Council President Myrtle Cole’s second-place finish in the June primary shocked the City Hall political class.
It even shocked her.
“We didn’t mount a campaign,” Cole said in an interview. “We had no ground campaign. I didn’t even have a campaign manager. The primary took us by surprise. Even labor didn’t think we had an issue – they thought they had to work on other things instead.”
But for voters and community leaders in the majority-minority southeastern neighborhoods like Encanto, Paradise Hills, Skyline and Chollas View, the first-place finish by Monica Montgomery, a former Cole staffer, wasn’t a surprise at all.
“This community has that underdog mindset,” said Tau Baraka, owner of the Imperial Barbershop and an activist and co-founder of the groups 100 Strong and Reclaiming the Community. “Monica – I see all over this community, it’s all anyone’s talking about. She’s going to win. Everyone’s talking about her.”
Underdog stories are overplayed in politics, but Montgomery fits the bill. She raised less than $50,000 for her challenge and has no support from the local Democratic Party or organized labor. The race received little media coverage, so when the first batches of primary election night results were announced, politicos and journalists were shocked to see Montgomery trailing by just a handful of votes. The gap got smaller and smaller in subsequent updates, until finally, Montgomery’s vote tally crept past Cole’s. She finished six votes ahead.
“My impression is, Myrtle thought this was sown up,” said Barry Pollard, a community activist who ran for City Council in the 2013 special election that Cole won and who has not endorsed either candidate in the race. “It’s been percolating for a while, and Myrtle hasn’t been paying attention.”
Cole and her allies in the labor movement have woken up. She and labor leaders met in early July to plot how they will defeat Montgomery, a fellow Democrat who is, if anything, to Cole’s left on most issues. But to do that, they have to confront a big problem: There isn’t just one complaint residents have with Cole.
Cole is more concerned with what happens downtown than what happens in the district, some constituents say. Residents don’t see her anymore, and they get the sense she stopped pushing the city to fill potholes and help community groups. They’re tired of the same handful of groups and leaders who’ve been running things for years.
All of those issue come up more often than Cole’s most high-profile problem: Two years ago, many residents called for her resignation when she argued police officers were justified in racially profiling District 4 residents.
“Because blacks are shooting blacks, they are not going to stop a white male or a Hispanic male or Asian,” she said at a Council meeting. “They’re going to stop an African-American because those are the ones who are shooting.”
In fact, the opposition to her candidacy reflects decades of frustration with City Hall, and the groups and individuals who’ve spent years promising to improve the district.
The Montgomery Appeal
The upstart Montgomery challenge has a helpful narrative. The day after Cole’s comments on racial profiling, Montgomery resigned from her job as a policy adviser to Cole. Then she started contemplating her campaign.
Cole’s racial profiling comments motivate many of Montgomery’s supporters, even if it’s not the only issue.
Pollard said there’s a new generation of activists and young people who are not as patient as his generation was.
“They want it now,” he said. “I talk to them a lot – they’re not feeling Myrtle. Those racial profiling comments were a big foot in the mouth. These active young people – that’s the most predominant force.”
One of those young people is Mahamed Abdulahi, who now works with the criminal justice reform group Generation Justice. He said young residents in the district haven’t forgotten those comments.
“She is going to lose,” he said.
Two weeks ago, Montgomery won the endorsement of Genevieve Jones-Wright, the district attorney candidate who lost in June but inspired many of the same young voters in the district who were outraged by Cole’s comments. The criminal justice reform movement, such as it is, is with Montgomery.
To Montgomery, leaving the office over the comments wasn’t enough. She’s also pledged that after she wins, no one who has continued to work for Cole will be welcome to work in her Council office. She wants to clean house.
That would mean the end of the line for Jimmie Slack, who has been the chief of staff to each District 4 Council representative since 2005. Before that, he held the same job for then-County Supervisor Leon Williams, who also represented the district.
Montgomery is ready to play hardball.
