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. This is our second in a series of profiles of the leading candidates.
Myrtle Cole is seated in a living-room-style chair just inside the door at The Upper Room gospel club on Imperial Avenue. As she talks about her past and present, her manner is more cautious than carefree—and she successfully avoids revealing her precise age. Cole chose the space for an interview not only because it doubles as her District 4 City Council campaign headquarters, but also because it, along with the storefront next door, has been ground zero for victorious campaigns she ran for her friends Tony Young and the late Charles Lewis.
"I remember the great campaign that I ran for Charles," she says. "He was a good friend. I love him dearly; I love him to this day. And he motivates me."
Though this is Cole's first run for elected office, she's not new to politics, having worked for a string of District 3 City Council members—John Hartley, Christine Kehoe, Toni Atkins—as well as stints with Lewis and Young.
Cole's on leave from her current job as regional director for the United Domestic Workers, the union that represents in-home care providers. She's been with UDW since 2008 and has been planning a run for the District 4 seat for some time, but Young's decision to resign the post to take the top job at the local Red Cross hastened things.
After last November's election made Shirley Weber a member of the state Assembly, Cole's boss at UDW, Doug Moore, asked Weber to consider Cole for a staff position. Cole says that she and Weber talked about Cole becoming the Assembly member's district director, and Cole made it clear that her intention was to run for the open District 4 seat in 2014.
"Then, maybe a couple days later," Cole says, "Tony announced that he was leaving early."
Cole is the candidate of local unions, having been endorsed early by the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, which made her immediately formidable, despite not having a household name.
Cole grew up in Tucson, Ariz. Her dad worked as a crew chief at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and her mom cleaned houses and worked in catering. Though her childhood was a time of institutionalized racism, she describes it in idyllic terms. The family home was on a predominantly African-American street, but, because Tucson didn't have a large African-American population, she and her two siblings went to high school mostly with white kids. Cole was one of the first black cheerleaders at Tucson High School and, she says, the first black homecoming queen.
"It was a positive upbringing," she says, "even though when I was younger, we went to a theater and we had to sit in the balcony, but didn't realize the reason why. We just thought that the balcony was the place for us. But it was because it was segregated. But it didn't make a difference.
"It was just not a big deal for us, because we had such positive role models. And my parents were always positive and loving parents. So, it didn't affect us at all. We just knew that we were great, and we were going to succeed, and we did." Her parents were together for 61 years until her mother died, followed a few years later by her father.
Cole studied psychology and sociology at the University of Arizona but quit school when she got married and moved to Los Angeles. The marriage didn't last, and she returned to Tucson and to school. During her second stint, she was recruited by the Tucson Police Department, which had a handful of black male officers but no black females. The African-American community was tightknit, and she knew the men on the force from church.
She went through the academy and worked as a patrol cop for two years before realizing that directing traffic in full uniform in 110-degree heat wasn't for her. She headed west to San Diego, and, cautioned against applying with the San Diego Police Department for its bad reputation among female officers, applied for police jobs in places like Coronado and La Mesa before landing with the San Diego Community College District. Her academy training put her on the promotion fast track, and she was a lieutenant within six months. Cole spent eight-and-a-half years there.
Cole went to work for, and attend graduate school at, National University, eventually earning a master's degree in business, and, from there, she got a job working for Hartley, the District 3 City Council member. She hadn't been thinking of a career in politics; it just happened. A friend recommended it to her. "Usually, that's how I got my jobs," she says, "is by people saying, Myrtle, this is what you would be good at.'"
She soon became an admirer of one of her colleagues, Kehoe; it was obvious to her that Kehoe was on her way to elected office. Cole found Hartley difficult to work with, and she left the office long before Hartley's four-year term was up, but not before telling Kehoe that when her time came, Cole wanted to be part of it.
When Kehoe made a bid for City Council in 1993, she asked Cole to run her phone bank. After the successful campaign, making Kehoe San Diego's first openly gay elected official, Cole worked as Kehoe's representative in City Heights. She says she stayed for two years and worked alongside another future council member, Atkins, whose campaign Cole ran after Kehoe was termed out. As she had for Kehoe before, she worked for a couple of years for Atkins.
When she wasn't working for council members, she was running her own community-event business, and when she wasn't planning events, she was working on or managing political campaigns. Cole ran Charles Lewis' 2002 campaign, which ended up pitting her candidate against Dwayne Crenshaw in the runoff election; Crenshaw is among the candidates Cole will face in March. After Lewis died unexpectedly while facing corruption charges, Cole managed the campaign of Tony Young, Lewis' chief of staff, which started in 2005 and ended in 2006.
She served as field director for Francine Busby's unsuccessful 2006 bid to unseat incumbent Congressmember Brian Bilbray, joined UDW in 2008 and ran Young's reelection campaign in 2010. Last year, she helped several campaigns: Shirley Weber's bid for state Assembly, Bob Filner's run for mayor and the opposition to the anti-union Prop. 32.
Cole's been a political operative for the past 20 years, and now she believes it's her time. District 4 came to her in 2011 when its boundaries were changed and serendipitously included her residence. However, because the upcoming election is for the remainder of Young's representation of the old boundaries, she was forced to move, inviting charges of being a carpetbagger.
If she can overcome them, Cole says she'll make public safety, infrastructure and economic development her priorities. She says the San Diego Police Department should have 300 more officers than it has. She wants to hire more cops citywide and fix sidewalks throughout District 4. Those plans will cost money, and she's not sure yet where the city will get it.
"That's what I'm going to go in and find out," she says. "I'm sure we can't get all 300 officers right now—that's obvious. But can we create revenue? Can we do something to get our police department just up a little bit and continue to climb?" Cole says she'll have more answers in the coming weeks.
She also wants to follow up on what she says was Lewis' vision of a "Gaslamp East" along Imperial Avenue, which, if done right, would bring more dining options for area residents. These would be restaurants "that we could sit down in," Cole says, "like your Bully's, like your Acapulco or your El Torito, your Sammy's Woodfired Pizza. Not high-scale, but medium restaurants that people can afford. We go out of our districts because we don't have those restaurants. We go to La Mesa. We go to Mission Valley."
Chain restaurants? Yes. "We need options here," she says. "We need seafood. We need steak. We need, you know, Chinese food—we need, like, a P.F. Chaing's.
"I'll take something that's different than a barbecue shop any day."