EL CAJON: Mark Lewis resigned from his position as mayor of El Cajon in a letter dated Thursday after coming under fire from elected officials and a business group for what they say were his prejudicial comments about El Cajon’s Chaldean residents in a magazine article in May.
Lewis said he did not intend his remarks to be insensitive, and he apologized to anyone who was offended by what he said.
Lewis, mayor since 1998 and a councilman in the city of more than 100,000 residents since 1990, was chastised for nearly two hours at a council meeting Tuesday by residents who say quotes that appear in The Progressive are insensitive to the Iraqi immigrants and others. The article said that “Lewis says some Chaldean schoolchildren who receive free lunches are ‘being picked up by Mercedes-Benzes.’ ” It also quotes Lewis as saying, “First time (the Chaldeans) come over here, it doesn’t take them too long to learn where all the freebies are at.”
Earlier Thursday, Lewis issued a statement that he wanted to be clear that “it was never my intention to cast aspersions upon either our Chaldean community or any other minority community in El Cajon.
“I was simply expressing my opinion that I believe that the limited social services made available to our residents in El Cajon should go to those most in need of them, including those within the Chaldean community.”
In a statement released to U-T San Diego on Thursday night, Lewis said his decision to resign is primarily due to health reasons, including what he described as a minor stroke in 2010, cancer and a dislocated shoulder.
“Unfortunately, at times, this has caused me some difficulties in clearly communicating my thoughts, including during the recent interviews that have caused understandable concern within our community and for which I have already apologized,” Lewis’ statement said.
He said he had intended to step down when his current mayoral term ended in 2014. His statement did not indicate when his resignation would become effective.
On Thursday, the Neighborhood Market Association held a news conference with Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, and San Diego City Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, both of whom called for Lewis to resign.
El Cajon City Councilman Gary Kendrick said at the Tuesday meeting that one reason the issue arose is that the association is frustrated by its recent failure to derail a city ordinance that strengthens laws regulating alcohol sales at stores. Kendrick said he believed Mark Arabo, head of the association, “is trying to change the council (makeup) to overturn” the ordinance.
The San Diego branch of the NAACP also called for Lewis’ resignation. Former state Sen. Waddie Deddeh, who came to the United States from Iraq in the 1960s, reiterated comments at the news conference that he made at the Tuesday council meeting decrying racism.
Deddeh said he took particular offense at Lewis “calling our community ‘the Chaldean mafia.’ ” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, called for Lewis to apologize.
Arabo, the association leader, rallied minority community members on Tuesday to “confront the City Council on their actions against various groups of El Cajon.”
There are an estimated 50,000 Chaldeans living in San Diego County; about 27,000 of the immigrants are in East County. Of those, 10,000 to 12,000 are El Cajon residents. Census figures from 2010 list 69.3 percent of El Cajon’s population as white, 28 percent Hispanic or Latino and 6.3 percent black or African-American.
Arabo said the immigrant community is looking for more inclusion and fair representation.
One way to do that, Arabo said, is for El Cajon to do what Chula Vista did, and elect council members by geographic district, with district boundaries drawn by a citizens commission.
Arabo said he was appalled that during the interview with The Progressive, Lewis says, “The Mexican community feels intimidated, in regards to Chaldeans trying to get into their turf, in regards to selling drugs. Same as the black Africans, black Americans.”
In other parts of the interview, Lewis praises Chaldeans, pointing out that many have established successful businesses. The full interview can be heard at