O'Connor Says Renaming of Center Unlikely

Times Staff Writers

One day after the San Diego Board of Port Commissioners refused to rename the city's new $160-million harborside convention center after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mayor Maureen O'Connor said Wednesday that the chances of the structure being named for the slain civil rights leader are slim.

"I've been around politics long enough to know that, realistically, you should not hold out much hope that the convention center is going to be named for Martin Luther King Jr.," O'Connor said during an afternoon press conference at City Hall.

The statement by the mayor, who, along with a majority of the City Council, had supported renaming the landmark edifice, was a clear signal that prospects for renaming the center have dimmed considerably.

Boycott Campaign Launched

On another front, a San Diego black leader launched a campaign for a nationwide boycott of the convention center, which is scheduled to open Oct. 31. The Rev. George Stevens said Wednesday that he will try to pattern the boycott after a successful protest in Arizona.

There, blacks and others were urged by community activists not to travel to the state because then-Gov. Evan Mecham canceled a state holiday honoring King. The resulting protest cost Arizona significant convention business.

"This is something that can't be controlled by City Hall," Stevens said. "This is something that worked economically in Arizona and will work here."

The mayor expressed disappointment and surprise at the Board of Port Commissioners' 4-3 decision to propose turning the center's terrace into an "Avenue of Honors" and make King its first inductee. But O'Connor said it may be time for the council to compromise in order to end the divisiveness and racial animosity that have surrounded debate on the subject. The council has not yet scheduled new hearings on the issue.

O'Connor's comments represented a stunning political turnaround. On Jan. 10, a seven-member majority of the nine-member City Council voted for the name change. It directed its three appointees to the Board of Port Commissioners--a seven-member body composed of representatives of the five cities ringing San Diego Bay--to vote for the renaming.

Those three votes, plus another from the appointee from National City, whose City Council also favored changing the name of the building to the San Diego Martin Luther King Convention Center, seemed to assure a favorable majority. But, at a contentious, marathon commissioners' meeting Tuesday, one of San Diego's appointees, Dan Larsen, was the swing vote on the Avenue of Honors proposal made by Chula Vista's representative, Robert Penner. The commissioners never voted on the proposal to name the entire center for King.

Approval of Both Needed

The center is being built by the San Diego Unified Port District and will be run by the city. Both entities must approve any name change for the structure.

On Tuesday, Larsen said he decided to support the Avenue of Honors proposal because it had never been before the council and the council "deserved the opportunity" to consider it.

He said Wednesday that Penner told him for the first time last week that he was going to submit his compromise plan at Tuesday's meeting, but said he didn't see the wording of the proposal until the meeting. Larsen also said he "had no idea" how the rest of the commissioners would vote on the plan.

In the aftermath of the vote, he said he has received "quite a few calls . . . and all have been positive. They are all in favor of the" compromise.

Wes Pratt, the only black on the City Council and a leader in the fight for the renaming, called the proposed Avenue of Honors alternative "an inadequate compromise." Despite the mayor's statements, Pratt, who represents the largely black Southeast section of the city, said he will press the council to reject the new proposal and reaffirm its desire to name the convention center after King.

But he admitted that "I don't know what the situation is. There has been some vacillating, some waffling, and I'm not sure where my colleagues stand on this issue at this particular time."

Repeat Its Instructions

Councilman Bob Filner said Wednesday that he remains a strong supporter of placing the King name on the center.

He said the council again "should instruct our commissioners to vote this way . . . or, if they can't in good conscience vote this way, resign."

It was Filner who last month elicited the promise from Larsen and Port Commissioner Bill Rick at their reconfirmation hearings that they would follow the council's direction on the name change.

"I just find it an incredible lack of respect to the council by Mr. Larsen, especially after he committed himself in public," said Filner, who added that Larsen should resign if he does not follow council instructions. Larsen said after the commissioners' vote that, should the council reaffirm its stand favoring the renaming, "I'd probably go along with it."

