When asked what his top priorities would be if he’s elected, Mueller said: “Combatting property crime in Rancho Mirage is certainly one. According to the data I’ve seen, Rancho Mirage has a crime rate of 3,843 per 100,000 citizens annually, which (in our valley) is second only to Palm Springs, with a property-crime rate over 5,700. A number of less-affluent communities have property-crime rates less than half that of Rancho Mirage, and this is not just a blip. It’s been this way for several years.”

The City Council recently approved the hiring of two additional full-time police officers to bolster the force. “When the officers were hired, there was no discussion about funding police patrols in gated communities, which a number of residents have complained about,” Mueller said. “That seems to be another issue that the current City Council has turned a deaf ear to. So it was a great missed opportunity. They spent $664,000 to hire two additional police officers and set no goals for crime reduction at the time they were hired. I don’t understand it.”

Another issue Mueller highlighted was the need for a reserve fund of some $68 million for a city as small as Rancho Mirage.

“A ‘rainy day fund’ reserve typically would be maybe 50 percent of the annual budget of roughly $26 million,” Mueller said. “So, this is far more than just a ‘rainy day’ fund. This is a huge asset that belongs to the taxpayers. Without spending a ton of money, some of this reserve could be used to make Rancho Mirage an international tourist destination. Most of the city’s annual revenue comes from the transient occupancy tax (aka the hotel tax), but three of the four main Rancho Mirage hotels are all 20 years old or more. Meanwhile, new high-fashion hotels are being built in other valley cities, so our city is facing an uphill battle competing with these much-newer and more-fashionable properties. The city needs to hold up its end of the bargain by improving the luster of the city as a destination to help its hotels compete. Also, they could do things to help the businesses in the city that are not exactly thriving. In the summer, when business is tougher to come by, they could do a sales-tax holiday to give the businesses here in the city an advantage over those in other cities that don’t have the means to do something like that.”

Kate Spates, 50, runs her own business-consulting firm, and although she claims little political experience, she currently holds positions on the boards of numerous local civic and charitable organizations.

“I think we have to assess what the people in our community want, and what they need to help improve their lives,” Spates said. “We need to understand what the upcoming generations want in recreation and then look to provide those resources to satisfy the demands, or our community will suffer. And we need to look at our assets like our hospitals, our hotels and all of our large employers. We need to ensure that the workforce is skilled and healthy.

“It’s also extremely important for everyone to maintain property values, which bleeds into another issue: I feel like having areas of our city that are unsightly, and looking abandoned, is not healthy for the surrounding community of homeowners. So I feel that we need to work to attract new businesses and improve the existing businesses through some sort of business retention and improvement program, especially along the Highway 111 corridor north of Country Club.”

Spates has experience in publicity and marketing.

“I think Rancho Mirage has long been a secret,” Spates said. “So I want to shout from the roof tops and get better marketing (for what we have to offer). You know we have four beautiful luxury resorts (including the Ritz Carlton, the Omni Rancho Las Palmas resort, the Westin Mission Hills and the Agua Caliente Resort and Casino) that attract tourists from all over the world. I know that the city has explored, and is interested in attracting, smaller boutique hotels, which are great. Our bed tax (TOT) accounts for a large percentage of our revenues, so it’s very important that we treat those resorts as our partners.”

What message would she like to leave with voters?

“I feel like it might be a secret that 56 percent of Rancho Mirage residents are under the age of 65, because there’s no current representation of that demographic on our council,” Spates said. “So when I talk about representing an under-represented demographic in our city, I’m talking about those people under 65. It’s been on the record where some of our council members will say, ‘This is a retirement community.’ End of story. I strongly disagree.”

Published in Politics

All four of the Rancho Mirage candidates whom the Independent spoke to about CV Link—the 50-mile bike, pedestrian and low-speed electric-vehicle path that, if completed, would connect all eight of the Coachella Valley’s cities—say it’s a dead issue, because the residents of Rancho Mirage overwhelmingly voted against the proposed Rancho Mirage portion two years ago.

And then the candidates keep talking—indicating the issue may not be so dead after all.

Another indication the issue is not so dead: It’s been the most contentious topic so far in the city campaign. Candidate Michael Harrington filed a complaint against incumbent Dana Hobart after Hobart claimed in an email that the three challengers to the incumbents all want to bring the issue back up—perhaps due to the influence of former Goldenvoice chief operating officer Skip Paige, who is in a relationship with candidate Kate Spates.

Both Harrington and Spates have denied Hobart’s claims.

Here’s what four candidates told us when asked where they stand on CV Link. Hobart declined to talk to the Independent, while incumbent Charles Townsend Vinci ended our interview before we could ask him about CV Link.

