By KEVIN CHRISTENSEN, The Daily Transcript
Monday, May 16, 2005
The small but committed group of San Diegans who have fought to keep the Mount Soledad Cross where it is may end up playing a big role in the election of San Diego's next mayor.
The City Council is set to vote Tuesday whether to send back to a vote of the people the issue to keep the cross where it stands, and the item could appear on the July 26 primary mayoral election ballot.
That possibility is raising some eyebrows, and many political experts agree that if the matter appears on the same ballot, Republican or conservative mayoral candidates may benefit.
John Nienstedt, president of local political polling agency Competitive Edge Research and Communications, said that traditionally, the issue surrounding the Mount Soledad Cross pulls a politically conservative constituency that tends to vote Republican.
"The Soledad issue is going to be a hot-button issue," Nienstedt said. "And those hot-button voters will be conservative. It will generate more voters from the conservative side."
City Attorney Michael Aguirre said that -- if approved -- the vote timing is at the discretion of the City Council.
A special election may be held in November to accommodate a series of initiatives by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The next regularly scheduled election is in November 2006, and waiting until then to vote on the cross issue is not advisable, Aguirre said.
"Here we are in 2005, there may or may be a ballot in November this year," Aguirre said. "Would it fair to wait until 2006? That, to me, would be an abuse of discretion."
Chris Crotty, a local political consultant, said the matter appearing on the July 26 ballot would clearly benefit a Republican candidate.
"The voters that are concerned with the whole Soledad Cross issue are primarily more conservative, and they made up a substantial portion of Dick Murphy's political base," Crotty said. "In an election to replace Murphy, I think that these voters will be looking for a conservative Republican."
Thus far, just one Republican candidate has confirmed candidacy for the nonpartisan mayor spot: Jerry Sanders, former police chief for the city of San Diego.
Councilwoman Donna Frye, a Democrat, is the only other candidate in the race at this point.
Steven Francis, president of local nursing staffing company AMN Healthcare, also a Republican, is expected to announce his candidacy this week.
While there's no way of knowing which conservative candidate the voters who are drawn to the ballot for the cross issue would vote for, it is likely that the votes will not go to Frye, said T.J. Zane, a local political lobbyist.
"If the cross appears on the July 26 ballot, it would not be good for Donna [Frye]," Zane said.
To date, a total of 18 individuals have taken candidacy forms from the City Clerk's office. The nomination process began May 13 and is scheduled to close May 27.
The cross was constructed by the Mount Soledad Memorial Association and dedicated to military veterans in 1954.
In 1991, the federal court ruled that the presence of the cross on public property violated the California Constitution.
The resulting court-ordered injunction in 1991 required the city to remove the 43-foot-tall structure, but that decision was appealed.
Two subsequent attempts by the city to sell the land were denied.
A recent attempt to save the cross, Proposition K on the Nov. 2, ballot also failed.
Supporters of the Mount Soledad cross are now closer to having the land transferred to the federal government, which they believe could save the cross.
Cross supporters recently collected more than 89,237 signatures -- at least 33,612 have been verified by the city -- to reverse a March 8 City Council vote that rejected the transfer of the land that houses the cross to the federal government.
The petition drive sought to force the San Diego City Council to revisit the vote against giving the cross and the land it sits on to the federal government or let the voters decide in a special election in November.
The group that is trying to keep the cross atop Mount Soledad in La Jolla unveiled its final total of petition signatures.
The council is scheduled to hear the matter on Tuesday at 10 a.m. at Golden Hall in downtown.
Daily Transcript reporter Doug Sherwin contributed to this report.