Fred Schenk feels like a Del Mar Fair city councilmember
Story and photos by Donald H. Harrison
DEL MAR, California — Attorney Fred Schenk compares his job as a board member of California’s 22nd District Agricultural Association to being an appointed city councilmember of a small town. Given that he is vice president of the board, one might even liken him to being the deputy mayor of the San Diego County Fair, also called the Del Mar Fair.
This is the second time that Schenk has served on the nine-member board. He was appointed in 2002 by Governor Gray Davis, but was replaced in 2006 by an appointee of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who meanwhile had defeated Davis in a recall election. After the current governor, Jerry Brown, was elected, Schenk was reappointed in 2011 to the board.
Those who recall that Schenk’s sister, former Democratic Congresswoman Lynn Schenk, had served as Gray Davis’s chief-of-staff sometimes leap to the conclusion that Fred Schenk got the initial appointment due to the influence of his sister. Fred Schenk responds, however, that he actually had worked for Gray Davis before his sister did.
He explained that back in the days when Davis was serving as California’s lieutenant governor, other governors across the United States were bringing a class action suit against tobacco companies to recover the cost of treating patients who had contracted lung cancer, emphysema, or other tobacco-influenced health injuries.
He said that at the time California had a Republican governor and attorney general–respectively Pete Wilson and Dan Lungren–and that both officeholders declined to have California join the suit. In that no one else could officially commit the state of California to legal action, another strategy had to be worked out.
Lt. Gov. Davis agreed to serve in the role as a lead citizen plaintiff in a class action suit brought in behalf of California residents by Schenk’s law firm, today known as Casey Gerry Schenk Francaville Blatt & Penfield.
Schenk said the plaintiffs in that case ultimately were awarded by the courts billions of dollars in damages, with California and its counties and cities winning $50 billion to be paid out at $500 million a year. “I was lead counsel for my firm, my partners and I, with the three of us being counsel for the State of California,” he said. By the time the decision in the case was rendered (in 1998), Davis was governor-elect of California.
Schenk meanwhile had a commitment to serve from 2000 to 2002 as president of the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center. He expressed a wish, which Davis honored, to be appointed to the San Diego County Fair board in 2002 immediately following the conclusion of his JCC term.
“The fact of the matter is, I got it (the fair board position) because I took on Big Tobacco when others weren’t willing to,” Schenk said. “If I can take on tobacco, I can certainly take on the issues involving the county fair board.”
Those issues might be somewhat daunting for others who do not thrive on government and politics the way that the Schenk family does.
For example, the City of Del Mar just to the south of the fairgrounds and the City of Solana Beach just to the north are frequently at loggerheads with the fair over such issues as traffic and pollution. The California Coastal Commission which has jurisdiction over how beach and coastal lands are utilized is another government entity with which the fair board sometimes must contend.
“Last year’s board was sued by the City of Del Mar, the City of Solana Beach and by the California Commission for issues of non compliance” stemming from a position taken by previous board members that as a state-created entity that predated the Coastal Commission, it had autonomy within its boundaries over various development projects, according to Schenk.
“Within six months of getting (back) on this board, the board resolved the issues with the California Coastal Commission and we are starting a new era of cooperation with the commission,” said Schenk, who may eventually become the board’s president, succeeding Adam Day, if his fellow board members follow the precedent of elevating the vice president to the presidency.
Concerning the issue of pollution, Schenk said that about 21,000 tons of waste are produced by the fair, and of this, 18,500 tons, or about 91 percent, are recycled or turned into compost. “We win awards for our excellence in doing that,” he said. “We are interested in being good neighbors and leaving a clean footprint for these three weeks.”
The City of Del Mar “is not totally pleased with our performance and probably would prefer that we not have a fair,” Schenk acknowledged. “The City of Del Mar represents 4,500 people, whereas the county of San Diego represents several million people. Beyond that we get people coming in from Riverside County, Los Angeles County (and Orange County) and Mexico, so we feel very strongly that Southern California and even parts of Mexico shouldn’t be dictated to by a group of less than 5,000 people living in the City of Del Mar.”
At one point, Del Mar proposed purchasing the fairgrounds from the State of California as a way to help relieve California’s fiscal crisis. But the $120 million sale price proposed would not have made a significant impact on California’s fiscal situation, and was beyond the City of Del Mar’s financial needs.
One example of the fair board’s cooperative spirit is its plan to take what is now a large parking area south of the fairgrounds and invest $5 million in improvements to restore the land, Schenk said. That will necessitate finding transportation and parking solutions for next year’s fair, including utilizing offsite parking, trains, busses and other “alternative ways to get people onto the property.”
Land use is only one area of controversy. The exhibits themselves sometimes are matters of passionate protests. For example, a current exhibit on the human body has created controversy on its tour across the country because the subjects whose bodies are displayed may have been Chinese slave laborers who never gave their consent to be displayed in such a way.
“I think there will always be someone who has an issue with something that is educational even if it’s something that people will learn from,” Schenk said. “There will be people who say we shouldn’t show the naked bodies of people because they’re dead… On balance, yes there is the issue of showing respect for the dead, yet people are dissecting animals all the time, and working on cadavers for the benefit of science, and I think that this is scientifically relevant and justified.”
Another controversy deals with elephant rides that are offered during the 24-day-long fair that traditionally ends with a fireworks celebration on July 4th. At the insistence of animal rights activists, such rides were banned at the Los Angeles and Orange County Fairs. “We decided after a very vocal board meeting, where hundreds of people came to speak, to decide in 2014 whether we will ban the elephant rides,” Schenk said. He said he made the motion to delay the decision until then because that is when “some new standards will come into play, international standards concerning interactions between humans and elephants.” The fair board’s ultimate action on elephants will take these standards into consideration, Schenk said.
