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Hotly contested San Bernardino County supervisor's race defined by political scandal and government ethics

One of the big local races on Tuesday is for Third District Supervisor in San Bernardino County.

Neil Derry, the incumbent, is running again, but he’s been dogged by a misdemeanor conviction for hiding campaign cash.

He’s facing a strong opponent: James Ramos, the former leader of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. The tribe’s casino and entertainment complex is one of the county’s big employers.

The third candidate is Jim Bagley, the former mayor of Twentynine Palms and the only candidate who brings over a decade of municipal and county leadership to the race.

The county is facing a range of challenges, but government reform is turning out to be a defining theme of the closely watched race.

The county’s recently re-drawn 3rd supervisorial district spans from the Inland Valley up to mountain resort towns like Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead, and all the way out to parts of the High Desert.

During an interview at his campaign office in Redlands, Ramos stopped to chat with a supporter from Barstow who dropped by to pick up a stack of yard signs.

“Hey, things good in Barstow? Our signs still up?" he asked. “I’ve been running around trying to repair them too."

Ramos stepped down as chairman of the San Manuel tribe last year to take on Neil Derry, after the supervisor was charged with two felony counts for allegedly concealing campaign money.

Prosecutors say the cash was laundered through a committee controlled by former board chairman and tax assessor Bill Postmus, a once powerful Republican leader now at the center of a separate corruption probe that’s ensnared numerous Inland officials and businessmen.

The felony charges against Derry were dismissed. But he pled guilty to a misdemeanor for failing to properly report a campaign contribution. Derry was also temporarily suspended from voting on county board agenda items involving federal funding. That includes the board’s approval of its 2011-2012 budget.

“Make no mistake we’re in this race to move San Bernardino County forward in a positive direction, creating jobs for people and to shed that negative image,” said Ramos. “At the end of the day on June 5, people have to ask themselves are they ready to move forward or are they gonna sit back and vote for Mr. Derry, who’s currently serving three years probation.”

At a candidate forum in Big Bear a few weeks ago, Derry told the audience he was elected in 2008 on an ethics platform.

“And it’s sometimes hard to live up to,” said Derry referring to his criminal conviction. “No one is perfect."

Sitting in a corner booth of a San Bernardino diner after a final candidate forum before Tuesday’s election, Derry instead portrayed himself as a Don Quixote-ish lone crusader, tilting against windmills of corruption.

“I’ve been forcing changes in the county with the old guard here and they don’t like it, and it’s why I have a target on my back and why they manufacture these charges against me,” said Derry.

The former San Bernardino councilman would prefer to highlight his efforts to clean up county government. He championed a “sunshine” ordinance to make public records more accessible and cooperated with an investigation of the county assessor’s office.

“Let’s face it, many of my colleagues on the board, many of whom are supporting my opponent (James Ramos), were opposed to opening county government,” said Derry. “I was the supervisor who forced pay cuts and benefit cuts for elected officials.”

Derry did lose the support of some conservative allies in the county and elsewhere. The former San Bernardino police officer pulled in less law enforcement endorsements than his main rival, James Ramos.

Ramos, a Democrat, also won support from high-profile Republican leaders like U.S. Congressman Jerry Lewis and state senators Bob Dutton and Bill Emerson.

It’s a non-partisan race. But Derry’s inability to lock-in-key Republican backers like Lewis and Dutton is notable, said Riverside Press Enterprise political columnist Cassie MacDuff.

“It’s an indicator of the trouble Derry is in. I think people are backing away from him, people who would otherwise be supporting him,” says MacDuff.

Derry has instead tried to hone in on what he believes are Ramos’ own ethical lapses. In campaign mailers, Derry brands Ramos as a “casino boss” with ties to organized crime.

Ramos was elected chairman of the San Manuel tribe in the aftermath of a criminal probe that landed a pair of tribal members in prison for drug trafficking and hatching a murder plot.

Ramos played no part in the scheme. He says he assumed leadership with the intent of weeding out criminal activity on the reservation and in San Manuel’s lucrative casino complex.

He pushed to beef up county sheriff patrols and streamline prosecution of tribal criminal cases. Ramos returned fire by attacking Derry’s campaign finance conviction and his connections to figures in the county’s ongoing corruption saga.

“Well everyone says they don’t like negative campaigning but unfortunately political consultants have figured out that it does work,” said Cassie MacDuff.

The third candidate in the race, former Twentynine Palms mayor and county planner Jim Bagley, has avoided the kind of negative campaigning deployed by his opponents.

“My interest in being the alternative candidate in this race was to run on the high road,” said Bagley, speaking after breakfast at a Highland diner. But he does say ethics matter:

“I am deeply saddened by the culture of corruption that has been present in San Bernardino County most of my life. You need to elect people committed to an ethos of ethics and integrity and are not in it for any other purpose then protecting the best interest of the taxpayers.”

Bagley is arguably the most experienced candidate in the race. He was a three-term mayor and councilman in the city of Twentynine Palms, home to the county’s largest U.S. Marine base – and where Bagley is currently employed. He’s also the chairman of the San Bernardino County Airport Commission and was a regional planner with the Local Agency Formation Commission.

But Bagley is also the least well funded of the candidates. He’s running his campaign on a lean budget of about $11,000. That’s compared to around $400,000 for Neil Derry and roughly $1 million for James Ramos.

“It’s a very clear choice: myself, a conservative Republican whose worked hard for the district, or a liberal Democrat who’s a multimillionaire from casino dollars,” said Neil Derry.

He said Indian gaming has made Ramos very wealthy, at the expense of the surrounding community and its residents.

“When I moved to San Bernardino, I was 5 years old and it was an all-American city. Now you got half the population on welfare partly because casinos attract those types of issues,” he continued.

Ramos called those kind of comments the act of a “desperate” politician. Ramos pointed out that he grew up in a trailer on the San Manuel reservation, when the tribe was among the most impoverished in the state. He said the tribe’s new found success with gaming has been good for the tribe – and its neighbors.

“We became one of the biggest private employers with 3,700 employees. Norton (Air Force base) closed, Kaiser (steel) closed – we held up this community with those jobs,” said Ramos. “From growing up from nothing to where we are today, there’s no way that we should be apologetic for any of that. If anything we should be writing it down and documenting it because the American dream is unfolding in front of everybody’s eyes.”

Whoever wins Tuesday will also have to make some hard choices about slashing county services and reigning in employee salaries and benefits. All that while trying to help turn around the county’s double digit unemployment.

They are critical issues, but ones that could be eclipsed by the county’s hunger for meaningful government reform.