By Donald H. Harrison
San Diego (special) -- Invocations before city council meetings and the continued effort by the City of San Diego to maintain a Christian cross atop Mount Soledad were criticized by candidates for a variety of public offices during a Nov. 2 forum sponsored by the National Jewish Democratic Council.
The controversy over invocations got rolling when El Cajon City Councilman Todd Keegan, a candidate in the open 77th Assembly District, said in response to a question about his interactions with the Jewish community: "One experience...was to try to end the practice of the El Cajon City Council of having invocations before council meetings. I just don't think that is proper before a governmental body."
When he heard applause from some in the audience at Congregation Beth El, Keegan said: "Thank you, I appreciate that! I don't get that too often when I say that out in El Cajon ... We haven't won the battle to stop the invocations before council, but we continue to push that."
San Diego City Councilman Juan Vargas, running in the neighboring open 79th Assembly District, was on the same panel. "I was somewhat suprised that we had the invocation when I joined the City Council since I didn't used to watch them on TV and still don't know how we do that legally," he said.
"The issue has never come up. This is the first time that it has been broached and I am really surprised at it, to be honest with you, but I would be happy to see that separation grow more and more in the sense that we really should have a deep separation between the church and the state."
Because of term limits, many offices will become open in the Year 2000, causing a bumper crop of candidates to appear before the NJDC forum in search of the group's endorsement.
The resulting program format was described by John Hartley, a former San Diego city councilman seeking to regain the seat he once held, as "a debate with three shifts." Candidates for a variety of offices were questioned in the first shift; candidates for a pair of Assembly seats in the second, and for a pair of San Diego City Council seats third.
Questioners included Gary Rotto, regional director of the American Jewish Committee; Michael Brau, former president of Congregation Beth El, and this reporter.
After Keegan and Vargas opened up the invocation issue in the "second shift," candidates in the third shift -- running for the open 1st and 3rd District seats on the San Diego City Council -- were asked their views on the propriety of religious invocations at the meetings of public bodies.
Toni Atkins, who is hoping to succeed her boss, City Councilwoman Christine Kehoe, said of the invocation: "I would be supportive of eliminating it. I think it is clearly in violation of the separation of church and state, and whereas I have respect for other people's beliefs and certainly tolerance, I think that is something we could actually do away with."
Hartley, whose decision to give up his seat paved Kehoe's way eight years ago, now wants to return to the San Diego City Council. "I haven't thought about the invocation before the City Council," he told the NJDC audience. "I am open. I just haven't thought about it."
A third candidate in the third district, Gerri Stryker, said she sometimes thinks it would be good to have all religions come forward to give guidance to the council, but "the fact that you would end up being there for quite some time, you go back to the separation of church and state," she said. "It is more appropriate to follow that separation."
Lisa Ross, a member of the Jewish community who is a candidate in the 1st Council District, told of attending a recent San Diego City Council meeting at which a zoning issue was resolved in favor of allowing the San Diego Jewish Academy to build a new school on a site in the Carmel Valley.
She said at that council meeting there was "a room full of kids from the Academy who were wonderful testifying. The clergyman of the day invoked Jesus Christ and I saw everybody in the room's heads kind of jerk and I saw people stirring and uncomfortable and it made me wonder (a) whether it is appropriate and (b) whether there is some non-sectarain way of doing it. I haven't thought about it in a long time until last week, but I think we need to look at it."
Scott Peters, another candidate in the 1st District, said "it is never appropriate at a public forum to do a religious activity that would make anyone feel uncomfortable as Lisa described. I haven't really thought about the invocation process before but it needs to be addressed."
Questions about the cross atop Mount Soledad came in the wake of a recent decision by an atheists group and the Anti-Defamation League to challenge the legality of the auction by which land around the cross was sold to the Mount Soledad Memorial Association which has pledged to maintain the symbol. A court case concerning the legality of having the cross in a public park has been going on for a decade.
Peters noted that during the controversy some proponents of keeping the cross atop Mount Soledad have suggested that the cross is not a religious symbol but simply a war memorial -- a position which he suggested denigrates the importance of a cross as a symbol of his religion.
"It's not appropriate to mix church and state that way," Peters said. "I think I would support an appropriate war memorial."
Ross said "calling that a war memorial to the daughter of a Jewish World War II veteran is really offensive."
Stryker said she believes "we should find some way to keep it there so everybody is happy." Hartley, on the other hand, said: "My sense is that the city has been working a subterfuge to keep the cross and I wouldn't support that. ... I wouldn't support any attempts to keep the cross there now."
Atkins said while she was critical of the money spent by the city to maintain the cross against legal challenges,"I have a very difficult time honestly if it comes to the point of tearing down a symbol of someone's faith. I know that might not be a popular response, but I think it is important to be tolerant and I think it is important to understand what the result would be to actually tear that down. However, I do not think the city should own this: I do not think that we should have fought the legal battle, and I think that we definitely should have gotten more than fair market value for the property."
Following the forum, one of the candidates who was on the first shift panel -- before the issues came up -- was asked by HERITAGE what her positions were on both the invocation question and the Mount Soledad cross.
