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11th Hour Maneuvering Could Threaten Council President's Re-Election

San Diego’s City Council is set to choose the Council president for the next year, and people on the right and left of City Hall’s 10th floor are jockeying in a way that could mean the end of Myrtle Cole’s short time in the seat.

Myrtle Cole / Photo by Sam Hodgson

San Diego’s City Council is set to choose the Council president for the next year, and people on the right and left of City Hall’s 10th floor are jockeying in a way that could mean the end of Myrtle Cole’s short time in the seat.

It’s considered a complete toss-up.

Cole wants to keep the job, but is facing a series of demands from the left – mostly from labor leaders – that she strip some or all of the Republican Council members of their committee chairs. She has plenty of motivation to appease her supporters as she heads into a 2018 re-election bid.

But Cole became Council president a year ago with the help of Republicans, who joined together to vote for her to keep Councilman David Alvarez, the senior Democrat and an outspoken progressive on the Council, from taking over.

The Republicans have now told Cole that if she strips them of their posts, she’ll lose their votes and they’ll begin looking for another Democrat to back for the position. The Republicans are split on whether their best option is Councilwoman Barbara Bry, or Alvarez. In either case, the four Republican votes plus the candidate voting for himself or herself would make up the five votes needed.

This is based on the accounts of three high-ranking City Hall officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing negotiations candidly. They all said it was unclear how the situation would resolve itself by Monday, when the vote is set to take place, but that there has been nonstop jockeying all week and through the weekend.

Cole’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Council president is a powerful position because it controls the agenda. All members of the body have plenty of ideas. It’s the president who gets to decide which ones go forward. The position is responsible for docketing items for consideration, and perhaps more crucially, assigning which members are on which committees, including who chairs each committee.

Many of the Council’s main policy pushes come through the committee system, giving the chairs of each one sway to pursue an agenda.

Labor leaders have pushed Cole to use the position to Democrats advantage by knocking Republicans off their committee posts.

The primary demand made of Cole was to remove Councilwoman Lorie Zapf as chair of the economic development committee, and give that position to Councilman Chris Ward. Cole also promised Councilwoman Georgette Gomez that she’d be the chair of the Council’s committee on housing and urban development, instead of Councilman Scott Sherman, according to all three sources.

The demand began with stripping all Council Republicans from their chairmanships, but has since shifted to focus on Zapf, who is facing re-election in 2018 against a field of Democrats, and to a lesser extent Sherman.

Cole could win the presidency with the votes of four Republicans who would all maintain their committee posts. But that would earn the ire of labor leaders pushing for more cutthroat politics from a Democratic majority, and might cost her endorsements in her re-election bid.

Or, she could win the presidency with the votes of her fellow Democrats, who would have seized more control of the Council’s committee system. That would create a tense, partisan standoff between the Democratic Council majority and the mayor and Republican minority.

It’s unclear how the situation will work out, the sources said, because Cole has told different people different things about what she plans to do.

She initially told liberal allies she would boot the Republicans from their chairs. Sources confirmed that Cole later promised Republicans, in writing, that she wouldn’t change anything on the committees. She has since walked that back, leaving City Council staff in its current state of confusion.

The Republicans could also have a difficult time recruiting a Democrat to become president with their votes, and neither Bry nor Alvarez is actively pursuing the job.

Both Democrats would need to promise not to disrupt the committees, and win the same disapproval from labor leaders pushing a more partisan stance from the Council majority, in order to secure Republican votes. But unlike Cole, neither is up for re-election in 2018.

Bry won’t have to defend her seat until 2020, the same time Alvarez will be running for the County Board of Supervisors, which would give them three years to rebuild support (Alvarez is also running to be on the Community College Board for a stint before his supervisor run in 2020).

Mayor Kevin Faulconer also probably would oppose his Republican colleagues’ decision to give Alvarez the gig. Faulconer has feuded with the councilman for years.

For Bry, it would simply be a bold move to betray her allies to become Council president just one year after being elected.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Barbara Bry.

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