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Pratt, Others to Lobby Port Commissioners to Honor King

Times Staff Writer

Hoping to counteract a blizzard of mail and phone calls from opponents of a name change for the San Diego Convention Center, leaders of the city’s minority community are beginning to organize an effort to lobby the Board of Port Commissioners to rename the convention center for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Led by San Diego City Councilman Wes Pratt--who promised Thursday to solicit help from local, state and national elected officials--and community groups that are circulating a petition, the effort is an attempt to prevent a repeat of the days leading up to last week’s council vote, when letters from opponents far outnumbered those from supporters.

The crucial fourth vote needed for passage of the controversial name change could come from Port Commissioner Delton Reopelle of National City, who is up for reappointment to his seat this month. On Tuesday, National City’s City Council voted unanimously to inform the Port District that it is the “sense of the City Council to support the proposed name of Martin Luther King for the San Diego Convention Center.”

Not Bound by Consensus

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With the San Diego City Council’s three appointees pledged to support the name change, “We should have four votes already. That’s the bottom line,” said George Stevens, a community activist and member of the committee appointed to suggest a tribute for King.

Reopelle, however, is not required to follow National City’s consensus. A motion to direct him to do so failed without receiving even a second vote from any of National City’s five council members.

Last week, Reopelle said he wanted to do more research but was leaning against a name change. He was vacationing in Mexico on Thursday and could not be reached for comment, his son Jim said.

Reopelle promised the council that he will communicate its opinion to the Port District but made no promises about how he will vote, according to a tape recording of the council meeting.

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The bayfront cities of Imperial Beach, Chula Vista and Coronado have not taken votes on the name change, officials said.

National City’s council is scheduled to decide Tuesday or Jan. 31 whether to give Reopelle a second four-year term on the Port board, but it does not appear that a commitment to vote for the name change is crucial to his reappointment. The board is tentatively scheduled to debate the issue Feb. 21.

Would Respect His Reasons

Fred Pruitt, the lone black National City council member, said he will vote to reappoint Reopelle regardless of how Reopelle votes on the convention center.

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“Knowing Dr. Reopelle, he would have to have some awfully concrete reasons for voting against it, and I would respect those whether or not I would agree with it,” Pruitt said.

On Jan. 10, the San Diego City Council, which will operate the convention center, voted 7-2 to change the center’s name to San Diego Martin Luther King Convention Center. In a separate 5-4 vote, the council agreed to use the full name in marketing the $160-million bayfront facility, which is scheduled to open at the end of the year.

The vote came more than a year after city voters stripped King’s name from a downtown boulevard and returned its original name, Market Street. The council had voted in 1986 to change the thoroughfare’s name to Martin Luther King Way, touching off a racially polarizing referendum on the issue.

Port commissioners, who are building the convention center and must also approve the name change, were deluged with letters and phone calls--almost all of them opposed to the name change--in the days that followed last week’s vote by the San Diego City Council, in much the same way that San Diego council members heard only from opponents in the days leading up to their vote.

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This time, supporters of the tribute to King are taking no chances that the port commissioners will hear only from opponents. At least two groups are circulating petitions citywide, and Pratt promised to enlist the help of people of “prominence and stature” in San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Washington. He declined, however, to name who he is lining up.

‘Lot of Support Out There’

“The rumor I had heard was that the port commissioners had been hearing from the opponents of the issue and that they were afraid of them,” said Raquel Beltran, advertising and promotions director of the community newspaper El Sol, who helped write a “Call for Action” petition that is circulating citywide. “I kind of thought, ‘My goodness, it seems to me that they should have the same concern about the people who are in favor.’ ”

A Pratt aide said, “There’s a lot of support out there. It’s just that they’re not calling because they think the council already acted on it.”

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Pratt said he has been contacted by a variety of organizations and individuals--black, Latino and white--and will actively lobby port commissioners and tourism officials.

“It has never been a black issue,” Pratt said. “The only ones who framed it as a black issue are the opposition.”

Opposition to the name change has also persisted. Retired businessman Robert L. Pruett has said he will mount a petition drive to overturn the council vote.

Herb Cawthorne, executive director of the San Diego Urban League, said, “I think even if it comes out of the port, it will be on the ballot. I would not be surprised.” He said he has been lobbying port commissioners.

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