Today marks the fifth day of Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the Israelites’ exodus from Egyptian bondage to freedom. Passover’s many themes include the importance of asking questions and challenging the status quo. Just as Moses stood up to Pharaoh demanding liberty for his people, so too do children every year stand defiantly to ask the “four questions,” and so too do all Seder participants debate historical, religious, and cultural ideas.

One person who embodies this theme of questioning authority and standing up for principles (even unpopular ones) is my friend Phil Thalheimer, who is running for San Diego City Council from District 1, where I reside. Over the past decade, Phil has steadily built an impressive record of public advocacy for causes that have earned him nothing but scorn from various quarters. His determination to protect the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial — which ended in an Oval Office bill signing in which he participated — was largely unpopular in the Jewish community of which he is a proud member. Even Phil’s leadership in the statewide passage of Jessica’s Law aroused considerable hostility in Sacramento. Regardless of the merits of these issues, it cannot be denied that Phil stood up for what he believed in, despite vigorous opposition.

Now Phil is turning his considerable energy and passion to an even more critical cause: reforming a calcified city bureaucracy. His campaign operates on the premise that he will encounter stiff resistance by entrenched downtown forces wary of any threat to their dominance of civic affairs. But Phil is well-positioned to fight these interests, as you might expect from a former linebacker for the Penn State Nittany Lions. Once on the council, he will continue his practice of challenging political insiders on the merits of the issues, even if it angers them. His commitment to standing up, independently, for everyday San Diegans simply cannot be questioned.

Phil’s strong leadership and willingness to fight the status quo contrasts starkly with Sherri Lightner, the consummate insider running against him. I’ve had the distinct displeasure of witnessing Ms. Lightner in action, both in person and via webcast, both at City Hall and in the myriad La Jolla community groups. Her performances before the Council in advocating for what La Jolla residents supposedly want, while heartfelt, have been uniformly embarrassing, marked at times by tone-deaf wonkishness and at others by bizarre emotional outbursts.

But beyond her public speaking difficulties, Ms. Lightner badly lacks a much more important qualification for representing the district at City Hall: leadership, as indicated by her inept stewardship of the alphabet soup of La Jolla groups, whose leadership rotates among an insular elite of some 10-12 La Jollans. The various meetings of these groups that I’ve attended and/or read about over the past few years were replete with overbearing pettiness, imperious and pedantic statements from the dais, and sinister backroom dealings. On issues ranging from the seals to the Hillel project to building height limits to relocating structures at the Cove, these groups represent the ultimate in narrow-minded stasis, not progress.

If anything consistent can be deduced from Ms. Lightner’s participation in public service, it’s that she’s in thrall to environmental interests, NIMBY activists, and the tight net of federal, state, and local statutes that increasingly strangle modernization of our district and our city In short, for all her bashing of Council President Scott Peters, she is the candidate of the status quo.

I admire another of Phil’s rivals, Marshall Merrifield, for his successful career in business and for his civic-minded spirit. I believe he would make a fine councilmember. But I have my doubts that his experience can translate well onto the campaign trail, and it worries me that his time in public service hasn’t been sufficiently lengthy for him to stand up for unpopular, but just, principles. To a lesser extent, I’m also concerned about Mr. Merrifield’s ability to defeat Ms. Lightner in a November runoff (especially in a presidential election year when Democratic enthusiasm is high and environmental groups and unions are fine-tuning their get-out-the-vote machines).

So it’s clear to me, as I hope it will be to you as well, why we need a strong, independent candidate like Phil to ask the tough questions in City Hall. Our district and our city deserve nothing less. Happy Passover.


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