There was a time not so long ago in the Coachella Valley when the Republican Party had the Midas touch when it came to capturing local, state and federal offices.
Republicans ran the tables to lock in seats on city councils, although they are technically nonpartisan, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors, the state Assembly, the state Senate and the U.S. Congress. It was a party that coalesced as one for nearly 15 years, perhaps more.
There were standout, easily identifiable natural leaders.
The longtime, high-profile matriarch of the party was Congresswoman Mary Bono. Every Republican political wannabe sought her endorsement. If you earned it, it was like winning the Golden Ticket on American Idol.
The late Riverside County Supervisor Roy Wilson was the GOP’s patriarchal leader in the Coachella Valley. He was one of the most trusted, respected and well-liked leaders of his time. His endorsement to a political candidate was priceless. If you had Wilson’s endorsement you were well on you way to public office.
Other names so long associated with the Republican Party in the Coachella Valley — the late state Assemblyman John J. Benoit has passed. Former state Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia, former state Assemblyman Brian Nestande and former state Sen. Jim Battin are no longer in office.
Whether you like them or agreed with them, all their names were synonymous with leadership. Coachella Valley Republicans rallied behind them (mostly) in unity.
That Republican Party no longer exists, according to local Republican leaders. By all accounts, it is a party in freefall, not unlike what is happening on the national level. They are fighting amongst themselves.
But why? Is it the Trump effect? Exactly who are the desert’s GOP leaders of today?
In a refreshing and brutally candid email/message interview, one Republican unloaded, refusing to hold back.
“There is NO leadership, only fiefdoms,” said Lupe Ramos Watson, a member of the Indio City Council who is in line to be mayor in 2020 for a fourth term. “I have not participated to the degree that I once did with the local party because I disagree with the various groups’ divisive actions.”
She said Republicans came together for Election night, which is probably the only thing they agree on – the future of this great country.
She blames the “fragmentation,” the “deterioration” and “disintegration” of the GOP to the loss of continuity from the previous leadership – Bono, Wilson, Benoit, Nestande – with no time to shape future leaders.
“So, as is the case when a void exists, a vacuum effect is created and then those who step into the void create their own fiefdoms,” she said, quoting from Nestande. “Ultimately, the result was being a divided organization, picking leaders based on popularity, promises or worse — money,” she said.
Asked if she could identify some male or female GOP leaders, Ramos Watson declined, saying, “Personally, I do not hold any current Coachella Valley elected male or female Republican in high enough regard to be considered as a leader in our party.”
“Unfortunately, when the Party had the opportunity to unite behind me, the first Latina Republican Congressional Candidate, they refused to allow me access to the membership. So, although I remain a role model and leader in my community, I am probably not considered a leader amongst the Party.”
Ramos Watson did in the end say she holds out “great hope” for Palm Desert City Council member Gina Nestande as becoming a Party leader. “She is the only elected that has seen generations of leaders work from grass roots to success,” Ramos Watson said.
“Be careful out there,” she cautioned. “There are so many self-proclaimed leaders that have pandered and brainwashed those closest to them to the point that it disgusts me. We are all witnessing the consequences across the nation as our party is slowly eroding and continues to be divided in this great country.”
Some political leaders refused to talk about the “deterioration” of the party, which is akin to blasphemy. Discussing local politics is the sustenance of daily living in the desert where nine unique cities, each with its own city council, is a political junkie’s dream. Local government is where the real decisions are made, the ones that touch residents’ lives every day.
As former Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.”
Political discussions in the Coachella Valley have forged lifelong friendships and fractured others. Some relationships have been irretrievably broken.
So, why now are so many Republicans pulling in their necks like turtles and hiding inside their shells?
Is it the Trump effect?
At least four Republican leaders, both in and out of office, refused to talk about the nature of the GOP. Some, like leaders on Capitol Hill, are trying to play it cool and coy knowing they face re-election. Speaking out could cost them their seat.
“I have no comments for this story,” said one highly active GOP supporter. “Best of luck!”
She did not mince words.
Glenn Alan Miller, an Indio City Council member, said the story behind the disarray is a “very long story” and was headed to an event.
Said he’d call back; he did not. Before he left for his function, Miller said the party is “fragmented.” He reached out about a week later asking if I still wanted to talk. “I’m sorry. I just got tied up and forgot to call back.”
Most said to contact Dick Oliphant, president of the Lincoln Club, and standard bearer of the desert’s Republican Party.
“There is a large number of Republicans in the Valley,” Oliphant said in an email correspondence. “Recruiting candidates is the problem. We have active leadership if we have someone to run for office.”
As of Sept. 28, there were 364,421 registered Democrats in Riverside County and 337,834 Republicans, according to the Riverside County Registrar of Voters.
Oliphant said the party has a “few spokesmen” for the local party but almost all are non-elected There is a large number of Republicans in the Valley. Recruiting candidates is the problem. We have active leadership if we have someone to run for office. We have a few spokesmen for the local party, but almost all are non-elected.
Jim Ferguson, a Palm Desert attorney and former member of the Palm Desert City Council, said there was a time when the Republican Party of a “tight-knit, cohesive” unit.
“As Ronald Reagan said, there’s a big umbrella we could all sit under and we tried to make it as big as possible,” Ferguson said in a telephone interview. “But I think most people would agree it’s in disarray right now.”
Ferguson said much of it stems from the election of Donald J. Trump as president in November 2016.
“There are those who don’t support the current president, there are those who do support the current president, there are those that don’t know what to do, and frankly, there are those who don’t want to be identified in any way, shape, or form with politics, much less than Republican politics and much, much less than Trump politics.”
That attitude probably throws a bucket of cold water on public meetings and fundraisers, Ferguson said. Few want to stand out and cheer on the Republican Party at this point.
When Ferguson was in office, from 1997 to 2010, nearly every office that was held by a Republican is now held by a Democrat. That’s just the way the political pendulum swings from time to time, he adding that he is confident that it’ will swing back at some point.
“But right now, at this point in time, you ask me, ‘Is the Republican Party in good shape?’ I have to answer no. I don’t think anybody knows where we’re going,” Ferguson said.
With the tape rolling, I let him continue speaking, “I don’t think they know if we’ve got a leader. I don’t think they know if he’s a Republican in the truest sense of the words or a Republican in name only or a Democrat turned Republican simply to become president. I think people are wary, their cautious, they’ve given their lives to the Republican party, like myself, and with the current president, I just don’t think they know where he’s coming from.”
Democrats must be salivating.