Deanna Spehn, a candidate in the 7th Council District, replied about the invocation: "I don't think it is necessary and I think it is something that the council should look at. I think there was a discussion years ago about what to do about that and I think that is when they went to a rotating person coming in and giving the invocation, but I think it is time to revisit that."
As for the cross on Mount Soledad, Spehn said: "I think it might be more appropriate to transfer it to a more appropriate site."
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With 14 candidates for eight offices trying to win support from the audience at the well-attended event, the question and answer sessions were kept quite brisk by moderator Marty Block, a San Diegan who serves on the NJDC's national board of directors.
Each candidate had an opportunity to tell of any previous relationships with the organized Jewish community and to drop the names of any prominent people in the Jewish commmunity who had endorsed their candidacies.
Many of the candidates took a share of the credit for the recent decision of the San Diego City Council in favor of the San Diego Jewish Academy's new location in the Carmel Valley area.
Ross, for example, said she was among the Carmel Valley Planning Board members who supported the project. Spehn said as a member of San Diego Mayor Susan Golding's staff she had helped the project along. Stryker said she is on the City Planning Commission which recommended it to the San Diego City Council. And City Councilwoman Kehoe and Councilman Vargas both pointed out their support for their Academy at the City Council hearing itself.
Kehoe also mentioned that when she ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 1998 against Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray, she had considerable support in the Jewish community -- including the endorsement of the NJDC's Political Action Committee (PAC) as well as the San Diego Jewish Press Heritage. She said her supporters have included NJDC activists Marsha Dickstein Sudolsky and Murray Galinson as well as "Sol Price and his family."
Wade Sanders, a candidate for the 49th Congressional District seat now held by Bilbray, said he had been serving in Washington as a deputy assistant secretary of the Navy and in that capacity, "I worked closely with the Israelis, particularly dealing with the issue of security for the nation of Israel." Locally, he said, he volunteers in behalf of homeless people, "working with Jewish organizations and (other) charitable organizations to improve that lot." He said he had endorsements from such members of the Jewish community as Robert Lawerence and Hugh Friedman.
Sanders was allowed to appear on a panel even though NJDC's PAC at a previous meeting had given its endorsement to Assemblywoman Susan Davis in that 49th Congressional District race. Davis was accorded the honor of being the keynote speaker for the Nov. 2 event, and was not subjected to the panel's questions.
In her speeech, the assemblywoman emphasized the fact that she has been an active member of the Jewish community, even to the point of her family once being named "family of the year" by the Jewish Community Center.
Alluding to an appeal made at the beginning of the meeting by a representative of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to urge members of Congress to support funding for Israelis and the Palestinians to implement the Wye River Accords, Davis said: "I don't think you are going to have to call me as a congresswoman...because you will know where I stand."
Davis added that she lived in Israel in 1965 and 1966 and has returned twice on visits to that country. "Israel is certainly our strategic and democratic partner and we have to do all we can to support her," she said.
Craig Barkacs, who is running for the 52nd Congressional District seat now held by Republican Duncan Hunter, said he too has obtained the coveted endorsements of businessmen Galinson and Price. Barkacs then quipped: "My campaign manager shared that news with one of our supporters who said, 'how did you do that?' and he responded with 'we finally started accepting their calls.'"
Manny Doria, who is running in the open 77th Assembly District, stressed repeatedly that he is on the staff of Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego), who is a member of the Jewish community. Doria also said that Filner endorsed him. "As a matter of fact I have his check already," Doria said.
The congressional aide said that he has helped members of the Jewish community deal with a variety of federal issues, recalling that on one occasion he responded to a request for help from Rabbi Bud Frankel, former spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Chula Vista, on a matter involving passports.
Keegan said he was "taken aback" to learn that Filner had endorsed Doria, explaining that the congressman previously had told him "he was absolutely, unequivocally, not going to endorse in this race."
Vargas, running in the 79th Assembly District, noted that he had traveled several years ago with the United Jewish Federation on a mission to Israel. He also recalled being at Congregation Beth El at a much sadder occasion, the memorial service for Yitzhak Rabin after the Israeli prime minister's assassination. He said he had endorsements from various well known members of the Jewish community including Alan Viterbi, Lou Wolfsheimer and Jim Milch.
Dwayne Crenshaw, another 79th District candidate, said two Jewish members of the state Assembly--Ted Lempert and Robert Hertzberg-- have encouraged his candidacy.
In an allusion to the fact that Vargas had run an unsuccessful and bitter primary campaign against Congressman Filner four years ago, Crenshaw trumpeted: "I am the only candidate in this race who can work with Congressman Bob Filner."
Vargas later offered the rejoinder that when he ran for reelection to the San Diego City Council two years ago, the race was similar to the one he is making against Crenshaw: "We also had a person who was very energetic and I won (with 77.3 percent)...and the margin will be similar in this case," Vargas said.
"But I am here because I want to work with you," he added. "I think
the Latino community and the Jewish community should be much closer in
San Diego. That is why I am here, hoping to develop that relationship."