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In the fall of 2012, volunteers on Bob Filner’s mayoral campaign were in for a tasty treat. Two giant standalone freezers, the kind you’d find in a corner store, sat in the middle of Filner’s campaign headquarters. Inside were ice cream sandwiches, Dippin’ Dots, firecracker popsicles and so many other frozen goodies that the campaign had no fear of exhausting its supply.
The ice cream was courtesy of Mark Arabo and the Neighborhood Market Association, someone who worked on the Filner campaign who would only speak on the condition of anonymity told me.
But this delicious gift never appeared on Filner’s campaign forms as required. Even the smallest of donations must be disclosed under the law. Arabo maintains he didn’t give the ice cream to Filner and doesn’t know how the candidate got it.
“We gave it to the Democratic Party,” said Lundon Attisha, the association’s spokesman. “From there, it’s the Democratic Party’s. It’s not like we followed the ice cream.”
That was news to the Democratic Party. There’s no donation fitting the description of the ice cream from the association to the party or from the party to Filner. Jess Durfee, the party chairman at the time, said Filner’s ice cream didn’t come from him. But he sure remembered it.
“Every time I went in there I grabbed an ice cream,” Durfee said. He joked at the time that he wished the party had its own freezers full of ice cream.
The case of the illicit ice cream is one of the many concerns about Arabo’s political and business dealings over the years. He’s taken strong stances on issues only to flip on them later. His association’s stores have not always been good neighbors in the low-income communities they serve. And his association’s donations to campaigns have had a number of problems.
Though the 32-year-old Arabo brushes talk of his own political future aside, you can’t go far without hearing from others that he’s interested in running for office sometime soon. All these issues should make his political aspirations difficult to achieve.
Arabo’s biggest problem is the association’s campaign finance violations – there have been three from the city plus a warning letter from the state – and what he’s said about them. In short, documents show that he lied to the city’s Ethics Commission about the association’s activities.
In 2008, while Arabo was a still a deputy at the Neighborhood Market Association, the organization financed campaign committees that opposed a ballot measure to ban alcohol at the beach. City regulations required the organization to disclose that it financially backed those committees. It didn’t. The Ethics Commission fined the association $14,000.
In a document laying out the fine, the commission said that the association lied to investigators about its involvement in one of the committees, called Our City Committee.
“During the course of the Commission’s investigation, NMA representatives expressly denied that NMA had any involvement in or responsibility for the activities of the Our City Committee,” the document said. “Their assertions were directly contradicted by witness testimony and documentary evidence.”
I asked Arabo if he was the person the Ethics Commission is referencing in that document.
“That wasn’t me,” he said.
But it was. After I interviewed Arabo, the commission gave me notes from its investigation.
“Spoke with Mark Arabo,” the notes say. “He denied having any personal involvement with this Committee. He also denied his organization had any involvement in this Committee.”
Attisha, the NMA spokesman, said Arabo might have misunderstood my question about his involvement. “This seems like a simple minor miscommunication,” Attisha said. Here’s a transcript of that section from our interview.
Should Arabo run for office, he’ll also surely face questions about his job. His brother Auday’s failed bid for state Assembly in 2008, for instance, was buried in part by his association with alcohol and tobacco interests. Arabo said that liquor stores make up less than a fifth of the Neighborhood Market Association’s members, but corner stores in general have a mixed reputation in many communities.
On the one hand, the stores provide some of the only access to groceries in low-income neighborhoods. But the stores often are derided for low-quality offerings and for facilitating easy access to alcohol.
A couple years ago, Arabo showed up at a City Council meeting in National City to advocate for an expanded alcohol permit for a store owned by his cousin. The city’s staff recommended denying the request because the store is in the highest-crime neighborhood in the city and the neighborhood already had double the number of recommended stores selling alcohol. More than 200 people signed a petition opposing the expanded permit. The City Council approved the expanded permit anyway.
A visit last month to the store showed it was bright, but shabby inside. There was cracked tile on the floor and a hole in one section of the ceiling. On a quick scan of the shelves, I found a 99-cent can of sardines, a Hamburger Helper carton and a can of Campbell’s tomato soup. All of them had expired in December 2014.
When I told Arabo about the expired food, he said lots of stores, including big-name markets, have problems with old merchandise. If one of his stores is made aware of spoiled food but does nothing then there’s an issue, he said.
“If you tell me that, I don’t care if it’s my brother or whoever, I cancel them,” he said.
Beyond his business interests, Arabo might have another problem should he decide to run for office: He has trouble articulating positions that are key to many people in the Democratic Party, of which he’s a member.
I asked Arabo if he was anti-abortion, and he paused for almost 10 seconds before answering that abortion rights were the law of the land. Last spring, Arabo was one of the most visible figures opposed to San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria’s push to increase the city’s minimum wage – another big issue for Democrats. During one news segment inside one of the Neighborhood Market Association’s grocery stores, Arabo lamented that the price of a carton of eggs would have to go up by $1.50 if Gloria’s plan passed.
Now, though, with Gloria’s plan headed for the ballot, Arabo said he’s changing. He now backs the minimum wage hike and is pushing the association’s board to do the same.
“I’ve told them, I’m personally going to support it even if they don’t,” he said.
When I began calling around to talk with people about Arabo, I heard that he was interested in running for Congress or state Assembly sometime soon. Then, when San Diego City Councilwoman Marti Emerald announced unexpectedly that she was leaving office at the end of her term next year, I also heard that Arabo was making calls about running for her seat. This was especially surprising because Arabo lives in East County, not the city.
In an interview three weeks ago, I asked Arabo about that and he corrected me. People were calling him to run for Emerald’s seat, not the other way around.
“Everyone always thinks there’s an angle,” Arabo said. “With me there’s no angle.”
Running for office, he said, isn’t at the front of his mind right now. His only focus, he said, was getting Christians out of Iraq. When I mentioned, though, that Arabo would have to move into City Heights or other nearby neighborhoods in San Diego to run for Emerald’s seat, it was clear that he was keeping a close eye on the race. One of the candidates who’s already declared for the race, Arabo told me, had just moved into the district a couple months prior.
Indeed, just this week, Arabo confirmed he’s mulling a run for Emerald’s seat.