Will the Blue Wave of victorious Democratic party candidates in recent elections include San Diego?
The incumbent office holders of down-ballot county seats are hoping they’ll fly under the progressive radar come June 5, 2018. That’s because candidates in San Diego County can win outright –avoiding a November runoff– with a simple majority vote. Though county contests are technically non-partisan, the reality is local office holders at the county level are among the last local bastions of Republicans.
A smaller turnout and the older, more conservative profile of primary voters has all-but-assured an indefinite tenure for county positions like Assessor/Clerk, Sheriff, and District Attorney. And, when they’re ready to retire, they simply quit mid-term, ensuring a carefully groomed deputy appointed by five white Republican County Supervisors will have the advantages of incumbency in the next election.
This gaming of the electoral system means the skeletons in each official’s closet never come to light. The status quo continues unabated. The privileges of the privileged remain protected.
This is what happened with the ascension of Sheriff Bill Gore, who was appointed to replace Bill Kolander in 2009, and with District Attorney Summer Stephan, who replaced Bonnie Dumanis. And it almost happened, so I’m told, with San Diego County Assessor/Recorder/Clerk Ernest J. Dronenberg Jr., who put off retirement once a viable non-appointed candidate emerged earlier this year.
Meet Matt Strabone, the ‘viable non-appointed candidate’ and man with a plan to bring good government practices to the low profile county office that touches virtually every San Diegan.
Strabone’s law firm handles public interest cases, with a dedication to nonprofit and ethics issues. His clients have included the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) and local charities serving the needs of veterans. During an earlier tenure with the Perkins Coie law firm, he provided legal counsel to President Barack Obama.
His public service record includes key roles with the San Diego Leadership Alliance and the North Park Community Association, along with being an appointed member of the City of San Diego Parking Advisory Board, the Holiday Bowl Committee, a partner of the Truman National Security Project, and participation in Sierra Club’s San Diego chapter.
Candidate Strabone made local political radar with a record (for the office involved) $50,000 in contributions reported in June. Since then he’s racked up a hefty list of endorsements, including virtually all of San Diego’s Democratic electeds and activists.
His “Why I am a Democrat” speech thanking all the teachers, bus drivers, librarians and other public servants who helped create the opportunities for success in his life was a high point of the County Democratic Party convention last month.
While other groups have focused on getting Democratic candidates ready for statewide runs or House races, Run for Something works with candidates, many of them first-timers, for state legislatures on down. Some of the endorsed candidates in the latest round are running for county clerk and library committee seats.
A hopeful running for San Diego County Assessor/Recorder/Clerk got the nod, as did one for Ohio’s Clyde-Green Springs School Board.
The group touted its endorsees as “first- and second-time millennial candidates for office who are rebuilding the Democratic Party from the ground up.”
Thirty-two candidates endorsed by Run for Something in 14 states won seats on school boards and state legislatures and city councils in this year’s elections. While first-time office seekers typically only win 10% of the time, the group is touting a 40% success rate.
In a recent interview, Strabone stressed his vision for good government, saying elected officials had an obligation to explain their services to any group willing to provide a forum, including non-profits, church, and area planning groups.
From the day in April when he announced his candidacy, Strabone has stressed two things:
- A ‘culture of corruption’ permeates county government, as evidenced by SANDAG’s poor choices in the stewardship of the public trust.
- He sees his role as building public trust through transparency, accountability, and best practices.
His experiences in researching documentation for clients led him to question the policy of charging $2 per page for public records, even if they are delivered in electronic formats.
The duties of the office of Assessor/Recorder/Clerk as defined by the County include:
ASSESSOR – locating, identifying and appraising all vacant land, improved real estate, business property, and certain mobile homes, boats and aircraft for property tax purposes.
RECORDER – providing public notice by accepting and recording legal instruments (documents) required by law upon payment of proper fees and taxes as well as maintaining birth, marriage and death records and indexes for San Diego County.
COUNTY CLERK – issuing marriage licenses and performing civil marriage ceremonies; registering Fictitious Business Name Statements, notaries public, process servers and professional photocopiers.
