San Diego Councilwoman Marti Emerald: 'It's Time To Step Aside'
When San Diego City Councilwoman Marti Emerald first ran for office in 2008, she saw it as switching from one form of advocacy to another.
She'd spent 22 years as an investigative reporter for Channel 10 and specialized in consumer advocacy reporting. Known as “The Troubleshooter,” she hunted down unsafe baby cribs, bad bus drivers and bacteria-bearing bare feet at the airport.
Councilwoman Marti Emerald
Represents: District 9, which includes City Heights, College Area, Kensington, Mountain View and Talmadge
Family: Husband Karl, daughter Chloe, 22
College: Bachelor’s degree in liberal studies from National University
Hometown: Portland, Oregon
Career: Broadcast journalist for 30 years, including 22 years at Channel 10 News
Other interests: Yoga, travel and cooking
Fun fact: Emerald enjoys cooking briskets at San Diego fire stations and has a 155-pound St. Bernard named Molly
In one story, Emerald confronted an older woman working at a thrift store with recalled baby strollers on its shelves.
"Are you saying you do look these things up on the Internet?" Emerald asked.
"Yes, we do," the woman replied.
"How did the Rock 'N Roller Stroller get past you then?" Emerald shot back.
When she saw the TV industry was changing, she retired and ran for City Council in 2008. Although politicians and journalists are often pitted against each other — and their daily work is hardly the same — Emerald said the change felt natural because instead of advocating for consumers on TV she'd "be an advocate on a whole different level" for her constituents.
Still, she said, the transition wasn't easy.
"It was a leap of faith because as a journalist I’d never even campaigned for anybody, I’d never endorsed anybody," she said.
Even six years after leaving journalism, Emerald's broadcast training peaks through as she talks. She is natural in front of a camera, and even posed a few questions to herself during her KPBS interview, which she then answered with clear, thought-out sentences.
As a councilwoman, she pushed for improvements in public safety and affordable housing. After her first term, she was elected in a new district that included City Heights and Mount Hope, as well as the College Area and the affluent neighborhoods of Kensington and Talmadge, and she won re-election.
But her life took a dramatic change last August. She had a mammogram and was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"You know the cold feeling that runs up your neck and you go, 'Oh, something’s wrong,'" she recalled.
During chemotherapy and radiation, she missed some council meetings and scaled back on events but remained committed to her job.
"I think I was in denial, really," she said.
Her doctors have said she has a good chance to make a full recovery.
She didn’t let cancer stop her from getting married in November. Her husband, Karl Bradley, is a construction manager for the Sweetwater Union High School District.
She’d met him on the dating website plentyoffish.com two years after her previous husband died.
"I didn’t put my picture up, and I didn’t use my full name," Emerald said. "Most of the fellows I met were very polite, and it was nice meeting them. Some just ran away because I have that reputation as a ball buster, I guess."
While the 60-year-old councilwoman is eligible to seek re-election, she has decided against it.
"Anybody who has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness takes stock in their life," she said. "What am I doing each day? How is it serving me and my interests? How is it serving my family? Am I doing the things I want to be doing?"
She’s already endorsed her chief of staff, Ricardo Flores, to fill her seat. She said he kept the office going while she was sick.
"I realized, here are these men and women on my staff who really, they’ve got it down. They’re ready," she said. "Time for this old lady to step back and let the young folks go out there and really become the next generation of leaders in their community."
Emerald counts pushing to reopen the police contract this year as her biggest accomplishment in office. She also asked for a survey of how much officers make.
"Everybody could see that our police are woefully underpaid compared to other agencies," she said.
On July 1, police officers got more take-home pay and extra benefits.
Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said her department has kept a close relationship with Emerald.
"She's gone out on ride-alongs with us," Zimmerman said. "When we had a need for more police bicycles so police could get out of their cars and work on a community policing philosophy, she stepped forward and donated bicycles. It's been fantastic to work with her."
Diana Ross, director of City Heights advocacy group Mid-City CAN, called Emerald a "champion" for her work on the park.
"When the young people decided to advocate for a skate park and full youth voting rights on San Diego community planning groups, she supported them," Ross said. "She often came to meet with them personally and in the end helped secure financing for a small skate plaza on Central Avenue and a full skate park at Park de la Cruz in the neighborhood of Cherokee Point."
But there’s one item still on Emerald’s to-do list: building more fire stations. The city has 47, but Emerald said it needs 19 more "to fill in areas that really are unprotected at this point."
She won’t get it done before she leaves office, but she has a solution.
"My last campaign is a firehouse bond, and that will be on the November 2016 ballot," she said. "That would create a fund that can only be spent building fire stations."
As she prepares for her exit, Emerald sees another way she’s affected people’s lives. Her district represents many immigrants and others who she says have never felt they had a voice in government.
"We reach out to the community and we say, 'What do you want? What do you need?' And let’s work together to make it happen," she said. "For once, you’ve got people in neighborhoods who recognize that government really is here to serve them, and if they communicate their needs, there will be somebody there who will listen."