Photo illustration by John R. Lamb
State Sen. Ben Hueso turned the Chicano Park tragedy into a political sales pitch.
Underneath this stone doth lie/ As much beauty as could die.
One thing is apparent now when visiting the growing memorial in the heart of Barrio Logan’s historic Chicano Park—it’s hard not to look up.
Late afternoon Monday, as the skies darkened and threatened rain, every revved engine from above, every tire squeal, every clank from rush-hour traffic drew the same reaction from parkgoers: craned necks leading skyward and wincing expressions. Would another car come careening down?
In many ways, this meandering park of solidarity owes its very existence to the hulking concrete ribbons that hover ominously overhead—if not for the seemingly endless array of columns holding up the links between Interstate 5 and the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, one could argue, there would be no iconic, colorful murals that tell the tale of this bifurcated, underserved community of phenomenal people.
A museum and cultural center honoring Chicano Park is envisioned for a former school site literally leaping distance from a freeway off-ramp next to the park. It’s so close that the school erected a chain-link fence on its roof in an attempt to guard against flying debris and freeway hoppers. A few years ago, park regulars recall, a Jeep tire came hurtling from an overpass, bounced over a park tree and came to rest a block away at a laundromat. Another time, a truck fender fell close to a woman giving a park tour.
“Stuff falling off the bridge is nothing new,” said Brent Beltrán, a vocal Barrio Logan activist and community planner. “The only thing new is the deaths.”
Spend any time in this place of history, and in between the goose bumps try to imagine how the tragedy that occurred here two Saturdays ago—four lives lost, multiple injuries when an airborne pickup truck sailed over a performance stage and crashed sickeningly into a popular motorcycle festival— hasn’t happened more often.
But what sickened some Barrio Logan activists even more was the politicking from California state Sen. Ben Hueso three days after the horrifying incident that ended the lives of four people— Annamarie and Cruz Contreras of Chandler, Arizona, and Andre Banks and Francine Jimenez from Hacienda Heights—and likely destroyed the life of Richard Sepolio, the 24-year-old Coronado-based Navy petty officer who has pleaded not guilty to felony vehicular manslaughter and DUI charges stemming from the crash.
Hueso, who’s held state office since 2010, attended a press conference of community activists and grieving family members where he promised to make safety improvements on the bridge a top priority, although activists who attended the event said Hueso seemed more focused on preventing suicides, for which the bridge ranks third nationwide in frequency. Some activists suggested Hueso, still on probation for his own DUI, preferred underplaying the most recent tragedy.
“We have to make sure the bridge is safe for the people above and the people below,” TV station Fox5 quoted him as saying.
For the most part, Beltrán said, Hueso said many of the right things. But shortly afterwards, Hueso launched a Facebook post that had folks wincing once again.
“I need your help!!!!!” Hueso wrote in the post. “Immediately upon hearing the terrible news about the tragedy in Barrio Logan, I began working to insure [sic] this never happens again on the Coronado Bridge. We will need funds to make the improvements to the bridge.”
And then the kicker: “Some research we did today uncovered some interesting facts. Measure A, on the ballot this November, would help us fund those improvements right away. I verified this with the proponents of Measure A. Please join me in improving safety on the Coronado Bridge.
Please vote yes on Measure A!!!” Hueso didn’t mention these “interesting facts” at the press conference he had just attended. Beltrán, who referred to Hueso as an “opportunistic turd,” figures the senator knew what the reaction would be if he promoted the $18 billion SANDAG-initiated sales-tax-hike ballot measure that promises to “repair San Diego.”
“He knew we would get pissed if he was politicking in Chicano Park on the deaths of these four people,” Beltrán said. “So he waited until later to post it on social media. It’s just insulting. The families were mad. The Chicano Park Steering Committee was mad.”
Reaction to Hueso’s post, which he later deleted, was swift. Local environmental activist Sara Kent replied that “it is so completely immoral of you to use this tragedy—this loss of life—to stump for SANDAG.”
She noted that no language in Measure A assures that safety features like guard rails on the bridge will be forthcoming, a notion she described as “ludicrous.”
Many activists noted that Councilmember David Alvarez, whose district includes Chicano Park, was not invited to the press conference. Both are rumored to be interested in running for the same county supervisor seat in the future, and it is an open secret that neither enjoys each other’s company.
Even Hueso pal, state Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, couldn’t swallow what he was selling. “Oh, Ben, I love him, but I think [Measure] A is terrible,” she told Spin Cycle.
Gonzalez said she spoke to Laurie Berman, the district director of CalTrans, the state agency responsible for the bridge and freeway connections. She was assured, she wrote on Twitter, that CalTrans will “thoroughly investigate” the Chicano Park crash and “past issues.”
Sadly, Gonzalez said Berman told her that the director was “unaware” of previous mishaps in or near the park. Efforts to reach CalTrans for comment were unsuccessful.
Those “past issues” include a 1992 incident when a Navy enlisted man, pursued by police, plummeted 150 feet off the bridge in a sports car, hit a tree, then landed on the park grass. Or the 2003 rescue by transients of a 19-year-old sailor whose car burst into flames after falling 50 feet from the bridge into Chicano Park. Or the pickup truck a few months later that landed nearby, just 50 feet from a rail tanker, carrying 56,000 gallons of ethanol.
In a statement Tuesday, Hueso ignored the critics and stuck to his sales pitch: “I am committed to finding a solution to improve the safety on the Coronado Bridge. Measure A is one of those possible solutions so I support it and urge others to support it as well.”
Beltrán had another suggestion: “Do your job, Ben.”