Officially, the fight began two years ago. But everything really started in the late 1960s.

It was then that Chaldeans and other Iraqi Christians first came to eastern San Diego County, attracted, like everyone else, to the ocean, the mountains and the weather. Iraqi Christians, though, had another reason for settling in eastern San Diego County. It looked like home.

“The panorama is richer and it is closer to the ancestral land” in northern Iraq, said Bishop Sarhad Jammo, the leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church in San Diego.

The Iraqi Christian population grew in waves over the next half-century as our wars created demand for Iraqi Christians to leave their country. Today, the best estimate is that there are more than 50,000 Iraqi Christians in East County.

The heart of that community in San Diego is El Cajon, East County’s largest city.

Two years ago, El Cajon city leaders decided to propose some of the most restrictive anti-alcohol rules in the region. This pitted the city’s hierarchy against its corner grocers and liquor stores, which are primarily owned by Iraqi Christians and represented by a trade group called the Neighborhood Market Association. At that point, the leader of Neighborhood Market Association, an Iraqi Christian named Mark Arabo, got involved.

Since the new alcohol rules were passed, El Cajon’s mayor resigned over anti-Iraqi Christian remarks, anti-alcohol sting operations were ordered and the city’s political leaders and Arabo have pledged to enshrine their views in the City Charter through ballot measures.

The dispute has laid bare tensions over how El Cajon is changing. Bill Wells, the city’s new mayor, told me that the Iraqi Christian community has been spending lots of money on city elections in recent years, but their candidates haven’t won. He said the city isn’t ready.

“They’ve ruffled some feathers,” Wells said of the Iraqi Christian community. “What I’m hearing from my constituents is they’re uncomfortable with the way El Cajon is changing. When they see this new ethnic group coming in and trying to take over, they have problems voting that in.”


El Cajon has a conservative Americana feel. Its downtown community center is named for Ronald Reagan. The deputy mayor wore an American flag tie to a recent City Council meeting. Its Main Street is vibrant for a mid-sized city and shows the infusion of Iraqi Christians in East County’s civic and political life. Mixed in with a brew pub and mixed-martial arts and Crossfit gyms are clothing shops and convenience stores with signs in Arabic.

Photo by Dustin Michelson
Photo by Dustin Michelson

Arabo has lived through the city’s changes. His parents arrived early, moving from Baghdad by way of Detroit in the late 1970s. They opened corner stores in National City, a small enclave south of San Diego. Arabo was born in Grossmont Hospital in 1983, went to Valhalla High School and San Diego State University.

After college, Arabo hadn’t expected to become politically active. He was working in marketing for Anheuser-Busch and planned on traveling around the country. Then two things happened. His father got sick and Arabo stayed in San Diego to take care of him. And in 2006, a friend of his was shot to death in a corner store.

At the time, Arabo’s brother, Auday, was the head of the Neighborhood Market Association. Mark joined the association to work on public safety issues. Auday Arabo ran for state Assembly in 2008 and, despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, got thrashed in the Democratic primary. Soon after, Auday moved to Michigan and Mark took over at the association.

Mark was busying himself by growing the organization and throwing money around in local and national political races. In mid-2013, when the anti-alcohol rules first emerged, he turned his attention to El Cajon.

In September 2013, El Cajon’s City Council passed a law allowing the city to revoke alcohol permits from stores that sold to minors or committed other violations. They created a tough foe. Arabo objected to the rules. His organization’s many members in El Cajon believed the regulations were too strict.

The next month, Arabo got his hands on a tape. It was of El Cajon Mayor Mark Lewis saying racist things about Chaldeans and other ethnic groups.

Lewis had told a left-wing website that Chaldean children who receive free lunches at school are “being picked up by Mercedes Benzes.”

“First time, they come over here, it doesn’t take them too long to learn where all the freebies are at,” Lewis told The Progressive.

It got worse. Lewis also said that Chaldeans were intimidating Mexicans and blacks by taking over their drug-selling turf.

Arabo rounded up a congressman, a San Diego city councilwoman, the NAACP and various religious leaders to demand Lewis’ ouster. Lewis, who had served nearly a quarter-century in office and had been slowed by health problems, offered his resignation a few days later.

Wells, a city councilman who was born and raised in East County, was appointed to replace Lewis. He told me that Lewis paid the right price for his comments. But Wells said Arabo also used them for his advantage to get rid of a political enemy.

“It was an orchestrated hit,” Wells said.

Arabo scoffed at Wells’ remark. The alcohol fight had nothing to do with the mayor’s racist comments, he told me.

“I think he’s watched ‘The Godfather’ too many times,” Arabo said of Wells.

After Lewis’ departure, the alcohol fight continued unabated. Last fall, El Cajon police began sting operations sending minors into corner stores to buy alcohol. More than a quarter of the stores failed the test.

That prompted Wells and his colleagues recently to pitch a local ballot measure that would make the alcohol rules part of the City Charter. Wells called the alcohol fight the biggest issue in the city. Sometimes it’s discussed in almost religious terms.

“Selling alcohol to a child is an evil act,” one councilman said from the dais at an April meeting. “When good men do nothing, evil triumphs.”

Arabo said he’ll support the ballot measure. But he believes more should happen in El Cajon. One member of the five-person Council was elected in 1992; another in 2002. Arabo wants term limits and elections based on individual districts rather than citywide, a common strategy to increase the election of minority candidates. Arabo said the Neighborhood Market Association is considering a ballot measure of its own in El Cajon that would make both happen in 2016.

“We need to change the entire city inside and out,” Arabo said.

Arabo’s involvement in politics goes far beyond El Cajon. By all accounts, he has eyes on office himself someday. But to get there, he’ll have to overcome notable political blunders, including a delicious but problematic campaign donation.

This is part two of our three-part series on Mark Arabo. You can read part one here, and jump ahead to part three here.

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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