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San Diego Councilwoman Cole Says Being A Politician Not On Her ‘Bucket List’

She says she ran because she has the passion to get things done

Photo caption: San Diego City Councilwoman Myrtle Cole attends a groundbreaking ceremony for...

Photo by Claire Trageser

San Diego City Councilwoman Myrtle Cole attends a groundbreaking ceremony for an affordable housing project in her district, July 15, 2015.

City Councilwoman Myrtle Cole has faced tough issues, including racial profiling by police and how to attract more businesses to her southeastern San Diego district.

For the past two years, City Councilwoman Myrtle Cole has faced tough issues, including racial profiling by police and how to attract more businesses to her southeastern San Diego district.

Special Feature Who's On San Diego's City Council?

KPBS is profiling the nine people who make up the San Diego City Council, and sharing details about their backgrounds and their goals. They each represent a different geographic area of the city, but their actions affect all of the people who live in America's eighth largest city.

Councilwoman Myrtle Cole

Represents: District 4, which includes Oak Park, Emerald Hills, Encanto and Paradise Hills

Age: 65

Family: Single

College: Bachelor's degree in business administration from University of Arizona, master's degree in business administration from National University

Hometown: Tucson, Arizona

Career: Lieutenant with the San Diego Community College District’s Police Department; staff member to Deputy Mayor George Stevens and Councilmen Charles Lewis and Tony Young; regional coordinator for United Domestic Workers

Other interests: She is a self-described "foodie" and loves fine dining

Fun fact: She was the first African-American homecoming queen at her high school and one of the first black female police officers in the Tucson Police Department

She's working to handle them all, but Cole said she never planned for political office to be a stop on her career path.

"This was not on my bucket list," she said. "I did not say, 'OK, I’m going to be a City Council member.' But I did not see anyone who had the passion and the know-how and the determination to get things done."

Cole won the City Council District 4 seat in a special election in 2013 after Councilman Tony Young resigned. She then easily won re-election the next year to represent neighborhoods including Oak Park, Emerald Hills, Encanto and Paradise Hills.

Not everyone was confident in her ability to lead, Cole said. She is the first African-American woman elected to the City Council and the first woman to represent her district.

"I’m sure that a lot of leaders just did not want to see a female in this position, but now I think we’ve resolved that," she said. "They see that I know what I’m doing. I’m passionate about what I’m doing."

She didn’t want to say who questioned her political capabilities, but she said her accomplishments have silenced her critics. She’s most proud of installing sidewalks on Holly Drive near Lincoln High School and bringing a Walgreens to her district.

"That’s the first major drug store south of the 94," she said, referring to the state highway that crosses through her district. "How do you not have a drug store in a community?"

She’s now working to bring more businesses to the neighborhoods in her district, including restaurants and another grocery store. Cole said she recently traveled to Chicago and Philadelphia to look at Brown’s Super Stores, a chain that operates in low-income neighborhoods. She's also excited about the possibility of Chipotle and Broken Yolk restaurants opening in her district.

"People don’t want to develop in our district, but now they know our spending power," she said. "Because that was a myth that we didn’t spend money. Oh, no, no, no. District 4 spends money."

The median income in District 4 is about $57,500 a year, according to 2014 estimates from the San Diego Association of Governments. That's about $7,000 less than the median income for the whole city.

The racial and ethnic breakdown of Cole's district is 43 percent is Hispanic, 17 percent African-American and 11 percent white, according to SANDAG.

Cole campaigned on expanding the redevelopment agency Civic San Diego into her district. She said she still supports that idea, even though Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez proposed a bill to limit its power. Gonzalez and labor unions supported Cole's election, but she is willing to stand apart from them on this issue.

Photo credit: SANDAG

Household income in San Diego City Council District 4 according to 2014 SANDAG estimates.

Photo credit: SANDAG

The racial breakdown of San Diego City Council District 4, according to 2014 SANDAG estimates.

"Ms. Gonzalez is going to do what she needs to do, and I’m going to do what I need to do to make sure economic development happens in my district with Civic San Diego," Cole said.

Brian Pollard, head of the community group Urban Collaborative Project, said when Cole was elected his biggest concern "was her loyalty to labor versus what was in the best interest of the community."

"At times those priorities are in direct conflict with each other," he said. "She has made decisions that helped the district and has gotten heat for it by labor. Thus far, she has been able to make tough decisions against the special interest groups while supporting District 4."

Pollard also ran for Cole's seat in the 2013 special election and endorsed her runoff opponent, Dwayne Crenshaw.

Cole recently split from some of the Democrats on the City Council by voting to spend $2.1 million on an environmental impact report for a new Chargers football stadium.

"I would do it again tomorrow," she said. "We need that environmental impact report whether or not for the stadium, whether or not for the Chargers. It needs to be done."

She added that the money for the report was an "unanticipated" refund from the state, so it wouldn't subtract from city services. However, the money would have gone into the city's general fund, which funds day-to-day operations.

This past year also brought up tough questions about racial profiling. After police in New York City and Ferguson, Missouri, killed unarmed black men, protests erupted across the nation and on San Diego’s streets. Cole said some of her staff marched in the protests, but she viewed her job as something else.

“The best thing I could do was meet with the chief,” she said. She talked with Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman about how to avoid police violence against the people Cole represents.

“The chief and I have a great working relationship. And so I met with her to let her know my feelings, to let her know we need more trust building, relationship building with the Police Department so that won’t happen," Cole said. "That’s my job, to make sure that won’t happen.”

Zimmerman and Cole did not meet one-on-one, but Zimmerman came to Cole's district for a "Meet the Chief" town hall in March and attended a community training to combat racial profiling in June.

Cole worked as a police officer in Tucson, Arizona, and for the San Diego Community College District. She said police shootings in other parts of the country angered her, so she went to a prayer vigil at Bethel Memorial A.M.E. Church.

“I had to make sure I went so I could get this anger out," she said. "Because it angered me that innocent lives were taken and that the police officers did it. Because former police officers, that should not happen.”

Cole can run one more time in her district, in 2018. After that she said she’s done with politics.

"I’m going to get my dog and we’re going to just ride off into the sunset," Cole said with a laugh. She has a 13-year-old Pomeranian-Yorkie mix named Summer, and suggested starting a bring-your-dog-to-work day at City Hall.

Until Cole’s time on the council is finished, she has a simple mission for her district.

“I was told before I became a City Council member that, 'Myrtle, in order for me to support you, you need to promise me that you make sure you will leave this district better than you found it,'" she said. "That’s what I’m going to do. Those are the things I like about this job, that I’m going to be leaving this district so much better than I found it.”

Urban Collaborative Project's Pollard agreed that Cole has supported the community and listened to their needs, including pushing for wider sidewalks and safer street design.

He said she is also "working hard to improve the employment situation of our youth and adults in our district."

"She has a lot of more work to do, but at least she is working in the right direction," Pollard said.

Meanwhile, Cole said she plans to continue to push for improvements in her district, even though she never planned to represent it.

Photo caption: Civic San Diego President Reese Jarrett talks with City Councilwoman Myrtle C...

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Civic San Diego President Reese Jarrett talks with City Councilwoman Myrtle Cole on a vacant lot at Euclid Avenue and Hilltop Drive, July 25, 2014.

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