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Myrtle Cole’s supporters were angry last night.

One by one they came up to the microphone at a District 4 City Council debate in Lincoln Park to ask Cole’s opponent, Dwayne Crenshaw, to stop an intentionally false attack against Cole financed by the Lincoln Club, a conservative business group.

Crenshaw replied that he was legally barred from coordinating with the Lincoln Club on spending for the race. But after he had received the same question more than once, Crenshaw turned to Cole and offered her a deal.

“Let’s just do this on our own,” Crenshaw said. “Me and you. Let’s both publicly together ask all independent outside groups to stop spending in this campaign. Will you join me in that?”

Cole paused a couple seconds.

“I have no say so in the independent expenditures,” Cole replied. “If I tell them no, they’re going to possibly do it anyway. So I’m not sure whether or not, you know, we’re not supposed to know what they are.”

The exchange provided a window into the outsized, if not decisive, role that outside organizations are playing in the District 4 election. In six days this month, the Lincoln Club dropped almost $38,000 to back Crenshaw and oppose Cole. That’s more money than Cole herself has raised for her entire campaign, according to the most recent disclosure reports.

But so far, she’s benefitted from outside spending even more than her opponent.

The San Diego Imperial-Counties Labor Council, the region’s largest labor group, spent almost $85,000 boosting Cole during the primary. At her primary night party, she credited labor with taking her from someone with little name identification within the district to the race’s top finisher. That same night, Crenshaw blasted labor’s spending on Cole.

Outside money flowing into a District 4 election is a change from the past, said local political consultant Jennifer Tierney, who is unaffiliated in the race.

The district, which includes Encanto, Valencia Park, Paradise Hills and the city’s other southeastern neighborhoods, is the most Democratic in the city, and groups typically ignore it in favor of tossups.

But the special election, due to former Councilman Tony Young’s resignation, between two Democrats, is the only political race currently happening it the city. Projected low turnout also makes the campaign relatively cheap for outside groups to contact voters. And Cole’s strong labor backing has pushed the Lincoln Club, labor’s conservative antagonist, to back Crenshaw.

“The candidate that will win will be the one where the outside organization spends enough money and gets the message right,” Tierney said.

Getting the message right could be particularly important.

The district is the city’s traditional black political base and now has growing numbers of Hispanic and Asian voters. Residents have long argued the city’s power structure has ignored them, and they are unlikely to appreciate candidates who seem beholden to outside interests.

That could make it scary for Cole and Crenshaw because an outsider is defining their pitch to voters, Tierney said. By the May 21 election day, Tierney expects the Labor Council and Lincoln Club to spend roughly the same on the race.

“Either way it’s bought,” she said.

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 liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon

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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