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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 ...

Photo by Milan Kovacevic

Above: City Councilwoman Myrtle Cole sits at the dais after her election as council president, Dec. 12, 2016.

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


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.

Photo by 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.

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.

Photo by 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.

Photo by 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

Photo by 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.

Two years ago, San Diego City Council President Myrtle Cole made a comment that could lead to her political undoing. Part 1 of 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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Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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