White Neighborhoods Voted Solidly Against Retention of King Way

Times Staff Writer

In what some San Diego black leaders view as evidence of racism in this month's emotional ballot initiative on renaming Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, only one predominantly white neighborhood in the city supported retention of the slain civil rights leader's name on the downtown street, official vote totals released Monday show.

The final results from the Nov. 3 election, released by the county registrar's office, show that only three minority communities--Southeast San Diego, Encanto and San Ysidro--plus the predominantly white community of Chollas, opposed the controversial initiative that restored the street's original name, Market Street. All four communities are in the southern half of the city.

North of Interstate 8, most communities overwhelmingly supported the name Market Street, and not a single neighborhood voted against the measure. Overall, San Diegans approved removal of King's name from the street by a 60%-40% margin, 108,379 votes to 72,292.

Vote-Rich Northern Tier

The precinct-by-precinct breakdown of those vote totals validated the worst fears of the proponents who favored preservation of the name Martin Luther King Way. They had recognized from the inception of the campaign that the race would be won or lost in the vote-rich--and predominantly white--neighborhoods in the northern half of San Diego.

In many of those neighborhoods, Proposition F, the name-change initiative, passed overwhelmingly by margins as wide as 2 1/2-to-1, providing a huge gap that pro-King majorities in some southern neighborhoods, where turnouts generally are substantially lower, could not come close to offsetting.

Voters in Serra Mesa, for example, cast 2,527 ballots in favor of restoring the Market Street name, nearly 2 1/2 times the 1,053 votes cast in that community against the proposed name change. Similarly, Proposition F passed by a nearly 2-to-1 margin in Clairemont and by more than 3-to-2 margins in neighborhoods that included Rancho Bernardo, Mira Mesa, San Carlos and Mission Beach.

"What does that tell me? I guess I'm afraid to admit to myself what I think it tells me," said Michel Anderson, co-chairman of the Committee to Keep Martin Luther King Way. "My biggest fear all along was what people would do when they got behind that curtain when they went to vote.

"Who knows what motivated people? But when the votes break that way, it does make you wonder. I guess I'd have to say I'm disappointed in my fellow San Diegans."

While Anderson was studiously diplomatic and indirect in his remarks, others were blunt and direct in apparently making the same point.

"There's no way to explain those numbers without saying that race and prejudice had to be factors," said the Rev. George Walker Smith, former president of the San Diego city school board and one of the city's most prominent black political activists. "When not one community north of 8 voted for King Way, it's pretty obvious what went on. That just shows how far we've got to go in this city."

Agreed With Analysis

Concurring with that analysis, Vernon Sukumu, executive director of the Black Federation, added: "This just shows that you couldn't have won this race if Martin Luther King Jr. himself had come to San Diego to campaign for it. Given the nature of the times we're in and the nature of San Diego, that's really not that surprising, unfortunately."

However, political consultant David Lewis suggested that factors other than racial prejudice could explain the north-south split on Proposition F.

"I think a lot of it had to do with people being upset at the City Council for going into this without really giving enough consideration to what the community thought," Lewis said, referring to the council's 1986 decision to rename Market Street to honor King.

Lewis and others also argue that confusion over the ballot initiative, in which voters had to vote "no" to keep the name Martin Luther King Way--in other words, cast a negative vote to preserve the status quo--also could have skewed the results.

"I have no doubt that a lot of people who wanted to keep Martin Luther King Way thought that's what they were doing by voting 'yes,' " Anderson said.

Despite the plausibility of those other possible explanations, the fact that Proposition F failed to carry a single neighborhood north of Interstate 8 strikes many black leaders as more than a numerical coincidence.

"If it had even won one neighborhood (north of I-8) and come close in a few others, it would have been different," Smith said. "But this makes the picture pretty clear. It would be foolish to think race didn't affect the outcome. Obviously, it did."

The northern neighborhood where Martin Luther King Way partisans fared best in the Nov. 3 election was Del Mar Heights, where Proposition F passed by a narrow 52%-48% margin, 1,345 votes to 1,240. In a handful of other northern communities, the initiative, while passing comfortably, received a slightly smaller percentage of the vote than it did citywide. For example, in La Jolla and Tierrasanta, Proposition F received 57% of the vote, three percentage points less than the citywide 60%-approval margin.

Those communities, however, were the exceptions north of Interstate 8, where many neighborhoods supported the King name-change initiative by margins wider than the citywide average.

Opponents of Proposition F had focused their efforts and scarce financial resources in the northern half of the city, spending most of the $25,000 that they raised on signs in those communities.

"There are two ways to look at it," Anderson said of the vote breakdown. "One is that we simply didn't have nearly enough resources to get out our message. And the other is that maybe we were putting out a message that a lot of people didn't want to hear."

But even in the heavily minority communities south of Interstate 8, only four neighborhoods voted to keep Martin Luther King Way--an acute disappointment that King backers attribute to a lack of money for grass-roots and targeting efforts.

"There clearly were more votes to be had there, but we didn't have the money to get them to the polls," Anderson said.

Although voters in both Southeast San Diego and Chollas voted 70%-30% against Proposition F, the smaller turnouts in those areas prevented those lopsided margins from negating the huge pro-Market Street majorities rolled up in the northern half of the city.

The turnout in Southeast San Diego, for example, was only 25.5%, far below the citywide average of 36.7%. As a result, while Proposition F failed in Southeast San Diego by a 1,670-735 vote margin, those votes were easily eclipsed by the pro-Market Street margins in many northern neighborhood, such as in Rancho Bernardo, where 4,934 voters favored the initiative.

The two other neighborhoods that favored preserving Martin Luther King Way were Encanto and San Ysidro, where 68% and 52% of the voters, respectively, opposed Proposition F.

In most other communities south of Interstate 8, however, voters favored restoration of the name Market Street. Proposition F passed by a more than 2-to-1 margin in Point Loma--2,386 votes to 1,134--and, in margins typical of other areas, received 65% of the vote downtown and 63% in Normal Heights.

"What happened in the south was a disappointment, but the north was an even bigger disappointment," Anderson concluded. "And that was the ballgame."

VOTE BY NEIGHBORHOOD

In the Nov. 3 vote on the initiative to restore the name Market Street to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, only four neighborhoods voted to keep the street King Way. A "Yes" vote backed returning to the name Market Street.

Neighborhood Yes No Rancho Bernardo 4,934 2,608 Rancho Penasquitos 3,294 2,164 Del Mar Heights 1,345 1,240 University City 3,820 3,200 La Jolla 4,366 3,332 Mira Mesa 3,742 2,399 Scripps Ranch-Miramar 1,740 1,231 Clairemont 13,137 6,823 Tierrasanta 2,111 1,557 San Carlos-Navajo 9,579 5,574 Serra Mesa-Linda Vista 4,993 2,644 Pacific Beach 4,847 3,355 Mission Beach-Bay area 870 495 Ocean Beach 2,278 1,417 Midway-Old Town 892 599 Mission Hills 1,691 1,206 Hillcrest 2,054 1,529 North Park 3,475 2,249 Normal Heights 3,896 2,331 State College area 2,435 1,666 South Park-East San Diego 7,079 4,664 Downtown-Golden Hill 2,621 1,671 Loma Portal 2,667 1,220 Point Loma 2,386 1,134 Southeast San Diego-Chollas- Encanto-Paradise Hills 5,521 9,853 South Bay-Otay-Nestor 3,088 1,839 San Ysidro 396 436 Absentee ballots 9,122 3,856 Total 108,379 72,292

Source: San Diego County registrar of voters

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