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District 4 Residents Respond To Myrtle Cole's Poor Election Performance

City Councilwoman Myrtle Cole sits at the dais after her election as council president, Dec. 12, 2016.
Milan Kovacevic
City Councilwoman Myrtle Cole sits at the dais after her election as council president, Dec. 12, 2016.
District 4 Residents Respond To Myrtle Cole's Poor Election Performance
Two years ago, San Diego City Council President Myrtle Cole made a comment that could lead to her political undoing.

One of the biggest surprises in the June primary election was how few votes San Diego City Council President Myrto Cole received. In fact she got six fewer votes than her challenger Monica Montgomery. The two will now face off in November. Kate PBS investigative reporter Claire Gosar looks into why Cole performed so poorly two years ago city council president Myrdal Cole made a comment that some say could lead to her political undoing. There's more black on black shootings in our nation than ever before. Coal represents District 4 which covers neighborhoods such as Oak Park Encanto and Paradise hills. It has the largest percentage of African-Americans in the city according to census data. Many in her district say they heard called justifying police shootings of black people. There's no new blood coming of age son Assaye and Disha for south San Diego and are wanting a more representative more of a radical stance that speaks to the issues that affect them as well. Aaron Harvey is a community organizer in southeast San Diego. He says Coles comments were the beginning of a surge of activism among the younger generation activism that in part focused on unseating Cole. So there's always been some type of dissatisfaction towards Moscow. It was just like. She says there before the comments they figured they'd wait and support a more progressive candidate. At the end of Kohl's term but the fact that she made those comments users gave law enforcement a green light to kill me because a lot of the stops are casual encounters oftentimes result in the death of a black male. And you landed on. The black black people on why they're being racially profiled and things like that. I think that's kind of OK. Now you have to go. Coles campaign didn't respond to multiple interview requests from Cape PBS. She did apologize in the weeks after she made the comments and said she planned to push for substantial changes in police practices. But Harvey says those changes haven't come after a study showed there was some racial bias in the San Diego Police Department. You know she created or recreated an emissions Advisory Board but that's all it is just an advisory board. And I don't think that anyone has done anything. She thinks that these young activists. Who are causing her problems. Lila Azeez helps run the nonprofit pillars of the community. She says on top of young people like Harvey Cole also may have to win back people who once supported her. I went and spoke with my neighbor older gentlemen former military and. I asked him Who are you voting for. And he said anyone besides Cole and I said why. And he spoke of the streets. He spoke of never seen her in the community. PBS requested Cole's calendar for the last year along with calendars for all the other council members. We then checked to see who went to the most weekend events in their district which ranged from dropping by a business opening to attending a cleanup day. Councilman Chris word went to the most averaging about eight a month sometimes with three or four events on the same day other council members went to between three and four events a month. Cole was near the bottom of the list with one event a month. Only Councilman Scott Sherman attended fewer events but in the month after the June election call went to four weekend events in her district. Aziz says she feels KOLs focus has been on outside interests like unions or downtown instead of dealing with district problems like fixing streets adding sidewalks and cleaning up graffiti. As great as she seemed to be dealing as council president is. Pretty much having a leadership title no longer focused on the people. That elected her. Forgetting that she would have to still deal with us. In the next election. Kohl now has less than four months to convince her district. She's still focused on them. Joining me now is K.P. investigative reporter Claire Trageser. Claire welcome to the program. Thanks for having me. That comment about black on black shootings that Councilwoman Cole made what was the context of that remark why did she say that. So that was two years ago after a town hall that she held with then police chief Shellie Zimmerman to talk about police brutality cases that had been happening across the country. And then local relations with the police and about 200 people I think ended up attending and people got very upset. And so Myrtle Cole was thanking her fellow council members for attending the meeting. And then she said young people at the meeting were disrespectful and went on to talk about racial profiling and made those comments. She also added that a month earlier a black man was shot by another black man in front of her district office and she says she said that she wanted to address black on black crime because that led to racial profiling. And that's when she made those comments that people were very upset about. How did the people you spoke with feel about Cole before she made that comment. Well there was a range in my story that airs tomorrow. I talked to Barry Pollard who actually ran against Myrtle Cole when she first ran in 2013. And so you know he's always felt like she never had the debt the District's best interests at heart. He says she's from the district originally and that she's too tied to labor unions and also for that story. I talked to well Nishat Sutton who is originally a coal supporter and she canvassed for her because she was excited about a black woman running for office but now she says she feels Cole hasn't done enough for the district. And so she no longer supports her. And then for this story that aired today I talked with organizers like Erin Harvey who told me that he actually doesn't normally like to get involved with politicians he says with the exception of STEM Assemblywoman Shirley Webber because he feels like they can change alliances and change stances too easily and so he'd rather work on issues than support specific people. So he was maybe indifferent to coal originally but now he's actively working against her at least part of this new activism in District 4 is coming from a younger generation. We heard about quote newer blood coming of age. You did a series of reports on that urge for change in District 4. How does that correspond with the race for this council seat. So that story about a year and a half ago was about the start of a surge of activism that was going on in the district and in this race. You know this close race is now partially a product of that this younger generation is now actively working on Kohl's challenger Monica Montgomery's campaign and are much more involved in this election than in previous elections. And so that's part of you know what's going on here and why the race is so close. But there's also just kind of a general discontent among other voters who feel like maybe they haven't seen enough change. Other parts of the city are doing pretty well economically but people in this district feel like they are benefited benefiting from that. And so they're you know maybe looking to blame their representative for not doing enough and that and people feel like Cole just isn't visible enough. They're used to previous council members like maybe George Stevens or Tony Young who spend a lot of time in the district be social. Go to events where they could come up and talk. So you're saying this momentum for change is helping. Challenger Monica Montgomery what about the third place candidate Tony Villafranca. Will he make an endorsement. And would that carry any weight. Well that will be interesting. I have been trying to get in touch with him to find out but he hasn't got gotten back to me. He used to be a Democrat but he changed his party recently to a Republican. And he runs on conservative issues mostly anti abortion issues. So I'm not sure if he'd endorse either coal or Montgomery who are both Democrats. But he did get 17 percent of the vote in the primary. So if he did that could really make the election for either of them. Now as you reported it's very unusual for an incumbent to be an underdog in a race for re-election. What's been Councilwoman Myrtle Kohl's reaction to coming in second in the June primary. Well she did not respond to any of my interview requests. I contacted her campaign multiple times by phone and email and they never got back to me. She did talk to voices San Diego for a story that ran last week. And in that she said she was surprised by the results. But she also said that she didn't even try in the primary that she didn't have a campaign manager and didn't do any campaigning. So now she says she's ready to take on the challenge and get out there and campaign. As we head to November I've been speaking with PBS investigative reporter Claire Jurgis her and Claire. Thank you. Thanks so much.

