At the heart of District 4 are San Diego’s historically black communities, created in large part by property deeds limiting where people of color could buy or rent homes.
In 1969 a coalition calling itself BOMB: Black, Oriental, Mexican Brothers called a public meeting in Southcrest Park and began advocating for a civil rights advocate to be appointed to a vacated City Council seat.
The appointment and subsequent election of Leon L. Williams began a tradition of the District 4 seat being held by African-Americans. Five decades later, issues of race and repression are at the center of a contentious contest between a storied incumbent and her activist challenger.
Communities: Alta Vista, Broadway Heights, Chollas View, Emerald Hills, Encanto, Greater Skyline Hills, Jamacha, Lincoln Park, Lomita Village, North Bay Terrace, Oak Park, O’Farrell, Paradise Hills, Redwood Village, Rolando Park, South Bay Terrace, Valencia Park, Webster
An informal coalition of ministers and business owners is a primary political force in the district, and many of the Councilmembers in the last half-century have started out as staffers for their predecessors.
In 2013, following the resignation of Tony Young, Myrtle Cole became the first African-American woman elected to serve on the City Council in San Diego’s history.
Cole, a former police officer, had worked for the Council to help implement a “Community Oriented Policing” program. She also worked directly for Young, as well as former District 4 council members George Stevens and Charles Lewis.
The incumbent Councilwoman has played a role in local politics going back 25 years, as this snip from a 2013 City Beat article illustrates:
When Kehoe made a bid for City Council in 1993, she asked Cole to run her phone bank. After the successful campaign, making Kehoe San Diego’s first openly gay elected official, Cole worked as Kehoe’s representative in City Heights. She says she stayed for two years and worked alongside another future council member, Atkins, whose campaign Cole ran after Kehoe was termed out. As she had for Kehoe before, she worked for a couple of years for Atkins.
When she wasn’t working for council members, she was running her own community-event business, and when she wasn’t planning events, she was working on or managing political campaigns. Cole ran Charles Lewis’ 2002 campaign, which ended up pitting her candidate against Dwayne Crenshaw in the runoff election; Crenshaw is among the candidates Cole will face in March. After Lewis died unexpectedly while facing corruption charges, Cole managed the campaign of Tony Young, Lewis’ chief of staff, which started in 2005 and ended in 2006.
She served as field director for Francine Busby’s unsuccessful 2006 bid to unseat incumbent Congressmember Brian Bilbray, joined UDW in 2008 and ran Young’s reelection campaign in 2010. Last year, she helped several campaigns: Shirley Weber’s bid for state Assembly, Bob Filner’s run for mayor and the opposition to the anti-union Prop. 32.
Myrtle Cole (Incumbent Democrat)
Issues: “Myrtle is tackling two of the biggest problems facing San Diego–housing affordability and homelessness.”
Union-Tribune – San Diego City Council President Myrtle Cole on the issues
Times of San Diego – Myrtle Cole Re-Elected as San Diego City Council President
San Diego Reader – Cole Solicits 2018 Cash Before SoccerCity Vote
Organizational Endorsements: *San Diego County Democratic Party, San Diego City Fire Fighters Local 145, San Diego Imperial Counties Labor Council, San Diego Municipal Employees Association, United Domestic Workers Local 3930, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 569, Sheet Metal Workers Local 206, San Diego Lifeguards Local 911, Planned Parenthood Action Fund of the Pacific Southwest, Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters
(*The Democratic Party has discussed reconsidering their endorsement of Cole. My sources say such a move is likely to get buried by procedural maneuvers.)
Running against her in the 2013 special election was attorney Monica Montgomery, who finished dead last with 3% of the vote, her presence diminished by what would end up being an expensive proxy battle between candidates supported by organized labor (Cole) and Republican business interests (Dwayne Crenshaw).
While Cole has ended up being a reliable supporter for many issues championed by organized labor, she’s also been good enough at playing the game to be supported by business interests. This agility paved the way for her to become City Council President, a role whose real power is focused on committee assignments and agenda setting.
