By Miriam Raftery
October 19, 2023 (El Cajon) – Mark Lewis, who served El Cajon as mayor and city councilman for 25 years overseeing major changes the community, has died of complications from a stroke suffered last year. His family members were with him at a hospice center, where he passed away on October 12, 2023 at age 75.
“He loved El Cajon and everyone in it,” his wife, Sarah Christine “Chris” Lewis, told East County Magazine.
He led the city through a recession and a centennial, leading efforts to revitalize downtown, bring "fun" to city residents and create a cleaner, greener community for future generations.
The affable mayor, known for his sense of humor and commitment to a clean environment, also served as the County of San Diego’s waste management coordinator, chaired SANDAG’s public safety board, was foreman of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Grand Jury, served on the Draft Board and on the Indian Gaming Commission.
A complex, larger-than-life figure, Lewis also wrote poetry and authored a book of Haiku dedicated to mankind "in the hope that those who read it,will act in some way,as to improve the existence of man." In his younger days,he enjoyed stints as a stand-up comedian.
But he was most proud of leading efforts to revitalize downtown El Cajon and implement green programs that cleaned up the city’s air pollution.
He was born on May 5, 1948 in Arkansas to Tina Mae Lewis and Joseph Hamilton Lewis, a descendant of founding father Alexander Hamilton, according to family lore. Joseph Lewis was in the Air Force, so the family left Arkansas when Mark Lewis was just two years old. They traveled to several places here he was stationed, before winding up in San Diego’s South Bay.
When his family brought him to watch the Mother Goose Parade in El Cajon, young Mark Lewis turned to his father and said, ”I want to move here, Daddy!” according to his wife, Chris Lewis.
So the family moved to El Cajon, living in the Chieftain Trailer Park. Lewis never outgrew his love of the parade; many years later when parade organizers suffered financial problems, Lewis brought in a Johnny Depp celebrity impersonator to help raise funds to save the parade, and rode on a float in the Mother Goose Parade that had delighted him as a child.
He was first in his graduating class at W.D. Hall Elementary School in 1960, later graduating from Greenfield Middle and Granite Hills High schools. He attended Grossmont College for two years, then received a bachelor’s degree in speech from San Diego State University, where debate was his favorite topic.
He met his wife right after college, when both were trainees at the May Company department stores sent to Los Angeles for training. “He was fun and good looking,” she recalls. “On our first date, going up to Grossmont Summit (in El Cajon) he said, `I’m going to be mayor of this city someday.”
For years, the couple lived in an apartment and raised four children without much money, Chris recalls, “but he never forgot that dream.” Mark Lewis began volunteering at events to get involved in the city.
While working at the county, in 1979 he started white paper office recycling program. “He delivered all the bins to every desk all over the county,” his wife recalls. The County issued a proclamation honoring him for those efforts, as well as helping to fund an ecology center.
He won election to the city council, serving three terms, or 12 years, before winning election as Mayor in 1998. He ran on a platform that included “bringing fun back to El Cajon,” the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Lewis spent the next 14 years as El Cajon’s mayor, attaining many milestones including leading the city through its 75tth anniversary and its centennial in 2012, his last year in office.
When Lewis first came to El Cajon, Old Highway 80 took travelers through the city’s downtown. But after Interstate 8 and the Parkway Plaza regional mall pulled traffic and shoppers out of the city’s core, the downtown area declined. Lewis dreamed of making El Cajon like San Diego’s Gaslamp district. He determined to focus on downtown revitalization, which included a major facelift such as new sidewalks, outdoor seating, streetlights, new signs, upgrading building facades along the historic district and remodeling Prescott Promenade to attract larger events to downtown El Cajon.
New businesses, restaurants and a brewery came to town, drawn in part by large crowds flocking to new events such as Cajon Classic Cruise, Concerts on the Green, Wieghorst Museum Western Days, Alley Cat Art Walk, and a Parade of Lights. In his final term, Lewis told ECM he looked forward to the city’s newly planned “America on Main Street” festival celebrating cultural diversity and featuring a citizenship swearing in ceremony.
As part-time Mayor also serving as the county’s waste management coordinator, he proudly proclaimed the nickname “Captain Trash” and drove a car with license plates that read “CPT TRASH.” He implemented a recycling program that recycled 2,000 tons a day; El Cajon became the county’s only zero-waste city. El Cajon converted its fleet of 125 trash trucks to run on natural gas from landfills. Lewis credits that with reducing the city’s smoggy air in the first three decades after its inception. “You can see the difference,” he said in an interview with ECM in 2010.
He also led efforts to make El Cajon a Tree City USA, raising a half million dollars to start the program. He purchased a giant Sequoia seedling that he named “Woody,” which he carried to many public meetings to tout the importance of planting trees across the city. “Woody” still exists, in a secret location for the tree’s protection, Lewis’ widow assures.
“One of the stars next to my name is that we have a no-kill animal shelter,” Lewis once said. He was known for bringing homeless animals into Council hearings, including a pot-bellied pig that needed a new home. He also paid out of his own pocket to erect a “duck crossing” sign after a duck was struck by a vehicle and killed near the city’s duck pond.