On Wednesday, noting that Filner didn't vote for his reappointment, Larsen said: "I thought I expressed myself clearly at the meeting . . . that this proposal is a good compromise. The city is divided on this issue, and this seems like a good idea to stop that."

If the council doesn't like the plan, Larsen said, "they can send it back."

Mayor Won't Criticize

The mayor, who Wednesday refused to commit herself to voting again for the name change when the issue comes back to the council, also refused to criticize Larsen.

"I'm not condoning or condemning what Mr. Larsen did," she said. "But I understand that it's a state agency and you can't tell them how to vote." Asked whether Larsen had reneged on his promise to the council, O'Connor replied: "I'm not going to comment on that. That's between Mr. Larsen and his conscience."

According to City Atty. John Witt, Larsen can't be ousted simply because he didn't follow through on a political promise. In order to remove a port commissioner, the council must prove that a commissioner had engaged in "malfeasance, nonfeasance, some kind of bad conduct," Witt said.

Other council members contacted Wednesday expressed feelings ranging from consideration to full support of the compromise.

Councilman Bruce Henderson, who voted for the name change, said he wants to hear testimony on both proposals before making up his mind, according to one of his aides. It was Henderson who, at a council committee hearing, pushed Pratt to have King's full name placed on the center, saying that anything less would be a "bow to racism." Pratt had suggested that simply the name "King" be added to the center.

"I don't think there's an appreciable number of people in District 6 that want me to bow to racism," Henderson said at the December committee hearing, a remark that drew enthusiastic applause from the audience. "And I hope Mr. Pratt wasn't trying to bow to racism."

Going by Constituents

Councilwoman Abbe Wolfsheimer, who also joined the majority in January, said Wednesday that she will stick with her decision unless her 1st District constituents tell her they are displeased with her stand.

"Under district elections, I'm going to do what my constituency wants me to do," she said. "But I must assume that my constituency is pleased with my (initial) decision."

Councilman Ed Struiksma, one of two opponents to the renaming, said Wednesday that he will again vote against the name change and will now vote for the Port District proposal.

Other council members were not available for comment.

Community supporters of the name change said Wednesday that the Avenue of Honors proposal is an unacceptable compromise.

Comments by Raquel Beltran, a member of the San Diego Unity League, which helped generate more than 3,000 letters in support of adding King's name to the center, were typical:

"I do not like Penner's proposal at all," she said. "It completely misses the point. It's completely watered down and not close to what the community or City Council wanted."

She said she is disturbed that Larsen had "contradicted what he said he was going to do at the confirmation hearings. . . . At some point you have to trust what people say. I think they (port commissioners) should have more integrity than that."

As for the proposed boycott of the center, Rev. Stevens said he has begun his "Tell a Friend" campaign in earnest. His idea is to contact both black and white organizations and persuade them to neither hold conventions in San Diego nor visit the city, and to have those organizations contact other groups and individuals and ask them to participate as well.

Stevens said Wednesday he called officials at the New York headquarters of the National Urban League and asked them to cancel a convention they had scheduled for San Diego in a few years. He said he also contacted the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change in Atlanta; the national president of Kappa Alpha Psi, a mainly black fraternity, and radio talk shows in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago.

"I want to go on the air with the message," he said. As for the mayor's statement that chances of renaming the center now appear dim, Stevens said such a turnaround "really helps us and really will make us go harder."

In response, Robert Pruett, the leader of the main group opposed to the name change, said Stevens should drop the boycott.

"First of all, I have a great amount of disregard for Rev. Stevens and his attitude on this issue, instead of accepting the fact that they've been defeated and will be defeated if this goes to a referendum," Pruett said.

"He wants to continue the battle. I don't know what he intends to accomplish, but I can assure you of one thing: that what he's doing is absurd because the very people who would be hurt by a slowdown of any kind . . . are the people he represents.

"I don't believe he has the power. I don't think he has the following, (and) more importantly, I feel the black community is far more intelligent than that. They will not refuse to come to San Diego because of this issue. San Diego in and of itself is a draw and people are going to come for that reason."

Pruett's group has promised to press for a referendum should the council and Port District agree to rename the center after King.

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