6 A.M. DEC. 22, 2013
SAN DIEGO — The Mount Soledad cross has emerged as an issue in San Diego’s hotly contested congressional race between Republican challenger Carl DeMaio and Democratic incumbent Scott Peters.
DeMaio initiated the dispute by launching a petition to defend the cross that points out Peters once voted to have it removed. Peters countered that he has acted to preserve the cross.
Both have a point, though DeMaio’s petition lacks significant context.
As a member of the City Council, Peters once voted to have the cross moved when San Diego faced a potential $5,000 daily fine from a judge if it remained.
Peters and other city officials had worked with the Mount Soledad Memorial Association to, among other things, move the cross, possibly to nearby church property.
In March 2005, Peters and four council members voted against transferring the land the cross sits on to the National Park Service. City Attorney Mike Aguirre had argued the transfer would be unconstitutional and results in another lawsuit.
DeMaio started his petition after a judge in San Diego Dec. 12 said the cross had to come down in the wake of a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals finding that it is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion because it is sited on federal property.
U.S. District Judge Larry Burns stayed the portion of his ruling that ordered the cross dismantled or moved in 90 days in order to give the Mount Soledad Memorial Association time to appeal, a step its attorneys took Wednesday.
DeMaio said the petition set up on his Facebook page garnered about 2,500 signatures in its first three days.
He contends Peters has consistently opposed the cross.
“Unfortunately, my opponent has opposed supporting every avenue to allow it to remain,” he said.
Peters counters that he wants the cross to remain where it is and the former head of the Mount Soledad Memorial Association has appreciated his efforts over the years to find a solution.
“I have always been a supporter of the cross and worked closely with the Mount Soledad Memorial Association,” said Peters, who is expected to face DeMaio and two other Republicans in the 52nd Congressional District June primary.
“The one time we talked about moving the cross was when a U.S. District Court judge threatened the city with having to pay a $5,000-a-day fine, and in consultation with the association, we discussed moving it.”
In 2006, Peters was on the losing end of a council vote on whether to appeal a judge’s order at that time that said the cross had to be removed or the city would have to pay the $5,000 daily fine. At that time, he questioned whether it was wise to keep fighting after losing several rounds in court. The association supported the appeal.
DeMaio focuses on Peters votes in his online petition.
“Even though over 70 percent of San Diegans want to keep the memorial where it stands, Congressman Scott Peters voted to remove the memorial,” the petition reads, referring to 2005 ballot measure when 76 percent of voters called for the city to transfer the land to the federal government to preserve the cross — the proposal Peters opposed.
In a column published Dec. 14 on the blog SD Rostra, DeMaio writes that Peters has taken an extreme position on the cross.
Bill Kellogg, chairman emeritus of the memorial association, said he believes DeMaio is misinformed. He was head of the organization during the votes in question and remains involved with the association.
“That is a very unfortunate characterization,” he said. “Scott has actually been very supportive from day one, and while there is always a temptation for people to use events like these for a political advantage, that is not what this is about. This is about veterans, and Scott’s always been with us and attended just about every Veterans Day and Memorial Day event up there.”
DeMaio’s petition also contends Peters’ votes resulted in years of legal battles and “millions of taxpayer dollars wasted.” At the same time, DeMaio criticizes Peters’ vote against an appeal, which would have continued the legal fight.
Peters said he believes DeMaio’s use of the cross in the congressional campaign is misguided.
“Carl says he won’t get involved in divisive social issues, but he’s now willing to use a memorial to our soldiers. That’s hypocritical and he owes our veterans an apology,” Peters said.
DeMaio rejects the argument that bringing up the cross is akin to stressing the social issues he says the GOP should shy away from — a statement that has garnered him national attention.
“I don’t want us having debates over crosses or who someone can love,” he said. “These issues are best left to individuals and communities. Let the memorial stand on let’s move on.”