Jan. 23 2013 09:25 AM

Longtime aspirant to public office gunning again for City Council seat

Dwayne Crenshaw at Food 4 Less in Market Creek PLaza, which helped fill District 4’s grocery-store void
Photo by David Rolland

On March 26, voters in the 4th City Council District will replace Tony Young, who recently resigned. It's an important election because the district represents a swing vote on the council, at least in partisan terms. Starting with this story, we plan to profile the leading candidates for the seat.

Residents of San Diego's City Council District 4 by now are familiar with the name Dwayne Crenshaw; in March, they'll see it on a ballot for the sixth time in 14 years. Since 2000, he's run for City Council three times—including the upcoming election—and taken shots at the state Assembly and the local community college board. The man really wants to be an elected official.

But what they might not know is that Crenshaw has built himself a pretty impressive résumé in the public and nonprofit sectors. He's done staff stints with a City Council member, a county supervisor and two state legislators, and he's been the chief honcho at two local nonprofit organizations and a lobbyist for a third.

After runs for the 4th City Council District in 2002 and 2004, Crenshaw, 42, is hoping the third time will be the charm. He's anxious to launch a nuts-and-bolts platform of jobs, education and public safety and work with Democrats and Republicans alike to affect change in the racially diverse district. Just don't try to pigeonhole him.

"I am very much a social-justice guy. In that vein, [liberal council members] David Alvarez, Marti Emerald—that's me to a T," he says. "But, at the same time, I'm very much about development, because this community needs it.

"I'm unabashedly a Democrat. I'm a social progressive," he continues. "I don't know if I want to go so far as to say I'm a fiscal conservative, but I think we need to do business and development in this community, and look at how we make that happen in a socially conscious way."

Crenshaw doesn't just want to react to proposed legislation; he wants to drive the policy agenda.

"I want to go down there and figure out: How do I get  [Republicans] Kevin Faulconer and Mark Kersey to join with me and David [Alvarez] and Sherri [Lightner]? Or whoever. It might change from issue to issue, but that's the kind of leadership I really want to do."

Crenshaw chose Market Creek Plaza in Lincoln Park for his interview with CityBeat. He played a role in the development of the shopping center, where there had previously stood old, abandoned aerospace buildings, while he was director of government relations for the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation. It was a process he'd like to replicate in other blighted areas of the district.

The plaza's just down the hill from Horton Elementary School in Chollas View, which he attended and where he launched his newest campaign. Years later, Crenshaw spearheaded a self-esteem program for at-risk kids at Horton; he encountered one of his former students while he was showing CityBeat the amphitheater behind the plaza. The plaza's also a short walk from Crenshaw's childhood home in Emerald Hills.

That home is now owned and occupied by a Latino family, reflecting a district-wide trend. "When I lived on that street, it was probably 99.9-percent African-American," he says. "I remember one neighbor who was Latino.

"I'm trying to run as the candidate that understands the diversity, respects the diversity and will honor that," he says.

It was Crenshaw's fifth-grade teacher at Horton Elementary, Susan Hobbs, who inspired his interest in politics when she instructed her students to follow the Reagan- Carter election in 1980. "I'm pretty sure I'm the only kid in the class who thought that was the best thing I'd ever done in school to date," he says.

He also credits Hobbs for instilling a desire to be a teacher. He studied education at SDSU and did some teaching for the San Diego Unified School District, but that career was derailed when he was picked for the Jesse M. Unruh Assembly Fellowship, which immerses 18 people annually in the legislative process in Sacramento. While there, he completed a master's degree in government at Sacramento State University and worked for Democratic state legislators Jack O'Connell and Cruz Bustamante, learning policy as diverse as offshore oil drilling and agriculture.

Crenshaw returned to San Diego and worked for City Councilmember Valerie Stallings and county Supervisor Ron Roberts, adding policy work like transit and community reinvestment to his portfolio, before deciding to run for state Assembly in 2000—a decision he calls a "youthful indiscretion." He got clobbered by Juan Vargas, finishing a distant second in the Democratic primary, but it led to his recruitment to the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation.

Crenshaw's next campaign was for City Council in 2002. He came in second amid a 10-candidate field in the primary and went on to lose in the runoff election to Charles Lewis, who had the advantage of being chief of staff to termed-out City Councilmember George Stevens. He ran again in 2004, after Lewis died suddenly. Just before the special primary election, Crenshaw says, he was outed as a gay man in a letter to the editor in the San Diego Union-Tribune. This time, he failed to reach the runoff, losing to Stevens and the eventual winner, Lewis' chief of staff, Tony Young.

In 2005, Crenshaw was hired as executive director of the Coalition of Neighborhood Councils (CNC), a nonprofit geared toward harnessing the collective political power of southeastern San Diego's two-dozen enclaves. The organization grew rapidly during his tenure, but the relationship between Crenshaw and members of the CNC's board of directors turned acrimonious, and he was fired in 2009 for unspecified reasons; in turn, he sued, claiming he was canned because he's gay. Crenshaw and the CNC reached a confidential settlement, and he used some of the money to finance a law-school education. So, now he's got a law degree, too, and thinks it'll come in handy when it comes to crafting legislation.

Less than seven years after being outed, Crenshaw was hired in 2011 as executive director of San Diego Pride. He'll take a leave of absence next week to focus on his City Council campaign.

An Associated Press exit poll showed that 70 percent of African-American voters in California voted yes on 2008's Proposition 8, which limited marriage to one man and one woman. The poll showed that a majority of Latino voters favored the measure. But Crenshaw doesn't buy the notion that a gay man can't get elected in District 4. Many black leaders, including the president, have changed their thinking on gay marriage since 2008, he says.

"I think the shift that has happened everywhere else," he says, "has happened here, too."

He adds that when he ran for the San Diego Community College District Board of Trustees in 2008—openly gay at the time—he carried the portion of the district that includes City Council District 4. He finished first in the primary election but lost to Mary Graham in the runoff.

Crenshaw never set out to be an activist, but being gay and black has a way of turning a person into one. Sexual orientation and race can't help but play a role in his politics, whether it's the impact of the foreclosure crisis on the black community or the disproportionate number of homeless youth who identify as gay.

Still, his main mission is simply to improve life in his district. Mostly, his focus is more and better jobs, and one of his goals is to work with small businesses and local industries to hire underprivileged young folks and people who have criminal records but can demonstrate that they're on a new path.

Asked about gun violence, which has plagued District 4, he said he'd like to find funding for additional gun-buy-back programs and change the cultural thinking in the neighborhoods that snitching on violent perpetrators isn't cool.

"This is my home," Crenshaw says. "I've obviously had opportunities to live other places and do other things, and I've been blessed with a good education, so I can do a lot. But I've chosen to work in the nonprofit and public sector, and… I'm going to be making less money when I win, as a City Council person, than I make at San Diego Pride. So, that's a sacrifice that I'm willing to make because I really do care about this community."

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