The current Assessor/Recorder/Clerk is Ernest J. Dronenburg, Jr., whose involvement in banking ended with the spectacular late 1980s collapse of Seapointe Savings and Loan, which managed to lose half its depositors money in one day by contracting to sell $10 billion in government bonds it didn’t own.
This year will be Dronenburg’s 17th run for elected office. He’s a political functionary who knows what side his bread is buttered on.
In 2014, Dronenburg beat out four challengers in the primary, thanks in large part to a Union-Tribune (then owned by Papa Doug Manchester) endorsement.
I covered that contest four years ago and see no reason to rewrite what I wrote then.
From the September 4, 1988 Los Angeles Times:
Several months after the S&L’s collapse, a related San Bernardino-based mutual fund, at which Dronenburg was also a director, began to report losses in another risky and complex trading scheme. The once high-flying YES Fund was eventually merged with another fund in an effort to stem its losses and flight of investors, but it soon came to be known in the investment community as the “Titanic fund” because it “sank with nearly all hands on board….”
…Strategic Investment Services of Riverside was the trading adviser to both Seapointe and the YES Fund. Dirk Rose, founder and principal of Strategic, brought Dronenburg onto both boards…
Dronenburg blamed the financial troubles on the “nature of boards of directors that meet only once every three months.” He ultimately was not prosecuted.
He also escaped prosecution by the feds following an investigation into allegations the State Board of Equalization was awarding huge tax breaks to corporations which in turn made donations to the board’s members.
From the October 15, 1988 Los Angeles Times:
Last year, the tax board set the total property assessments for eight major utility firms at $57.8 billion–nearly $2 billion below the recommendations of its staff. The reductions, according to county assessors, meant a loss of about $20 million in tax revenues last year for county and city governments.
The same eight utilities, which include Southern California Gas Co., Southern California Edison Co. and General Telephone Co., had contributed $32,200 to Carpenter, Collis and Dronenburg since 1986, records show.
The three votes needed to approve the reductions on the five-member board were cast by Carpenter, Collis and Dronenburg.
While on the State Board of Equalization Dronenburg was also involved in two controversial votes; one against a 42 cent increase in wholesale prices for tobacco products other than cigarettes, and another for (later reversed after public criticism) exempting banks from having to pay property taxes on improvements related to ATM installations.
Dronenburg’s history in his current position involves several near-misses with State and County oversight. “Disclosure of Confidential Sales Information,” “Insufficient Internal Controls Over Checks Received by Mail,” “Inconsistent Internal Controls Over Cash Collections,” and “Incorrect Distribution of Collected Fees” are some the findings that jumped out at me.
The County Clerk’s role in non-issuance of licenses to same-sex couples in the wake of a 2013 Supreme Court ruling is Dronenburg’s claim to fame. His State Supreme Court challenge, which was the basis of his refusal, as it turns out was based on $11,240 in legal work donated by Charles LiMandri, lead counsel for the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund.
Faced with a lot of unwanted publicity, the County Clerk withdrew his complaint, saying he was just seeking legal guidance.
It would not surprise me if Dronenburg is now hopeful of ‘legal guidance’ from the Trump administration allowing him to get back into the business of denying licenses.
This is why paying attention to down-ballot seats is important. The rot brought on by the cultural wars of the Republican party permeates every level of politics.
I’ll close this posting with a paragraph from Strabone’s candidacy announcement, as quoted in East County Magazine:
“Ours is a campaign of new ideas and new energy. We will ensure that the Assessor/Recorder/Clerk’s office serves all people of our county equally and treats everyone fairly,” he said. “From impartial and fair property tax assessment to ensuring that you can quickly and easily access your own public records and documents, our primary commitment will always be to provide excellent customer service to everyone.”
The first article in this series: Time to Clean House in County Government
Over the next week or so I’ll be posting about the races for County Sheriff and District Attorney. These contests matter.
In January, I’ll roll out coverage of the various candidates running for County Supervisor, followed by stories concerning other elected offices in San Diego. At about the time mail-in ballots arrive, I’ll post a Voters Guide. Stay tuned.
Looking for some action? Check out the Weekly Progressive Calendar, published every Friday in this space, featuring Demonstrations, Rallies, Teach-ins, Meet Ups and other opportunities to get your activism on.
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