Comments–later walked back– made by the Councilwoman in the wake of national protests over police shootings of African Americans, sparked outrage and protests among some constituents in 2016.
“There’s more black-on-black shootings in our nation than ever before,” Cole said. “Blacks are shooting blacks. So who do (the police) stop? They’re not going to stop a white male. They’re not going to stop a Hispanic male or Asian. They’re going to stop an African-American. That’s who they’re going to stop, because those are the ones (who are) shooting.”
Shortly after those comments were made, Cole staffer Monica Montgomery tendered her resignation. She went to work with ACLU on criminal justice issues and has garnered the support of activists seeking reform in policing policies.
Cole’s relationship with law enforcement is now a point of contention.
Critics believe the Councilwoman has run interference for the San Diego Police Department, particularly when advocates thought they were set to get a fall ballot initiative expanding the authority of the Community Review Board on Police Practices.
There has also been criticism of Myrtle Cole visibility and interactions with the residents of District 4. A survey by KPBS on the frequency of Council representatives attendance at weekend community events put Cole amid GOP members near the bottom, with an average of one appearance per month.
Wilnisha Sutton, an activist in Southeast San Diego who helped canvas for Cole’s last campaign told KPBS:
“I was really advocating for this woman because I was like, she’s a woman, she’s black, she’s coming to the community, yes!” Sutton said. “When she didn’t show up for our community in a way that I feel was helpful for our community, I was passionate, because I put in the full work to get you elected.”
While Cole was the first black woman to be council president, Sutton said that only reinforced her dissatisfaction with her.
“It’s all about you,” she said. “You’re doing everything for your career, for your social gain in San Diego. You’re just trying to do whatever it takes to be their puppet, and not stand up for our community.”
Since coming in behind Monica Montgomery in the primary, Cole has stepped up her game. Organized labor has backed canvassing efforts, and the incumbent’s formerly non-existent public relations efforts are now on a par with her colleagues.
The challenger’s razor-thin win over the incumbent surprised a lot of observers, primarily because Cole is an incumbent who was endorsed by the county Democratic Party and led significantly in campaign contributions.
From Voice of San Diego:
But for voters and community leaders in the majority-minority southeastern neighborhoods like Encanto, Paradise Hills, Skyline and Chollas View, the first-place finish by Monica Montgomery, a former Cole staffer, wasn’t a surprise at all.
“This community has that underdog mindset,” said Tau Baraka, owner of the Imperial Barbershop and an activist and co-founder of the groups 100 Strong and Reclaiming the Community. “Monica – I see all over this community, it’s all anyone’s talking about. She’s going to win. Everyone’s talking about her.”
Underdog stories are overplayed in politics, but Montgomery fits the bill. She raised less than $50,000 for her challenge and has no support from the local Democratic Party or organized labor. The race received little media coverage, so when the first batches of primary election night results were announced, politicos and journalists were shocked to see Montgomery trailing by just a handful of votes. The gap got smaller and smaller in subsequent updates, until finally, Montgomery’s vote tally crept past Cole’s. She finished six votes ahead.
Monica Montgomery (Democrat)
Issues: “Economic Opportunity for All – Police Reform – Safe and Healthy Communities – Better Neighborhood Services – Transparency in Government”
Organizational Endorsements: Martin Luther King Jr. Democratic Club, Our Revolution, The Asian American and Pacific Islander Democratic Club, Run Women Run, SEIU Local 221, San Diego Progressive Alliance, La Raza Lawyer’s Association, Earl B Gilliam Bar Association, San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action, San Diego Progressive Alliance, Democratic Woman’s Club of San Diego County, South Bay Democratic Club, San Diego Democrats for Equality
Voice and Viewpoint – Criminal Justice Reform Advocate Monica Montgomery challenges incumbent for District 4
Union-Tribune – San Diego City Council candidate Monica Montgomery on the issues
Matt Strabone’s Show in Progress podcast featured an interview with Monica Montgomery worth a listen
Monday: San Diego City Council District 6 | Cate vs Hough
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