On Saturday, Cole attended an event at Euclid and Imperial avenues, the intersection decades ago dubbed “the four corners of death” because of the number of murders there. Residents now call it the “four corners of life.” Montgomery spoke to the crowd and took aim at Cole for suddenly finding time to go to events like that.
She said something similar to a Skyline Hills community group a week earlier.
“I’m happy my opponent is coming out to the community now,” she said. “I’m glad she’s talking about the things that she promised five years ago. Competition is good.”
‘Our Community Is Neglected’
On July 2, a dozen residents of Skyline Hills gathered for a meeting of the Greater Skyline Hills Community Association, a group that’s been meeting since 1991 to focus on neighborhood concerns.
The chair, Cathy Ramsey, filled a folding table up with snacks, and at the end of the meeting held a raffle to see who could pick first.
Attendees bombarded a Cole staffer with complaints about how things were going.
One woman opposed the $74 million county facility for mental health counseling and family services nearby. Another wanted Cole’s office to stop holding official events at the Jacobs Center, a nonprofit foundation in the community that she said has lost track of its mission. An older man wondered why Skyline isn’t seeing any of the fancy traffic improvements he’s seen in other parts of the city. The group commiserated that since a community leader named Robert Haines Jr. died, they haven’t had anyone to fight for them.
Cole’s staffer fielded the complaints, told them he appreciated the feedback and would let Cole know, and emphasized that the new city budget includes $70,000 for new security lighting at the Skyline Hills Community Park.
But the group’s fondness of Montgomery was clear – and not just because she brought her mom to that week’s meeting.
“We have hope here – we have someone who we hope can bring us change,” Ramsey said. “We have a chance to see some fundamental change in our community: Our community is neglected, and we have been abused. But Monica’s been coming here regularly since before she even thought about running.”
Cole was doing a great job when she first took office, Ramsey said. Potholes were getting filled, and she seemed to have a presence.
That was before she became Council president.
“When they become Council president, they give us less attention,” Ramsey said. “I feel like we lost her.”
That’s a common refrain, too: that the Council president job has drawn Cole’s attention away from the district.
“Cole – her influence is downtown,” Baraka said. “We don’t see her down here. We put her in office, and we haven’t seen her since.”
Many community members eager for change are less focused on Cole than on the establishment she represents. Groups like Civic San Diego and the Jacobs Center, with help from downtown lobbyists, have been promising improvements in District 4 for years – with little to show for it.
“Political change is coming – it’s about to go down soon here,” said Derryl Williams, a longtime community activist and board chair for Groundwork San Diego, a nonprofit group active in the district.
The first step, he said, was the resignation of Reese Jarrett as president of Civic San Diego , the city’s downtown redevelopment arm, which has been pushing for a larger role in District 4 for years.
Jarrett grew up in the district and in the 1980s ran the Southeast Economic Development Corp., a redevelopment agency focused on southeastern San Diego. He also developed real estate in the area.
Williams sees a trend. People talk about big changes. There’s always an agreement, project or partnership around the corner that’s going to provide the things residents have been requesting for years – nice, sit-down restaurants, high-quality job opportunities, new and better housing, repaired streets and infrastructure.
But those promises never materialize, he said, and it’s because of the people who’ve run the show for too long.
“I get a sense that those entities that think they know what’s best for us are concerned that their control is gone,” said Bill Ponder, a Groundwork board member. “The narrative is that people come here, they do what they want and they leave. We’re changing that narrative.”
Cole’s Re-election Bid Ramps Up
On Saturday, with a heat wave pushing temperatures close to 100 degrees, Cole joined representatives from the mayor’s office, SDPD and a handful of city churches for a three-hour community clean-up in Chollas View. Later that night, she went to the “four corners of life” rally, too.
If community members felt they hadn’t seen much of her lately, that’s clearly changing now.
Cole doesn’t agree that she’s been scarce in the community. She goes to multiple events every Saturday, she said.
“Some people just aren’t there,” she said.
But she does agree that unlike other Council members, she has two jobs right now. As Council president, she’s got responsibilities outside her district, too.