He conducted Council meetings in a manner that was respectful to all, whether a civic leader or a homeless man speaking out about concerns. He lived up to the mantra of a compassionate conservative,after switching parties from Democratic to Republican.
“He really cared about people,” says Councilman Gary Kendrck, who served alongside Lewis for decades. “He would drive around the city often in the middle of the night, just to see how things were, and he ate at every single new restaurant in the city…People would come up to him and he would talk to them as long as they wanted.”
Kendrick once confided in Lewis, while at an East County Performing Arts Center show, that his own son, Jesse Kendrick, was having trouble adjusting to a new baby in the family. The Mayor invited young Jesse, 4, on a tour of city hall including a “secret passage” to the Mayor’s office up a fire ladder. “Mark spent a lot of time talking to him and he gave Jesse the keys to the city…He also gave him his own coonskin cap from the ‘50s that he’d had since he was a kid—that’s how much he cared for this little 4-year-old.”
Lewis’ tenure was not without controversy. The East County Performing Arts Center closed down on his watch, with the Mayor resolved not to reopen it until repairs and remodeling could be afforded to “do it right.” He supported a fundraising event to save the theater, with entertainment from Ballet Folklorico dancers to Hollywood celebrity mpersonators.It took a decade, but shortly after Lewis left office the city did attract Live Nation to provide professional management; the theater reopened as the Magnolia and is now a financial success.
Lewis staunchly defended his support of a half cent sales tax increase, which voters approved to prevent layoffs of police and firefighters. :They have families and they have dreams,” he said. He also oversaw consolidation of the city’s fire department with neighboring El Cajon and Lemon Grove, under Heartland Fire and Rescue. The consolidation saved $560,000 for the three cities, earning a Grand Golden Watchdog award from the San Diego Taxpayers Association.
A strong public safety advocate, Lewis also oversaw construction of the new Public Safety Center, or police station, funded by a ballot proposition (Photo, left). The city also revitalized Wells Park and renovated recreation facilities on his watch with grant funds.
Also on his watch, affordable housing and senior housing were constructed, as the city made it easier to convert apartments to condominiums to attract homebuyers, and the El Cajon Neighbors website was set up to engage the community on ways to reduce crime. The city also funded programs to help the homeless through the East County Transitional Living Center.
Lewis helped the city secure funds and equipment from local tribes to offset impacts of Native American casino gaming. Those benefits to El Cajon included repaving streets, adding police cars and street lights, and securing instruments to identify tattoos on crime suspects as well as stolen vehicles.
During the city’s centennial in 2012, Mayor Lewis reflected on how the city had changed since its founding a century earlier “when they ran pigs down Main Street and advised flume rides all the way from Cuyamaca to El Cajon.” The Mayor cut a ribbon to celebrate the opening of Centennial Plaza near City Hall.
The next year, on October 5,2013, Mayor Lewis announced his resignation due to health reasons, citing cancer, a dislocated shoulder and a minor stroke.
He said he was stepping down to “allow our City Council and community to move forward in their work to make this City the finest place it can be…I deeply love our town and have given a major portion of my adult life to its wellbeing,” he wrote in his resignation letter, adding, “so this is a bittersweet moment for me.”
He also apologized for remarks that drew criticism two days before his resignation, comments he made in an interview with the Progressive, which were characterized by critics as insensitive toward Chaldean immigrants. Asked by the interviewer if some citizens resented the refugees from Iraq, Lewis mentioned schoolchildren receiving free lunches while being picked up by parents driving luxury vehicles.
But the remarks were taken out of context; audiotape of that interview obtained by East County Magazine also revealed Mayor Lewis praising Chaldeans as “wonderful people” who are “hard working” and “good residents” deserving of the “land of opportunities” in America.
In an earlier interview with ECM, Lewis also praised the Chaldean immigrants, and spoke of the city’s efforts to work with St. Peter’s and St. Michael’s Chaldean churches to help the city’s 40,000 Iraqi-Americans learn English skills, get good jobs,and assimilate into local culture. He spoke with pride of going to many events for Iraqi immigrants and other cultural groups in the community.
Lewis was a giant among East County leaders, serving his city for 35 years and leaving behind a legacy of many enhancements to the community and the people of El Cajon. But he was also humble, once writing a poem titled "Giants" in which he noted that all things on earth are made by God, concluding,"Truly the only thing we have really made, Is our own mistakes from day to day."
His wife recalls his sense of humor, love of community, and commitment to do what he felt was right. “He was never afraid to stand up for what he believed in,” she concludes.
Lewis was predeceased by a daughter, Chondra, a twin who died at 17. He is survived by his other daughter, Caroline Young, two sons, Jonathan Lewis and David Lewis, as well as grandchildren Johnny Young, Jason Young, Sebastian Hamilton Lewis, Daisy Lewis, and Fernando Lewis.
Private family services will be held. Mayor Bill Wells has indicated the city will honor former Mayor Lewis at a future City Council meeting.