Jewish Leaders: DA Must Address Alvarez Controversy

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Tuesday, August 30, 2011 | Condemnations of Santa Ana Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez’s recent comments comparing a downtown property owner, who is Jewish, to Adolf Hitler, continue. But attention is shifting to the district attorney’s relative silence on the issue.

Alvarez is a deputy district attorney. An official with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish organization that fights anti-Semitism, called the lack of a strong statement from District Attorney Tony Rackauckas “appalling.”

“A deputy district attorney has to be held to a higher standard and has to have a level of public trust,” said Kevin O’Grady, regional director of the ADL. “They [the district attorney’s office] have a moral obligation to speak out.”

Alvarez made the controversial comments while discussing Downtown Inc., the organization that promotes, secures and cleans up the downtown core. The organization is funded through a special property tax, but some merchants say they receive no benefit.  They say the organization’s true aim is to push out Latino merchants.

Downtown Inc. supporters argue that the organization’s services are vital to transforming the downtown into a vibrant commercial district.

Statements from other organizations condemning Alvarez’s comments  continue to make headlines.

Frank Barbaro, chairman of the Democratic Party of Orange County, released a statement Tuesday calling Alvarez’s remarks “inappropriate, offensive and hurtful.”

The ADL has called for Alvarez to resign her council seat, part of a steady flow of complaints into City Hall.

And an online petition for Alvarez’s resignation has also been started, the Liberal OC blog reported.

The ADL classifies Alvarez’s comments as hate speech, O’Grady said, and they’ve officially documented it as a hate incident.

That means Alvarez’s comments will be included as a statistic in the annual hate crimes report released annually by the Orange County Human Relations Commission, unless the commission objects, O’Grady said.

Susan Kang-Schroeder, Rackauckas’ chief of staff, said she didn’t think the district attorney’s office needed to issue a statement about the incident because the district attorney’s position should be obvious to the public.

Schroeder reacted with surprise when a Voice of OC reporter called for comment. She indicated she thought the issue was no longer newsworthy.

“We’re in a different position as an employer,” Schroeder said. “It’s so obvious that her position didn’t reflect the DA’s office. We’re actually kind of surprised that it even needed clarification.”

Jewish leaders don’t agree. They question Alvarez’s ability to prosecute objectively, particularly those with Jewish roots.

“While I completely understand she wasn’t speaking in her role as a deputy DA, I don’t think that prevents the district attorney from denouncing what one of his employees said,” O’Grady said.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in New York City, said that the district attorney’s office will have to address the issue in order to reassure the public’s trust in the district attorney’s office.

“A strong statement should be forthcoming. I’m sorry to hear it’s not there yet,” Cooper said. “But that piece of the issue, in terms of public trust in the DA’s office, which she [Alvarez] represents — it has to be addressed.”

Steps to rectify the situation, Cooper said, include visiting with Holocaust survivors and making a personal apology to the Chase family.

Jewish leaders aren’t the only ones asking for Rackauckas to issue a condemnation.

Zeke Hernandez, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said he also wants Rackacukas to speak forcefully on the issue. The Latino organization has also condemned Alvarez’s remarks.

“The DA ought to be able to assure the public that no person wants to be on the receiving end of a comment like that,” Hernandez said.

Alvarez’s comments were made at a recent council meeting and included insinuations that Chase is plotting to acquire downtown buildings by bankrupting Latino merchants. Such accusations reinforce centuries-old anti-Semitic stereotypes, Jewish leaders said.

Rusty Kennedy, executive director for the Human Relations Commission, said the commission will ultimately determine whether the incident is included in the hate crimes report. He said he wouldn’t comment further because the commission is helping mediate the gentrification dispute in the downtown.

“We know it’s an intense situation, and we’re trying to bring them together,” Kennedy said.

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