Among a political candidate's worst nightmares is having to prove a negative. It's particularly hard when that negative has to do with bigotry. District 1 City Council candidate Sherri Lightner knows this all too well. For months, she's been dealing with rumors that she's anti-Semitic.
“It has been one of the challenges,” she said. “You don't know where it's coming from. You hear about it from people who are supporters, because they know you. They talk to their friends; their friends are adamant, but they don't know me, and it's as if no one actually wants to talk to me. To identity the source of the rumor is virtually impossible.”
What began as whispers among a few community activists before the spring primary have spread to the wider Jewish community. Lightner says she's been forwarded e-mails that quote a local rabbi, anonymously, accusing her of anti-Semitism. She says she hears about it from supporters and from friends. When someone calls her campaign office, she makes a point of talking through the matter with them to disprove the myth.
“I find the belief or practice of anti-Semitism to be repugnant,” she said. “It is completely beyond my comprehension.”
But the rumors persist. In more than a dozen interviews CityBeat conducted with community and Jewish leaders, everyone has heard them, one way or another. The net effect of so much innuendo is leading many in the Jewish community, which would typically support a Democrat like Lightner, wondering how to vote in the upcoming election and keeping their wallets closed when it comes to campaign contributions.
“This is a big issue in the Jewish community,” said Kathryn Burton, a longtime community activist who lives in Carmel Valley. “I've had people call me and ask me, ‘Is Sherri Lightner anti-Semitic?' And I've said, ‘No.'”
District 1, which includes La Jolla, University City, Carmel Valley and Rancho Peñasquitos, is the heart of San Diego's Jewish community. While exact figures of the number of Jews in the district are not available, it is home to three of the city's largest synagogues, several smaller ones, the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center and a Jewish private school. Some of San Diego's most influential Jewish residents live there, including financier Murray Galinson and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs.
“The Jewish community in La Jolla is pretty well organized,” said political consultant Tom Shepard, who worked with District 1 also-ran Marshall Merrifield in the primary but is not connected to either Lightner or her opponent, Republican Phil Thalheimer. “In addition to being voters in the district, many of them are political donors; they represent a potentially strong base. If a Republican gets significant support in that community, it's eating directly into the base of the Democrat.”
Though CityBeat has not seen any polls, observers say Thalheimer, who is Jewish, probably holds a small lead in the contest to replace termed-out City Councilmember Scott Peters. But Lightner expects to benefit from the predicted record turnout among Democrats motivated to vote for Barack Obama, leading many to consider the race a dead heat. As a result, the swing of Jewish voters among the traditional Democratic base in District 1 could be pivotal.
For Lightner, the charges stem from two hot-button issues that arose while she was president of the La Jolla Shores Association, a homeowners group. In 2005, she opposed the construction of a new Hillel student center on a lot near UC San Diego. Hillel is an 85-year-old Jewish student organization with branches on 500 college campuses, and the San Diego chapter was looking to construct a dedicated building to host services and celebrations. Lightner and the Association opposed the new building because, she told CityBeat, there were problems with parking and traffic, and the land wasn't zoned for such a building.
But perhaps more problematic was the association's opposition to a special request by two orthodox Jewish synagogues, Chabad Center of University City and Congregation Adat Yeshurun, to string a long cord around their neighborhoods, called an eruv. By Jewish law, the eruv would allow orthodox Jews to perform certain mundane activities on the Sabbath that are otherwise forbidden. Many cities and neighborhoods around the nation have them, though sometimes with controversy.
The two San Diego communities had been attempting to persuade the city to install eruvim for years, but they finally got it on the agenda of their planning groups in February 2006. The eruv for University City sailed through, but the one in La Jolla ran into a wall of controversy. Homeowners groups, like the La Jolla Shores Association, voted to oppose it for numerous reasons, some of which Lightner articulated for CityBeat: They were concerned about its impact on birds and trees; they worried about safety if it fell down; they didn't think it was appropriate to make religious use of a public right of way. But many of the comments raised before the planning committee and eventually before the City Council had a harsh, anti-Semitic tone. Locals were shocked at the vitriol of the opposition to the eruv, and some were reminded of the La Jolla from the 1950s and 1960s, when real-estate agents agreed not to sell or rent houses to Jews as part of a “gentleman's agreement.”
The storm around the eruv gave Thalheimer his opening to attack Lightner in an interview published on Sept. 19 in the online daily San Diego Jewish World. Owner and editor Donald Harrison, a former San Diego Union reporter, asked Thalheimer whether he thought opposition to the eruv had anti-Semitic origins.“I never experienced any form of anti-Semitism from Sherri,” Thalheimer told Harrison. “Although the eruv thing made me wonder; it really did. It is too strong a response to a non-issue.”
When CityBeat contacted Thalheimer for this story, he reiterated his point. “I feel the same way now as I did then. It really makes me wonder,” he said.
Lightner was furious at Thalheimer's remarks.
“The implication is there. I know I'm not anti-Semitic; the allegations are false,” Lightner said. “Phil does know that I'm not anti-Semitic. Maybe he's not saying it, but he's implying it, and Mr. Thalheimer is the one who benefits. He is escalating something that was a whisper campaign into something that works for his campaign.”
Lightner says her concerns about the eruv have been allayed by several compromises made by the Congregation Adat Yeshurun. She said that if elected, she'd look into creating a single, larger eruv, as they have in Houston and Washington, D.C., rather than deal with several smaller ones, as San Diego does now.
Meanwhile, the issue continues to simmer in District 1.
“I'm very sensitive to this stuff. I'm Jewish,” said Lisa Ross, a candidate for the District 1 City Council seat in 2000. “I don't perceive that about Sherri.”
Linda Colley chairs the University Community Planning Group and is not Jewish, but she was heavily involved in the battle over the Hillel building.
“Most of the people I worked with, a lot were Jewish, and their concerns were the encroachment into the neighborhood. It had nothing to do with being Jewish. I don't think Sherri is anti-Semitic,” she said.
For all of Lightner's troubles in the Jewish community, Thalheimer hasn't exactly been welcomed into its bosom, either. He wasn't a supporter of the Hillel building when he ran against Scott Peters in 2004, though he now says subsequent developments allow him to support it. He also made himself a national spokesman in favor of keeping the Mt. Soledad Cross in place, and at the height of the controversy, he was a regular face on television speaking in its defense. In addition, his conservative views on issues like immigration and crime don't jibe well with what is primarily a politically left-leaning community.
“I don't think the Jewish community is comfortable with either [candidate],” said one close observer who requested anonymity because he's not supposed to be involved in political issues. “And Phil's Jewish; he's a member of the tribe. That's really saying something.”
Harrison endorsed Thalheimer in a recent editorial on his website, but it was with much reluctance, and the piece immediately inspired some irritated reader responses.
In one letter, Marsha Sutton wrote: “Choosing between someone who supports the Mt. Soledad Cross and someone who opposes Hillel is no choice at all.”