As Schenk walked with me on a crowded Saturday around the fairgrounds, he addressed the issue of the kinds of foods served by the 100 food vendors who pay the fair 25 percent of their gross for the privilege of selling food to an estimated 1.5 million visitors.
While the fair is famous for some deep-fried oddities that most people agree wouldn’t be very healthy if included in a steady diet — for example, deep-fried Twinkies or deep-fried Snickers– Schenk said there also are numerous healthy choices at the fair. He mentioned grilled chicken, fish and turkey selections, vegetarian fried beans, and hummus, as some of the healthier options. While none of the vendors offer kosher food, per se, he added, some of the selections clearly would be considered pareve.
The fair collects rent from approximately 500 vendors of non-food items, and additionally receives a 25 percent share from the proprietors of 82 different carnival ride and games vendors, Schenk said.
In 2011, when all these sources were added up, the Fair took in $22 million gross, and netted $8 million, which was used to help keep the fairgrounds open for special events all year long as well as for maintenance and construction of new infrastructure. The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, which conducts horseracing at the fair later in the summer, also pays rent to the fair.
One of Schenk’s favorite projects at the fair is the granting of four $5,000 Don Diego Scholarships to high school students who have participated in the 4-H and FFA competitions, worked for vendors or have been employed by the fair itself. On June 28th, he noted, there will be a fundraiser for that scholarship program, with guitars signed by members of popular bands to be auctioned to attendees. Among the bands who’ve given out autographs are Earth Wind and Fire, Lonestar, Hot Chelle Rae and Cobra Starship.
Among the most recent set of scholarship winners are Kendall Lynch, who will be majoring in animal science at Cal Poly, and Meredith Lehmann, 16, who will be attending Stanford University in the fall. Applicants are judged on their academic records, their interviews, and “how they intend to use the money in terms of bettering their community.”
The theme of the fair this year is “Out of this World,” with a major exhibit hall being given over to space exploration and to the fascination it holds for people. There is a poster showing the ill-fated crew that perished in a 1986 explosion of the Challenger spacecraft. One of the astronauts was Judy Resnik, a member of the Jewish community whose father, Marvin, resided in Encinitas.
Other exhibits within the pavilion told of local members of the Marine Corps who served as astronauts. And on a lighter note there were imaginative drawings and images of aliens and UFOs.
“We tried to come up with a theme that can connect to something that goes on locally,” Schenk said. “In the past we’ve had themes dealing with oceanography and agriculture and this year we decided to do something space related.” The idea was to create something both educational and “a little bit wacky — there’s a little bit of that Comic-Con twist to it , but it is also very informative.”
Comic-Con is a convention that draws over 130,000 visitors over five days in July to the San Diego Convention Center. Amid Hollywood celebrity-studded panels about comics, movies, television shows, and video games, the convention is famous for the costumes that many attendees like to wear emulating favorite fictional characters. Schenk said the Del Mar Fair suggested a joint promotion to Comic-Con, but that the organizers of the sold-out Comic-Con were not interested.
The space theme could be found throughout the fair. In one section, where people have their hobbies judged, one entry was a collection of Star Trek memorabilia. Another had postage stamps dedicated to space flight. In the fine arts exhibit, some of the drawings, paintings and photographs evoked outer space. There was even a cake that looked like the R2D2 robot of Star Wars fame.
Schenk wears the blue shirt of a fair employee, along with a straw hat, and frequently is stopped by passersby who want to know where bathrooms can be found or where certain exhibitors or vendors are located. He kvells over the large, but orderly crowds, possibly because he is one of those people who enjoys being in a crowd. Just recently Schenk’s son Benjamin graduated magna cum laude with a major in government and a dual minor in public policy and theatre from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Father and son drove across the country from New Hampshire to California, stopping along the way at six major league ballfields, those serving the Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers, Arizona Diamondbacks and San Diego Padres. At each inter-league game, Schenk noted, the home team won, even the Padres, who defeated the Seattle Mariners. The Schenks also visited the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.
As Schenk and I enjoyed sandwiches at the fair, he told me that Benjamin, now 22, has been a devoted Padre baseball fan since he was a preschooler. On one occasion that they bumped into then-Padres president Larry Lucchino, Schenk bragged that Benjamin knew the names and positions of all the starting Padres players. Lucchino tested him, and the boy proved his father right. Lucchino (today president of the Boston Red Sox) invited the boy to come to the announcer’s booth during a later inning as “Little Star of the Game” to announce that the lead -off batter was the centerfielder, Number 12, Steve Finley. Not yet being able to read, the youngest announcer to date did so from memory, winning an ovation from the Padres fans throughout the stadium.
From that point on, the Schenks attended not only regular season games but Spring Training games of the Padres. On separate occasions over three seasons, Benjamin was chosen to serve as a batboy.
As much as Schenk loves baseball, he suggests that the San Diego County Fair can compare favorably to the Padres in its economic impact for the community.
“We are going to end up with close to 1.5 million people walking through that turnstile in a 24-day period,” he said. “Now think about this: The Padres, bless their hearts, get around 81 home days between April and the end of September. They are very happy to get 2 million people. We get three quarters of that in three weeks. This is the heart of San Diego in the summer; it is what people truly look forward to. This is what the community wants to do; this is how they view the beginning of the summer. Labor Day is the end of the summer and this is the beginning. This always seems to be the beginning of San Diego summer.”
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World. He may be contacted at email@example.com
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