Robert Mueller: “The CV Link is a big deal, and it’s been a very contentious deal. I think the way that the City Council has handled it has caused the city to become an island. The CV Link was put on the ballot for a vote by the city’s residents, and it was overwhelmingly defeated, with 79 percent of voters coming out against it. I think the voters see it as an externally imposed and expensive disruption without any redeeming benefit. I have no intention of questioning the wisdom of Rancho Mirage voters. They’ve indicated their preference clearly, and I’m not going to try to change their minds. Some candidates may try to make it a campaign issue, but considering that the voters have already indicated their preference, I think that discussing CV Link in the context of this election is an unhelpful academic exercise.”

Michael Harrington: “The Rancho Mirage voters have voted it down, and they’ve said they don’t want it, so it would have to go on the ballot again. I think some of the concerns are about cost and how to apportion those costs. I don’t look at the city in terms of the one issue of CV Link, but somehow, it has become more than just another issue. It’s become some sort of pivotal point where it’s almost become irrational. The incumbents portray it as a threat that will destroy our community. I think that’s irrational. It’s another project, and you look at it rationally and civilly with transparency. But again, the citizens voted it down. I’m open to looking at it again, but I’m not the agent for CV Link. It’s just another project to look at going forward. I’ve reached out to (the Coachella Valley Association of Governments) to discuss with them what might be done with a new City Council. What about having a bike path only in Rancho Mirage? What about cooperating with the people who want to go through our city using CV Link? We need a bike path anyway. I don’t think our bike paths now are really all that good, but we can cooperate with other cities because the riders are going to want to come through here. CVAG is not sharing our trails because of this stand-off. I’d like to look at options to cooperate with the project, even though Rancho Mirage doesn’t want the whole CV Link package, with electric cars and all that. There must be a compromise or a solution, and I’d like to work on it. But I’m not personally promoting the CV Link.”

Kate Spates: “I support the will of the people, and they’ve decided that CV Link should not run through Rancho Mirage. I’m a firm believer in democracy. So, if a wave of people decides to bring it back up, then that’s the only way it’s going to be a part of the discussion. If you ask me, it’s history, and we need to stop talking about it. Although I do receive a large amount of e-mails and calls, and hear voices of support for CV Link, I’m not sure who I’m not hearing from. There have been only a few people who have said, ‘If you’re for the CV Link, then I’m not for you.’ So let me assure (the voters) that there’s not one lone person who can revive the CV Link. And even if all five City Council members decided all of a sudden that we wanted it back, it’s still in the hands of the voters.”

Iris Smotrich (incumbent): “My biggest concerns, and the biggest concerns of the people I talk to, are public safety and property protection. I have to tell you that as a mother and a grandmother and a former chairwoman of the CVAG Public Safety Committee, I’ve heard many concerns through the last four years regarding crime, and accidents, and law-enforcement monitoring, and residential privacy. You have to remember that, according to CVAG’s projections, there will be a huge traffic flow on this roadway, and most travel will be near or in the wash, where there are a lot of communities built. Many of my friends and neighbors and our constituents think there are a lot of problems just waiting to happen. One of the biggest concerns is about homeless encampments. All you have to do is look online at (what’s happened around) similar roadways in the Bay Area, the L.A. River, the American River and the Santa Ana River, and it’s not a nice or a healthy sight to see. It’s heartbreaking, and with this roadway, there (would be) a lot of crime opportunity, drug problems, a lot of health concerns, and privacy issues, especially in the backyards and with windows exposed to the traffic flow of complete strangers going by. I can’t imagine anyone who knows all the details … wanting or agreeing to have any of this. It’s a very difficult situation, and I’m very opposed to it. But we’re going to do an environmental impact study on it for $150,000, even though our residents voted against it, because, someday, things may change. We listen to our constituents, and we listen to our visitors. We want the best for our residents, our businesses and our visitors.”

Published in Politics

You’ve heard the term, “All politics is local”? California Republicans had better hope so.

The pre-vote polls told us that this week’s gubernatorial matchup in Virginia would be a nailbiter. Instead, it was an electoral thrashing. Voters handed the governor’s mansion to Democrat Ralph Northam with a decisive 9 point margin while stripping the state GOP of its firm grip on the legislature’s lower chamber, reducing a supermajority to a virtual tie.

By all accounts, this blue wave—which also swept up statehouse races in New Jersey and New Hampshire, municipal contests in Pennsylvania, a special election in Washington state, and a Medicaid expansion vote in Maine—was as much a referendum on what’s happening in Washington, D.C., as it was a rebuke of local lawmakers. Or as Republican political consultant Mike Murphy told the Washington Post, Virginia was a test of whether the GOP’s electoral fates are tied to the president’s approval numbers. “The canary in the coal mine didn’t just pass out,” he said. “Its head exploded.”

Though political analysts are still analyzing the numbers, it sure looks that way. Virginia saw its highest increase in voter turnout in two decades, with the bulk of the bump coming from Clinton-winning districts in the suburbs. Young voters and voters with college educations flocked to the Democratic side. According to exit polls, a third of all voters said they cast their ballot in part to “express opposition to Donald Trump.”

