On March 26, voters in the 4th City Council District will replace Tony Young, who recently resigned. This is our third in a series of profiles of the leading candidates.
It's a little strange to hear an African-American talk about life growing up as akin to a 1950s movie—in positive terms—but that's how Barry Pollard describes his childhood in Valencia Park in southeastern San Diego.
"The yards were well-manicured," Pollard says. "We knew to be back into the house when the streetlights came on. Our neighbors would watch everyone's kids, and if you did something wrong six houses away, your parents knew about it before you even got home."
He recalls being able to ride his bike on the streets without fear and exploring the undeveloped canyons with his dog.
Pollard went off to college and started his career out of state, and when he returned to San Diego in the early 1980s and moved back in to his childhood house on Costana Street, the neighborhood had deteriorated.
"The whole look and feel of the community had changed," he says. "More crime, a lot of drug dealing, a lot more traffic, sidewalks were not there still. It sort of disappointed me—that was the home I grew up in."
That house is about a block away from the intersection of Imperial and Euclid avenues, which is not so affectionately called The Four Corners of Death, thanks to a history of crime centered there.
"My friends call it the front lines,'" Pollard says.
He hasn't solved the larger plague of violence in the area, but he immediately started fixing things on his block, launching a neighborhood-watch program that he says managed to get new streetlights, speed bumps and enhanced communication and cooperation among neighbors.
Now, he wants to replicate that notion of community organizing as the next City Council member representing District 4. It's his second run for the seat, having lost in 2010 to incumbent Tony Young, who resigned in December, halfway through his final term. The District 4 representative will be in a newly powerful position on the council because the other eight seats are divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans, and Pollard, a Democrat, is eager to cast those key swing votes.
"Tony did a great job of working across the aisle," Pollard says, talking to CityBeat at a small table in a kids' library at the Elementary Institute of Science in Valencia Park. "And the only thing I would have wanted is for some of that bacon to come home. I would love to have some of those relationships, and I've already started."
The son of a racecar driver and a hospital lab manager, Pollard, 59, attended St. Rita's Catholic Church and St. Rita's Elementary School. He played quarterback for Morse High School and earned a scholarship to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His dad was killed in an accident when Pollard was young; his mother remarried some 30 years ago. The whole family— Pollard has two older siblings, three daughters and a grandson— remains very close, he says. His wife died seven years ago.
Pollard studied business administration in college and chose human resources as his career, which has landed him in places like Colorado, Texas, the East Coast and California's Bay Area, working for companies in electronics, healthcare and aerospace.
"I would often find myself as an intermediary between management and the employees," he says, "and got a chance to learn about all of the issues that we're dealing with today, for the city: pensions, employment, budgets, outsourcing."
Roughly 15 years ago, he formed his own company that recruits employees for businesses in the niche power-supply industry. Most of his work is done at night, so he's able to be involved in community issues during the day.
After he went off to school, his mom moved out of the family home to take care of her ailing mother and rented out the old house. Much like the neighborhood, it had fallen into disrepair, so Pollard moved back in and fixed it up. Then he formed the first neighborhood watch. After some successes, the watch went dormant, and when a new wave of crime washed over his community, he reformed it again and was flabbergasted when a large number of people—35—showed up to the first meeting.
The first thing he noticed was that Latinos sat on one side, with the blacks and whites on the other. "I knew right then that was one of the issues we had to deal with," he says. "So, I immediately made them change their seating and sit next to each other—and no hesitation at all."
A community-liaison officer from the San Diego Police Department was on hand. "There wasn't a lot of trust in calling the police, because of the response time," Pollard says, "but when they knew that we had an effective and large neighborhood watch, the Southeast Division responded literally within five to seven minutes.
They're busy, but, in hindsight, I think they, for the first time in a long time, understood that the neighbors wanted them in there. The neighbors wanted our community to change. Our neighbors wanted the bad guys out."
Pollard says crime has decreased as a result, and that's why he's a proponent of establishing neighborhood watches throughout the district. "If it's going to be safer," he says, "we've got to develop a better working partnership with the police department. There are no other options."
While Pollard's neighborhood-watch experience was his start in community organizing, it wasn't his pathway to politics. That came when he tried to site a community garden, like those he'd seen in San Francisco, on vacant land at the corner of Logan and Imperial avenues. "Went through a process and was not successful," he says. "Just got really frustrated with the bureaucracy.
"It was crazy," he continues. "It was an ungodly amount of money for water. It was liability. It was the size of the fence. It was going around canvassing the neighborhood to get permission. And I was only talking about a small community garden, and the fees were crazy. I mean, it was totally a nightmare."
(Despite the adversity, Pollard says he's "at it again," these days trying to locate a solar field on vacant land near Chollas Lake in Oak Park. "I'm going to push that," he says.)
The garden failure compelled Pollard to start looking at other problems in the area, and he began to see how District 4 was deficient compared with other districts. One thing led to another, and he was asked to consider running for City Council in 2010.
"And the next thing I knew," he says, "I was running against a two-term incumbent, with no experience in doing campaigns."
Pollard never stood a chance against Young, the City Council president, but his showing pleasantly surprised him: He got 37 percent of the vote with very little name recognition. It told him that if he were to run again in the next election, when there was no incumbent, he might actually win.
Having appeared on the ballot drew invitations to sit on more community boards, and he dove headlong into the decennial City Council redistricting process, which, despite the sometimes-contentious meetings, was marked by the spirit of collaboration and compromise he says he'd follow as an elected official.
"I don't want to negotiate from a position of I won' and I lost,'" he says, "but there is a thought of Can we live with it? That rules my interactions with other people."
Like other leading candidates, Pollard would focus his attention on public safety, economic development and infrastructure in the district. A key goal would be finding a way to fund an update to the Southeastern Community Plan, which he says could help unlock economic growth in the area. He'd ask community foundations, such as the Jacobs Family Foundation, which has a strong presence in District 4, to help finance the update.
Would he be a politician who trades votes on citywide issues for votes on important initiatives in his district?
"Make no bones about it, [District 4] is going to be a decisive vote, and so I'm looking forward to conversations about what my community can get out of it," he says. "Because we're ready; we just need to be at the table. We just need to be able to have some bargaining chips and negotiation power."
And he believes he can remain independent.
"I'm not running for any other office after this," he says. "I have no ladder to climb. I want to make a boon in this community for eight, nine-and-a-half years and ride off into the sunset."