Two years ago, San Diego City Council President Myrtle Cole made a comment that could lead to her political undoing.

During a council meeting discussion of racial profiling by police, Cole said, "There is more black on black shootings in our nation than ever before."

"That's why when someone says, 'Do you think there is racial profiling?' Yeah, because blacks are shooting blacks," she continued.

Cole represents District 4, which covers neighborhoods such as Oak Park, Encanto and Paradise Hills. It has the largest percentage of African-Americans in the city, according to census data. Many in her district heard Cole's comments as justifying police shootings of black people, said Aaron Harvey, a community organizer in Southeast San Diego.

"There's a newer blood coming of age in District 4, Southeast San Diego, and they are wanting a representative with more of a radical stance that speaks to the issues that affect them as well," Harvey said.

RELATED: New Voices: A Younger Generation’s Urgent Quest For Change In Southeast San Diego

Cole's comments were the beginning of a surge of activism among that younger generation, Harvey said. Activism that in part focused on unseating Cole.

"So there's always been some type of dissatisfaction towards Ms. Cole, but I think it was like, she's just there," he said.

Community organizer Aaron Harvey stands outside the office of Pillars of the Community, July 26, 2017.
Matthew Bowler
Community organizer Aaron Harvey stands outside the office of Pillars of the Community, July 26, 2017.

Before the comments, he said he and other activists figured they'd wait and support a more progressive candidate at the end of Cole's term.

"But the fact that she made those comments, what that told me was, you just gave law enforcement a green light to kill me because a lot of these stops or casual encounters result in the death of a black male," he said. "And you blamed it on black people why they're being racially profiled. So that made it like, 'OK, now you have to go.'"

He and others volunteered for the campaign of Cole's opponent, Monica Montgomery. Their efforts helped create one of the biggest surprises in the June election: Cole got six fewer votes than her challenger.

The two will now face off in November.

If Cole loses, it will be the first time an incumbent San Diego council member has lost reelection since 1991.

Cole's campaign didn't respond to multiple interview requests from KPBS. She did apologize in the weeks after she made the comments and said she planned to push for substantial changes in police practices.

But Harvey said those changes haven't come.

District 4 Residents Respond To Myrtle Cole's Poor Election Performance

After a study showed there was racial bias in the San Diego Police Department, "She recreated an advisory board, but I don't think that advisory board has done anything," he said.

Laila Aziz, the director of programs at the nonprofit Pillars of the Community, said it's not just young activists who are causing Cole problems. Many in the older generation who supported Cole in past elections are now dissatisfied, she said.

"I went and spoke with my neighbor, older generation, former military, and I asked him, 'Who are you voting for?'" she said. "And he said, 'Anyone besides Cole.' And I asked him why, and he spoke of the streets, he spoke of never seeing her in the community."

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

Past council members have been more accessible, Aziz said. For example, then-Councilman George Stevens came to a small event she organized, even though he wasn't invited.

"He was there, he was accessible and we felt as though our event with our 20 people was a success," she said. "And that's not just me, everybody has that story in Southeast."