“There may have been some local issues involved, but the main driver of what happened was the energy among base Democratic constituents who finally woke up,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican political consultant who advises the campaign of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Antonio Villaraigosa.

California Democrats are hoping for a similar awakening in the elections of 2018. On the line: their lock on power in Sacramento, where the party holds a commanding two-thirds supermajority of legislative seats, along with all statewide constitutional offices. At the same time, the GOP’s control of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., could also be decided here. Of the 14 California districts that last sent Republicans to Congress, seven voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

Hours before Tuesday’s election returns rolled in, GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista became the first of those 14 to withdraw support for the current House GOP tax plan, saying it would strip away tax deductions disproportionately used by Californians. Democrats had identified Issa as a top target for 2018.

So how nervous should California Republican candidates be? Very, said Jason Cabel Roe, a Republican political consultant in San Diego.

“They’ve got to assert their willingness to step up to the president when they feel he’s wrong,” he said, but do so without alienating the party’s base. Though only 27 percent of California likely voters approve of the president, 7 in 10 Republicans still stand by their elected man.

“A majority of Republican voters don’t seem to really care about winning as much as they care about voting for someone who they believe will be a shot to the system,” Roe said.

Indeed, some Trump loyalists are arguing the election results merely prove that Republican candidates fell short because they failed to embrace President Trump even more enthusiastically.

While many other Republicans are wringing their hands, Democrats are imagining 2010 in reverse: Recall the historic shellacking the party took that year when conservatives—driven by Tea Party fervor, equal parts anti-Obamacare and anti-Obama—turned statehouses red across the country and flipped the House.

“Trump is clearly the giant orange blob blotting out the sun for Republicans,” said Dan Newman, a political consultant and spokesperson for Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the early Democratic frontrunner to be governor. “He's depressing moderate Republicans, alienating swing voters, and motivating Democrats—who are fired up like they haven't been in years.”

That’s the inversion California Democrats hope for heading into the 2018 midterms: depressed Republican numbers (as the base fails to turn out and moderates cross over to vote blue) and jacked-up Democratic turnout among so-called “low propensity” voters—non-white and younger voters who typically lean Democratic but who are usually less likely to turnout during off-year elections.

In the small number of elections we’ve seen in California this year—a special Congressional election, an assembly primary matchup, a handful of municipal races like the one in Palm Springs—we have haven’t seen that kind of turnout.

This week, in Virginia and elsewhere across the country, those stars finally seem to have aligned. But then again, 2018 is still a year away. And California is not Virginia.

According to Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data, Inc., the Golden State has been shielded in the recent past from the political waves that buffet the rest of the country.

As statehouses went red en masse in 2010, for example, Democrats in California actually picked up a legislative seat. “There some evidence to suggest that the waves stop at Reno,” he said.

Plus, the Democratic party’s current political dominance could serve to buffer the effect of an anti-Trump wave. Typically, the voters most animated during midterm elections are those hoping to rebuke the party in power. This week, voters in Virginia, New Jersey and Maine found ready targets for their frustration with the status quo among the Republicans occupying their statehouses and governor’s mansions. But in California, powerful Republicans are hard to come by.

And then there’s the simple fact of geographical distance: While national politics may weigh heavily on the mind of a D.C. suburbanite, said Mitchell, national politics might seem more abstract to a California voter, whereas the quality of local education, the housing crunch or the price of gas might feel more pressing.

California Republicans are certainly banking on that anyway—although the list of Republicans who didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story includes Republican National Committee member Harmeet Dhillon, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Dahle, and Assemblyman/gubernatorial candidate Travis Allen.

“In a low-turnout midterm election, at least some California Republican incumbents will find other issues to help them achieve re-election. Those who do survive, however, will do so in spite of their party’s leaders,” wrote Dan Schnur, a former GOP consultant who was a key aide to the state’s last Republican governor, and now a professor at the University of Southern California.

As far as Schnur is concerned, national Republicans have sized up California’s changing ideology and demographics and concluded “it’s not even worth fighting to retain a foothold in the nation’s largest state.”

So on the campaign trail, state Democrats will do everything in their power to remind voters that every last Republican dog catcher shares a party label with a wildly unpopular president.

“Here in California, the reason they want to talk about Donald Trump is because they don’t want to talk about the record they’ve created here,” Jim Brulte, the state GOP chairman told a gathering of Republicans at the party’s convention last month. After rattling off a list of economic and social ills facing the state (presumably all the fault of the party in power), he then tried out a phrase that is sure to resurface in campaign ads and talking points in the months to come: “They broke it; they own it.”

With that, the California Republicans have crafted themselves a midterm strategy. Keep it local. Talk about the gas tax. Talk about the state’s first-in-the-nation poverty rate. Donald Trump’s latest Twitter spat with Kim Jong Un? No, I’m afraid I haven’t seen that.

Or as Brulte put it while speaking at the Sacramento Press Club last week: “I don’t get the vapors over what’s going on in Washington D.C.”

Nor, presumably, in Virginia, New Jersey, or Maine.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics