At first glance, there isn’t much difference between San Diego 4th District runoff candidates Myrtle Cole and Dwayne Crenshaw.

Both are longtime Democrats who want to prioritize jobs, education, public safety and infrastructure and believe San Diego’s southeastern neighborhoods have long gotten the short shrift from City Hall. It’s easy to imagine them voting the same way on most issues.

But that doesn’t mean the race won’t be hard-fought. Indeed, the candidates’ similarities could make for a heated contest as both fight to distinguish themselves in a district that tends to elect black Democrats just like them.

The likely runoff date is May 21, the same day many district voters will also choose a new state Assembly member. Combining the elections could save the city between $35,000 and $65,000, City Clerk Liz Maland said.

Here are five things to watch for in the runoff:

The Pitch to Voters

Cole and Crenshaw might broadly believe in the same things, but their pitches vary significantly.

Cole’s pitch: Trust me because of my friends.

She credited her endorsements for quickly building her name identification and powering her to a strong first-place finish Tuesday in the short timeframe since former Councilman Tony Young resigned in January. And Cole has quite a list of backers, including Rep. Juan Vargas, Assemblywomen Toni Atkins and Shirley Weber, state Sens. Ben Hueso and Marty Block and Councilman David Alvarez.

Cole also has the backing of the local Democratic Party and the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, the region’s largest labor group.

Cole, who works as a coordinator for the local health care workers union, says she can bring new grocery stores to the district, a long-held community goal. She says her close relationship with the head of the local food and commercial workers union will help her deliver.

Crenshaw’s pitch: Trust me because of my plans and my record.

Crenshaw, much more than Cole, has laid out his specific plans for the district. He’s provided measurable goals for creating youth jobs, hiring more minority and women contractors for city jobs, boosting local enrollment in San Diego universities, installing new sidewalks and street lights and expanding gun buy-back programs. In almost all the cases, he’s said exactly how he’d pay for his ideas.

Crenshaw touts his experience as executive director of community nonprofit Coalition of Neighborhood Councils and other management roles in district organizations.

Crenshaw grew the coalition’s revenues from $50,000 to almost $1.5 million during his five-year tenure, but he also encountered some speedbumps.

The Role of Labor

A labor council PAC spent almost $85,000 backing Cole in the primary, a substantial sum particularly in a race that featured many labor allies. The spending dwarfed the money raised by Crenshaw and his main outside backer, a PAC supported by Rural/Metro Corporation ambulance service.

If the labor council opens the vault for Cole again, it could give her a substantial advantage.

That money could also make Crenshaw more attractive to groups that oppose big labor spending.

Crenshaw wasted no time taking shots at the labor council — he brought them up during his victory speech Tuesday night. He called the organization “deep-pocketed special interests who want to buy this seat” and said it lied about Cole’s residency and time as a police officer for the local Community College District, where she worked until the mid-1980s.

“What we know is $85,000 was spent by outside special interests trying to tell us that a person who never lived here was one of us. She’s not,” Crenshaw said. “They spent $85,000 telling us that she’s a police officer. She hasn’t been a police officer in over 30 years, never for San Diego Police Department. She’s not.”

District Demographics

How much the district’s large Hispanic and Asian populations will get involved in the runoff is an open question, too. The district has long been the seat of black political power in San Diego. Cole and Crenshaw are both black.

But Hispanics and Asians now outnumber blacks in the district and the race’s three Hispanic, Asian and Filipino candidates took more than 20 percent of the vote in the nine candidate field, despite having little money. Cole and Crenshaw have pledged to have diverse staffs, including a Spanish speaker.

Crenshaw’s Sexual Orientation

Last week, longtime community newspaper Voice & Viewpoint wrote an editorial saying it could not back Crenshaw in part because he’s gay. The paper endorsed businessman Barry Pollard, who placed third Tuesday.

Crenshaw and his allies immediately denounced the editorial as homophobic and Cole later followed suit.

“They said that a gay man could not be elected in the 4th District, but we’re still standing,” Crenshaw told supporters Tuesday night.

Crenshaw’s sexual orientation has long been a flashpoint in the district. He says a U-T San Diego Letter to the Editor outed him during a previous run for the council seat and he sued the Coalition of Neighborhood Councils claiming he was fired because he’s gay. He later settled the suit.

The Tony Young Decision (and the Mayor’s)

Tuesday night, Cole reminded supporters at her Encanto campaign headquarters that she ran campaigns for former District 4 Councilmen Charles Lewis and Young from the same spot.

“This is holy ground,” she said.

Cole often links herself to Lewis and his predecessor George Stevens. Young? Not so much.

Cole paused for a full 11 seconds when asked about Young’s tenure during an interview earlier this month.

“Tony did the things he thought he should do in the district,” she said.

She didn’t elaborate much.

Young stayed out of the race during the primary — though another candidate, a former Young aide, advertised a positive quotation from Young — and it’s unclear how much an endorsement would matter in the runoff.

The district does have a history of electing council office staffers. Lewis was Stevens’ chief of staff and Young was Lewis’.

Cole also has made much more of an effort than Crenshaw to link herself to Mayor Bob Filner, who hasn’t endorsed either. She has actively courted his backing, used his Neighborhoods First campaign slogan and some campaign supporters wore Filner shirts to her victory party Tuesday night.

The mayor told reporters Wednesday he planned to weigh in on the race soon.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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