Inside-Out Politics Reign in San Bernardino County Supervisors Race

James Ramos, left, and Neil Derry | Images courtesy James Ramos and Neil Derry campaigns

One of Southern California's most interesting local races in the runup to the election is taking place in San Bernardino's third Supervisorial District, where Democrat James Ramos is working to unseat incumbent Republican Neil Derry. Though after attending a "meet-and-greet" with Ramos in Joshua Tree this week, it looks to me as though Ramos isn't all that comfortable with his own party affiliation.

The meeting, held Monday evening at a restaurant in downtown Joshua Tree, attracted about 75 people. Discussion was contentious, and the candidate fielded some pointed questions. Or tried to field them, anyway. Locals came to the meeting with a number of concerns, chief among them a casino being proposed for east of downtown by the 29 Palms band of Mission Indians. Those in attendance also asked questions about a nearby proposed dollar store, the Cadiz water project, and general issues about representation for residents in the unincorporated community.

Ramos did deflect a direct question as to whether he supported the casino, telling the crowd that his background -- he's former chairman of the San Manuel band of Serrano Indians, operators of a large casino in Highland -- didn't determine his stand on the issue. "I'm not automatically in favor of the casino just because I'm a Native American," Ramos said. "It doesn't work that way." But pressed for a more definitive position, Ramos went utterly noncommittal. "It depends what the community wants," he said.

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Since Joshua Tree is an unincorporated community, the San Bernardino Board of Supervisors is the town's residents' first line of formal political representation. Despite having taken essentially Tea Party Line positions on wedge issues like pension reform and immigration, incumbent Neil Derry enjoys some support in town for having made a point of paying attention to local issues, even among liberals and progressives. The Third District is enormous, stretching from the County seat in San Bernardino to Barstow to the east end of Joshua Tree National Park, about 2,700 square miles in all. That's a lot of territory to represent, and with the exception of a few enclaves like Joshua Tree, it's overwhelmingly conservative.

So it's not surprising that candidates for office here would run to the right. This showed rather starkly at the Monday meeting in Joshua Tree. Event host John Schuster asked Ramos whether he had endorsed any other candidates for office, especially in the Presidential race. Ramos' answer was that he hadn't paid attention to the presidential elections. "I've been focusing on my own race," he said, to what seemed general disbelief among the crowd. Asked for a list of Democratic endorsers of his campaigns, Ramos responded by saying that Paul Cook had endorsed him. Cook is the somewhat less-conservative Republican of the two conservative Republicans competing for election in California's Eighth Congressional District this November.

Ramos has a sizable war chest: he outspent Derry 2:1 in the primary. Derry is also tarred by association with, and alleged involvement in, the recent comic-opera history of corruption on the San Bernardino Board of Supervisors, which ended with former Supervisor Bill Postmus convicted of 14 felonies, including bribery and methamphetamine possession counts. The scandal also contributed to Brad Mitzelfelt's recent electoral loss. Derry was charged with two Postmus-related felonies and a misdemeanor, and pled guilty to the misdemeanor in a plea bargain he says he accepted "to avoid a long drawn-out trial."

Both candidates have weighed in on the proposal to use eminent domain laws to protect San Bernardino County homeowners from foreclosure, with Derry saying he's open to the idea and the Ramos campaign slamming Derry for saying so, condemning the incumbent for supporting the "seiz[ur]e [of] private property from homeowners." Ramos was Chairman of the San Manuel band when the city of Highland used eminent domain to widen streets leading to the San Manuel Casino.

So that's the choice Third District voters have in November. Conservatives have a choice between voting for a Democrat of color, or voting for a Republican who is tainted by a corruption scandal and is willing to consider Occupy-influenced policy to thwart predatory banks. Liberals have a choice between voting for a Republican who targets immigrants and unions, or voting for a Democrat who refuses to make strong statements except when it comes to slamming his opponent, and who essentially answers questions about his views on the Presidential race with "Obama who?" Such is life in the Third Supervisorial District in San Bernardino County. It's not a great time to be a voter, especially in places like Joshua Tree where the Board of Supervisors is pretty much all you've got in the way of formal local representation.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

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