Three Southwest Riverside County political powerhouses are vying for a supervisor seat that is up for grabs June 7.
But all three candidates – incumbent Chuck Washington and challengers Randon Lane and Shellie Milne – concede that the contest will likely continue well beyond that point. Two of them are expected to square off in what will be a costly, cagey campaign that will stretch into early November.
“It’s headed for a runoff,” Milne said in a point-blank assessment that all three candidates generally share. As the race unfolds, it is a contest that will be dissected from various angles.
Some observers want to see whether a Gov. Brown appointee can survive in a top-heavy Republican district. Others are curious whether a candidate with Tea Party roots can climb to a countywide perch. Some ponder whether a hopeful with strong Republican ties will carry the day. Others wonder whether the political balance in the county’s Third District will continue to tilt toward the Interstate 15 corridor and away from Hemet and San Jacinto.
Rarely have three candidates with such hefty political pedigrees gone toe-to-toe in a local supervisorial contest.
And it is a contest with much at stake. The county is snared by a crushing budget deficit and the four cities that anchor the district are squeezed by spiraling public safety and infrastructure costs.
Each candidate must win to stay in the political arena. The council terms of both Lane and Milne end late this year. Neither is seeking to retain their city post.
On top of all that, the structuring of alliances has drawn new political lines and sharpened old ones.
In Washington’s case, a longtime connection is being cited as a political liability. Washington shrugs off critics who say his ties to a prominent real estate and development company have tangled his office in a web of conflicts
The county’s third supervisorial district is home to more than 450,000 residents. It stretches from Temecula to San Jacinto and Idyllwild to Anza Borrego Desert State Park. It takes in four cities: Temecula, Murrieta, Hemet and San Jacinto; as well as such far-flung unincorporated communities as Murrieta Hot Springs, French Valley, Winchester, Aguanga, Lake Riverside and Anza.
The five county supervisors serve four-year terms and they each earn a base salary of nearly $148,000.
For generations, the Third District was headed by political leaders from Hemet and other population hubs east of the I-15 corridor. Then one growth boom after another roared through Temecula, Murrieta and French Valley. As the district’s population base shifted, so did its political power.
Jeff Stone, a longtime Temecula councilman who repeatedly held the post of mayor, was the first official from the county’s southwest corner to be elected to a supervisor’s job. Stone completed more than two terms as a county supervisor before he was elected to the state Senate in November 2014.
Gov. Jerry Brown picked Washington in March 2015 to succeed Stone on the county board. Washington is the only person to be alternately elected to the Murrieta and Temecula city councils. He is also the first black to ever serve on either council. He broke that same racial barrier on the countywide board.
Lane and Milne surfaced as likely opponents to Washington almost as soon as the ink dried on Brown’s appointment.
Washington has carved out a singular political path since he arrived in Murrieta as a young military vet turned airline pilot. His path has also intersected with that of the founder of Rancon, a real estate and development company that has a broad reach throughout the region.
Washington served on Murrieta’s council from 1995 to 1999 and was mayor for part of that term. Washington moved south into the Temecula community of Meadowview, and he was elected to that council in 2003.
Washington served in the Navy from 1981 to 1987. He climbed to the top of his aviation squadron prior to shifting gears and exiting the military. He was then hired as a pilot for Delta Air Lines.
Washington retired from Delta in 2005 as the air carrier spiraled into bankruptcy. He was subsequently hired as vice president of commercial relations at 1st Centennial Bank. He held that post until 2008, and he returned to Delta that same year after the airline brought a small number of pilots out of retirement. He later retired from Delta for a second time.
While a councilman, Washington invested some of his Delta retirement funds into a pair of Rancon entities that include a winery.
The precise value of those investments is not specified in state-mandated disclosure forms, but they total somewhere between $110,000 and $1.1 million.
Washington was plucked by Brown from a field of hopefuls who sought to fill the remainder of Stone’s term as Third District supervisor.
Washington says he never imagined that a supervisor seat would be part of his political trajectory, or that his Rancon investments would pose a potential conflict of interest in the wine country and possibly beyond. He said none of his development-related investments has ever returned a profit, and he would sell his Rancon interests at face value if a buyer stepped forward.
Washington brought $155,293 into his campaign for supervisor. That was augmented by another $68,414 he raised prior to April 23, the last disclosure period on file with county election officials.
Washington has loaned his campaign $4,000. Funding committees controlled by two of his former Temecula council colleagues – Jeff Comerchero and Maryann Edwards – have together contributed $3,500. Several vineyards and agricultural interests are among his key donors.
Rancon figures large in Washington’s fundraising acumen. A smattering of development entities of the company together contributed more than $17,000 during the initial campaign reporting period, records show.
He spent nearly $57,500 during the campaign’s first phase. Melody Brunsting, a prominent local publicist and event marketer, has been tapped as part of his team.
Washington, 63, lists his education and his military, business and government experience as his qualifications for office. He said his 14 months on the job have given him keen insights into the district’s complexities. This is no time to interject a new face into the picture, he says.
