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In rare O.C. visit, Gov. Brown pushes for Irvine veterans cemetery

In rare O.C. visit, Gov. Brown pushes for Irvine veterans cemetery
Former Marine Sgt. Bill Cook, left, chairman of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Committee, talks with former Marine Maj. Neil Reich at the Great Park. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Jerry Brown made a rare Orange County appearance Tuesday to champion what he said was a bipartisan effort to build a veterans cemetery in Irvine and to stump for a fellow Democrat who is locked in a tight race to hang onto her Assembly seat.

Brown last week signed legislation to clear the way for a veterans cemetery on the grounds of the now-retired El Toro Marine base. Much of the old military land is to be transformed into neighborhoods of high-end homes and a scaled-down version of what was to be a sprawling municipal park.

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"In war we come together because we have to defend our country," Brown said, addressing a crowd of politicians and uniformed veterans. "Well, there are other times where we have to come together to defend our future."

Since the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro closed in 1999, veterans groups and activists have pushed for a portion of the old Marine base to be used as a veterans cemetery. The sprawling Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood has been closed to burials for nearly 20 years, leaving Riverside National Cemetery as the only alternative for veterans.

The Irvine City Council earlier this year voted to set aside 125 acres of the former Marine base for a cemetery, overriding the worries of a developer building thousands of nearby homes, many that are being marketed to Asian Americans. A feng shui master working with the builder said the presence of a cemetery could turn off some buyers.

Though officials emphasized the level of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans to push for a cemetery, the day wasn't without a certain amount of behind-the-scenes political wrangling.

Tuesday's event marked the first time Brown had been in the county since May. His appearance alongside Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), who authored the cemetery legislation, seemed purposeful.

Quirk-Silva is fighting to hang onto the 65th Assembly district in northern Orange County and, in the bigger view, help Democrats regain their supermajority in Sacramento.

Brown downplayed any political motivation.

"Now, the finance department opposed [the bill] because it costs money, and you know I don't like to spend money," Brown said. "But Sharon over here twisted my arm, and I decided it was a darn good cause."

At the city level, members of the Republican City Council majority said they didn't know that the governor was headed for their city until a day before he arrived.

Brown's visit, they said, was a little bit inconveniently timed, given that the developer of the homes was set to host a "runway breaking" event to kick off the construction of the 688-acre portion of the park. The old base is still criss-crossed by a pair of runways.

Bill Cook, chairman of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Committee, said he planned to stick around for the runway demolition.

"We can all carry away parts of history, like it's the Berlin Wall, or something," he said.

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