San Bernardino voters will cast their ballots in the June 7 primary for one of seven candidates running for mayor.
Five names likely ring a bell.
Mayor John Valdivia, Henry Nickel, Treasure Ortiz, Jim Penman and Helen Tran have all served or worked for the city in some capacity in recent years.
Valdivia, the incumbent with a decade experience on the City Council.
Nickel, the former longtime councilman of the 5th Ward.
Ortiz, a past human resources technician.
Penman, the former city attorney who won election seven times.
And Tran, the erstwhile human resources director.
Candidates Gabriel Jaramillo and Mohammad Khan, conversely, have no such histories in city government.
As the election approaches, those vying for the highest office in town are drawing from their respective experience at or observing City Hall to shed light on their plans to guide the former All-America City the next four years.
“I worked with five different mayors,” said Penman, who served 26 years as city attorney before being recalled in 2013, “and I know the things that were successful and the things that were unsuccessful. I went through the city’s good times and I went through the bad times. I worked with good mayors and not-so-good mayors. Good city managers and not-so-good city managers.
“You learn something from everybody you work with.”
Since launching his third mayoral campaign in August, Penman, who has the backing of former Mayor Judith Valles, has championed hiring more police officers to bolster a force of around 260.
To reduce crime and shorten response times, he said in a recent interview, San Bernardino needs more than 400 cops, or more than the city had before filing for bankruptcy protection in 2012.
Valdivia, a freshman councilman representing the 3rd Ward a decade ago, staved off the same recall efforts that removed Penman from office, and in 2018 won the mayor’s seat.
In his three years as mayor, Valdivia has re-introduced community-oriented policing strategies in hopes of reducing crime. He said recently he has overseen “positive growth, exponential growth” at San Bernardino International Airport and vowed to expand such growth to the community.
Valdivia’s time in the mayor’s seat has not been without its own set of challenges. Late last year, he was censured by his colleagues on the City Council for misusing public funds for personal gain, and he is being sued by former city employees who allege he sexually harassed them.
Still, he says he sees no better candidate for the mayor’s seat than someone with his years of experience crafting and setting policy.
“I’ve learned a lot in the last three, four years as mayor,” he said. “They’ve humbled me, and I want to continue serving my community. I don’t think there’s someone more competent with the skill set I’ve learned over the years to be mayor and lead this city forward.”
Tran, who in 2019 left her role as human resources director in San Bernardino for the same gig in West Covina, intends to lean on the collaboration skills she sharpened at City Hall to eliminate silos she said existed between departments during her time there.
Tran sees herself as a “consensus builder” who will work with council members, city officials and staffers as an ally.
Together, she said, the city will solve problems efficiently.
With two former mayors and previous city leaders in her corner, Tran said she has gleaned enough insight on the inner workings of City Hall to guide her in the years ahead.
“It’s about not forgetting what has transpired, but not repeating any mistakes that have been done,” she said. “I really want to highlight our successes and make sure we worked off that. One thing I do is listen. I take everything and understand the issues from all angles.”
While six years have passed since Ortiz graduated from a San Bernardino intern to a full-time human resources technician, she has found her voice as a City Hall watchdog. Working on the lowest level of city government, she said recently, opened her eyes to “a lot of good and bad, and shaped me as an upcoming professional as well as an employee.”
Ortiz, a professor at Cal State San Bernardino, said she saw politicking firsthand.
“It’s a perspective you only get as a public administrator,” she said.
She believes San Bernardino deserves more.
“We are capable of so much more because everybody else around us has succeeded in achieving so much more given equal circumstances absent a bankruptcy,” Ortiz said. “The city of San Bernardino is like this on purpose. … If we do not change from what we have done, and from who we have elected to get us to this point, that will never change.
“The past does not want to hold onto its own failures,” she added, “and does not want to be accountable for why we’re here now. Certain candidates are trying to rewrite history regardless of what we know to be true.”
Khan, a business owner who wants to expand education opportunities for young people, shares a similar sentiment, contending he would bring “new ideas and perspective” to the mayor’s seat.
“Past folks,” he said, “a majority of them have mistakes, and you look online and people are pointing out certain candidates for their past bad influences and negative actions they took. For me, I’ve had a clean record from the start, so there’s no sphere of influence on me that would keep me from doing what’s best for the community and solving many of the problems we have.”
In the same vein, San Bernardino “just needs new blood,” Jaramillo said. “If you already have ties with everyone that’s in city government now, that’s where all the problems are.”
Jaramillo sees his status as a newcomer as an advantage.
“I know residents are tired of everything now,” he said. “If we get rid of politics as they have been, everything will be OK.”
Nickel, who lost his last bid for reelection, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In order for any candidate to win a seat outright in the primary, he or she must secure 50% of the vote, plus one vote. Otherwise, the top two vote-getters will square off in the Nov. 8 election.
In addition to the mayor’s seat, three posts on the City Council are up for grabs June 7.