To check into residents' complaints that Cole isn't accessible, KPBS requested Cole's calendar for the last year, along with calendars for all the other council members. We then checked to see who went to the most weekend events in their district, which ranged from dropping by a business opening to attending a cleanup day.

A table showing the number of weekend events each member of the San Diego City Council attended in his or her district in the past year.
Susana Tsutsumi
A table showing the number of weekend events each member of the San Diego City Council attended in his or her district in the past year.

Councilman Chris Ward went to the most, averaging about eight a month, sometimes with three or four events on the same day. Other council members went to between three and four events a month.

Cole was near the bottom of the list, with one event a month. Only Councilman Scott Sherman attended fewer events, about one every other month.

But in the month after the June election, Cole went to four weekend events in her district.

Aziz said she feels Cole's focus has been on outside interests like unions or downtown instead of dealing with district problems like fixing streets, adding sidewalks and cleaning up graffiti.

"Our councilwoman, as great as she seemed to be doing, as council president, having a leadership title, was no longer focused on the people that elected her, forgetting that she would have to deal with us in the next election," she said.

Community organizer Barry Pollard works in a neighborhood garden on Imperial Avenue, July 11, 2018.
Claire Trageser
Community organizer Barry Pollard works in a neighborhood garden on Imperial Avenue, July 11, 2018.

In another part of the district on a recent hazy gray morning, community organizer Barry Pollard was showing off a neighborhood garden.

"People just come, take what they need and cook it," he said. "We've got a little watermelon, and here's our butternut squash, we've got a couple of these floating around."

The garden sits on what used to be a vacant lot on Imperial Avenue that he's transformed into a gathering place for community events. Pockets of District 4 are improving, but not because of Cole, Pollard said. He thinks she's been absent on important issues.

"Jobs, infrastructure, potholes, same things we talk about all the time," said Pollard, who runs the nonprofit Urban Collaborative Project. "We want to hear from Myrtle, does she want a Green Cat on Euclid and Imperial, or do we want a 7-11? Don't be quiet about this, these are community issues and we need to hear from our leaders."

Pollard ran against Cole when she was first elected in 2013. He said many in the community don't feel like they have her ear.

"I would like a broader community voice into her office, not only pastors, not only nonprofit folks, not only businesspeople but a group of folks that truly have the community's best interests at heart," he said.

Despite Cole's poor performance in June, Pollard thinks outside spending could help boost her to a win in November. Before becoming a politician, Cole worked for the United Domestic Workers and labor unions have spent on her campaigns in the past.

"The question they have to ask themselves is, this is obviously a community-based sort of issue that I personally think the community, the district, should work out without any special interests putting a thumb on the scale," Pollard said. "Because what that's indirectly saying is, I don't care what you guys want, our interests are more important."

Keith Maddox, the executive secretary-treasurer of the San Diego Imperial Counties Labor Council says they do plan to support Cole.

"We're all in," he said. "Myrtle has been good for workers, she's one of us. She's willing to fight for jobs, has been really good on leading the fight on affordable housing, and has done good job fighting for economic development in her community. She'll tell you that's tough, developers want to go where the wealthy live, but there's no better fighter than Myrtle."

Asked about Pollard's sentiment that outside interests should stay out of the race, Maddox said he doesn't consider the labor council an outside interest.

"An overwhelming number of our members live in this district, that's why we're involved," he said.

Melinda Vasquez, a vice chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, said the party has more pressing concerns.

In District 4, "we have two Democrats running against each other, so it's not considered strategically critical because we're going to have a Democrat regardless," she said.

RELATED: Council Candidates Talk Vacation Rentals, Homelessness In District 2 Race

Their efforts and money will focus instead on the District 2 race, where Democrat Jen Campbell is hoping to oust Republican incumbent Lorie Zapf. Vasquez said in District 4 the party could vote to endorse Cole's challenger or no one at all.

"There have been some slip-ups or mistakes made by our City Council President," she said, referring to Cole's "black on black shootings" comment. "You combine the lack of change in D4 with the apparent mistakes by the city council member and you can see why people are excited about another candidate who appears more progressive."

RELATED: Council Candidates Talk Vacation Rentals, Homelessness In District 2 Race

Wilnisha Sutton sings at a concert in Horton Plaza, Nov. 5, 2016.
Claire Trageser
Wilnisha Sutton sings at a concert in Horton Plaza, Nov. 5, 2016.

That's true of Wilnisha Sutton, an activist in Southeast San Diego who helped canvas for Cole's last campaign.

"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."

Cole now has less than four months to convince her district she's still focused on them.

District 4 Residents Respond To Myrtle Cole’s Poor Election Performance Part 1
Two years ago, San Diego City Council President Myrtle Cole made a comment that could lead to her political undoing. Part 1 of 2
District 4 Residents Respond To Myrtle Cole’s Poor Election Performance Part 2
Two years ago, San Diego City Council President Myrtle Cole made a comment that could lead to her political undoing. Part 2 of 2

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