Hitler reference causes stir in state Assembly race

According to the teachers, Robin Warren and Ann Sugahara, Frusetta was talking to the students about overcoming personal difficulty when he cited Winston Churchill and Hitler as role models — individuals who overcame their struggles and succeeded.

"He didn't say that [Hitler] was an example of evil. I kept waiting for the explanation but it never came," Warren told the Bulletin.

In a recent San Jose Mercury News article, Sugahara was quoted as saying that "it's important to set the record straight."

The teachers' comments to media last week came at a crucial time for Frusetta, who is trying to keep his 28th-district seat in the Nov. 3 election.

The Republican rancher is running in the heavily Democratic areas of San Benito County and portions of Santa Cruz, Monterey and Santa Clara counties. He faces Democratic challenger Alan Styles, former mayor of Salinas, and Libertarian Kate Woods.

To make matters worse for Frusetta, in a separate allegation a Morgan Hill woman has been reported in the media as saying Frusetta called her a "bitch" when she refused to accept his campaign literature. Frusetta's campaign staff declined to comment on the incident.

In his letter to the S.F.-based ADL, Frusetta called the Hitler allegations — raised by opponent Styles — "utterly unfounded."

The assemblyman said he mentioned Winston Churchill in his speech as a positive example of a man who struggled against adverse circumstances, but did so "for good." He said that he portrayed Hitler as someone who struggled, then pursued evil.

"It is beyond belief that a politician would sink so low as to wrench this comparison out of context and say that I was glorifying Adolf Hitler, a man whom I despise with every fiber of my being," Frusetta said in the letter.

The assemblyman also related his feelings about "the horror of the Holocaust" and listed his legislative record, suggesting he supports a pro-Israel agenda.

In conclusion, he wrote, "I am deeply sorry if these false allegations have, for even a moment, caused you to question my devotion to the cause of truth."

Barbara Bergen, director of the S.F.-based ADL, said her hands were tied in pursuing the case before the two teachers came forward. With the election so close at hand, however, Bergen plans to wait until after Nov. 3 to continue her discussions with Frusetta.

"We don't start shooting," she said, "without knowing that something [besides rhetoric] is happening."

Frusetta maintains his innocence despite the teachers' statements, according to Devin Brown, the assemblyman's chief of staff.

Though no one from the Styles or Frusetta campaigns was present at the middle school speech, Styles' campaign manager Theresa May Duggan said her candidate stands by his version of the story.

Gavilan View teacher Warren, who is Jewish, was the first to speak out about the Hitler reference. Less than an hour after hearing the speech, she called Frusetta's office wanting an explanation. She never got one.

Frusetta allegedly made the same Hitler remark in two identical speeches that day to 900 students altogether, Warren said.

He also warned the multiracial student body not to look on parents, especially single parents, as role models, she added.

His comments set off Gavilan View teachers, who sought to reconcile what they had heard with each other. While some complained to administrators, no one went public with their complaints until Warren contacted Styles' campaign offices several months ago about the Hitler remarks, she said.

"I didn't do this in support of a candidate," she explained. "It needed to be said. It was an anti-Semitic remark. He could have used another role model."

The sixth-grade teacher, who is divorced with children, said she could not have entered her Salinas synagogue, Temple Beth El, in good conscience had she not spoken up.

After her public statements last week, Warren said one of her students approached her with a personal story — the family of his Dutch-born mother had hidden Jews during the Holocaust.

Obviously, Warren noted, the proud boy looked to his parents as role models.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.