“I want to make sure that all districts are represented,” she said
Cole says she’s ready to hit the campaign trail now. She met with a handful of labor leaders – she wouldn’t say which ones – last week. They won’t be surprised a second time, she said.
Two summers ago, Cole apologized for her racial profiling comments, and said she condemns discrimination of any kind. The calls for her resignation eventually subsided.
But on Saturday, she was less apologetic.
Everyone forgets, she said, that she made the comments in response to a murder outside her Council office a few days earlier.
“No one mentioned that a young man was killed,” Cole said. “I wish someone was talking about the victim. No one talked about that. I care about victims.”
She said she isn’t confronted about her comments very often; the only people who bring them up are Montgomery’s supporters.
And she dismissed out of hand the idea that the city and groups like Civic San Diego and the Jacobs Center spend a lot of time talking about big projects that never happen.
She listed the capital improvement projects that have gone through recently – a $2 million sidewalk on Holly Drive, a $13 million library in Skyline Hills, a $1.5 million teen center at the Malcolm X Library, new market-rate homes in Paradise Hills going for $600,000 apiece and new affordable homes reserved for low-income residents near the Encanto/62nd Street trolley station.
“There is nothing that people have requested that we haven’t done,” Cole said.
Among the faith leaders who joined Cole at the clean-up was Rev. Gerald Brown, executive director of the United African American Ministerial Action Council.
He’s been a district resident since 1971. He said the Jacobs Center and Market Creek Plaza are among the biggest changes he’s seen during that time, and he’s bullish on the district’s direction. It’s growing, and he believes people are beginning to recognize the value it brings to the city.
Like many of Cole’s biggest detractors, he also sees her spending a lot of time downtown and working with the mayor, just like the district’s previous Council representative, Tony Young, did before her. The only difference is, he sees it as a good thing.
“Unlike at the national level, we’re working together here,” he said. “We’re working on being one San Diego,” he said.
But what does it mean that Montgomery, a first-time candidate with little money or profile, won more votes than the sitting Council president?
“It says that folks are coming out to vote,” he said. “It says that Monica is a brilliant, intelligent person – as is Council President Cole. And we will see who has the privilege of representing us. Cole has done a great job. If Monica wins, we expect her to as well.”
A Race Takes Shape
The political calculus for the fall is complicated. Cole is now on good terms with labor – Carol Kim, political director for the San Diego Building Trades Council, recently said  she’s been a great Council president – though several labor groups supported Councilman David Alvarez for the leadership role two years ago.
At the time, Cole got a hand from Mayor Kevin Faulconer and his Republican allies to win the position.
But her relationship with those business-friendly groups frayed when Cole came up for re-election as Council president.
She stripped Republican Councilman Scott Sherman of his chairmanship of the Council’s committee on housing and development, where he had been aggressively trying to cut regulations to spur more home building, to the satisfaction of the pro-development groups who helped elevate her over Alvarez a few years ago. She had also promised Sherman  he could keep the gig just days before knocking him out of it.
Nonetheless, she said she has no problems with Sherman (“we’re all good with all of the Council members”), or with his supporters in the development industry (“great relationship”).
Montgomery, meanwhile, is breaking from the Democratic Party and organized labor on at least one big issue.
She told me she intends to back a push from Republicans on the Council to reform the San Diego Unified school board’s election rules – an effort that’s been fended off by Democrats on the Council and the school board.
Right now, school board members advance through a primary in a specific subdistrict, and then face off in the general election among all voters in the district. Republicans led by Councilman Chris Cate want the school board to adopt subdistrict-only elections for both the primary and the general, which would match the way the City Council holds its elections.
The idea is that running a general election across the entire school district is too expensive, and weeds out candidates who don’t have access to significant financial support.
Montgomery said she’s for reform.
“The only reason I have a chance in this race is because we are running only in the district,” she said. “If I had to run citywide, it just wouldn’t be possible. Given that, how can I possibly oppose making that change on the school board without being a hypocrite?”