“There’s a learning curve, and I’m up to speed and I’m up to the challenge,” Washington said in a recent telephone interview. “I don’t think the voters are ready to start all over again.”
Washington said his incumbency is an asset, and he cites a series of “little victories” he has achieved thus far in the district. He notes that he netted the endorsement of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association, and says Lane and Milne are grasping at straws by claiming his Rancon investments pose a problem.
Washington said he spent his first 100 days learning the nuances of the district, a period that spurred a report on how he planned to move forward.
“Since that 100-day report I’ve created a vision for the district,” he said.
That vision is not the best path ahead for the Third District, according to Lane and Milne. They say conflicts have edged Washington out of wine country issues and he has been ineffective elsewhere.
They cite what they call a string of Washington’s weaknesses, and Lane goes so far as to accuse the incumbent of “dereliction of duty as a supervisor.” He says Brown made the wrong choice for the region.
“Obviously, I don’t think (Washington) is the right person going forward,” Lane said in a recent telephone interview. “That’s why I’m running.”
Lane was the youngest person on record to be appointed to Murrieta’s Planning Commission in 2003. He remained in that post until 2008. He has served on the council since then, and his current terms ends in December 2016.
Lane, 47, said he could bring Murrieta’s success stories to the countywide stage. He said Murrieta’s low crime rate, its bustling economy and its road and bridge building accomplishments can be seen as a measure of his effectiveness.
“I think I bring more successes than the other candidates and would be the best choice as a county supervisor,” he said.
Lane has amassed more than 50 endorsements from a vast array of government, political, tribal and business leaders and groups.
Those endorsements include three members of Congress, two state Assembly members and more than 30 council members from 20 cities. Those council supporters hold one or more seats in such cities as Murrieta, Menifee, Wildomar, Lake Elsinore, Hemet and Corona.
Five county supervisors – at least one each in Riverside, Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties – are listed as Lane supporters. Supervisor Kevin Jefferies, who is running to retain his First District seat, is listed as Lane’s Riverside County endorsement.
Lane, who has spent his career in the telecommunications industry, began the first leg of the campaign with more than $160,000 in carryover funds and new donations. He spent more than $42,000 in the early going, and had nearly $120,000 on hand in early May.
Lane loaned his campaign $25,000 near the onset, but has since trimmed that debt to $15,000. His largest donor – Michael Lumary of Yorba Linda – has contributed $25,000 thus far, according to disclosure documents. Lumary lists his occupation as home energy sales.
Milne has spotlighted her fundraising success as a barometer of her support throughout the district. The press release announcing her candidacy noted that she had raised more than $100,000 over a two week period.
Her documents show about $144,000 in early fundraising activity and $79,300 in spending. She entered the homestretch of the primary race with $65,064. Wineries made up a large part of her fundraising success. That economic sector has poured more than $100,000 into her campaign.
“I have several wineries that support me, and they have stepped up to the plate in a very big way,” Milne said by telephone. The Hemet Community Medical Group has donated $25,000 thus far, records show.
Milne, 46, is a retail and municipal consultant and her family owns a grading and excavation company. She parlayed her Tea Party roots and community activism into a winning bid for a Hemet council seat in November 2012. Her council term ends in December 2016.
Her stances on key Hemet issues, including the city’s approach to public safety services, have triggered a sharp backlash from critics. Milne survived a recall effort that was launched over her vote on fire protection services. Yet she has also drawn support from some influential quarters.
John Petty, a longtime county planning commissioner, swung to Milne’s side after he was replaced by an appointee recommended by Washington.
Milne said she has purposely limited her string of endorsements. But she has reached deep into Temecula to snare some key allies.
Senator Stone’s sister, Lori Stone, is a paid consultant to Milne’s campaign. Lori Stone owns a Temecula-based campaign management and fundraising firm. Milne calls her “my boots on the ground girl.”
Milne has also won the endorsement of Ron Bradley, who has attained a guru-like reputation among local city managers and councils.
Bradley is perhaps best known in this area as Temecula’s city manager from 1994 to 1998 and as a chairman of its chamber of commerce. Before that, he managed the city of La Mesa from 1980 to 1988. From there, he managed the city of Oceanside until 1990.
He briefly served as an interim city manager in Laguna Hills. He held that same post in Murrieta in 2007 and Hemet for a period that spanned portions of 2012-13.
Thus, Bradley has worked closely with all three candidates. He said he endorsed Milne because she is “a really intelligent woman with an independent mind.”
Bradley said Milne does her homework and she mines local issues far beyond what is written in city staff reports.
“I really appreciate someone like that,” Bradley said in a telephone interview.
Milne said independence, intelligence and candid assessments are key ingredients of her composition. She calls Bradley’s endorsement a “badge of honor.”
Milne said political insiders tried early on to edge her away from the race.
“I was told to get out. It wasn’t my turn,” she said. “I didn’t know we took turns.”
She also concedes that the deck of political heavy hitters is stacked in Lane’s favor.
“Nobody in the status quo will endorse me,” she said. “I come up against that.”