San Diego City Council candidate Monica Montgomery, left, is shown in a courtesy photo, and Councilwoman Myrtle Cole speaks at a news conference. (Left: Courtesy of Monica Montgomery campaign | Right: Megan Wood/inewsource)
San Diego City Council candidate Monica Montgomery, left, is shown in a courtesy photo, and Councilwoman Myrtle Cole speaks at a news conference. (Left: Courtesy of Monica Montgomery campaign | Right: Megan Wood/inewsource)

The tallying of votes in two close San Diego City Council races ended Thursday, with challenger Monica Montgomery finishing first ahead of Councilwoman Myrtle Cole by six votes. They’ll both compete in the November runoff to represent the southeastern San Diego district.

Why this matters

San Diego City Council incumbents almost always win re-election. None has lost since 1991. So when one has a close primary, it could signal voters have concerns about the incumbent.

In the race to replace Councilman David Alvarez in the city’s southern district, three votes separated the second- and third-place candidates, an outcome that could lead to a recount. But if the vote count stands, the November runoff will be between Vivian Moreno and Antonio Martinez.

The primary was June 5, but the county Registrar of Voters Office has been continuing to count mail-in and provisional ballots since then. Certified election results must be sent to the secretary of state by Friday.

For the primary, Cole raised more than three times as much money as Montgomery, but still finished second in a four-candidate race. Cole and Montgomery are both Democrats.

No San Diego City Council incumbent has lost a bid for re-election since 1991. With her second-place finish, Cole now appears to be the underdog in November.

Montgomery said she knows beating an incumbent in the general election is not a sure thing.

“There is a lot of hard work ahead, but we’re ready and this really gives us some momentum going into November,” Montgomery said. “It’s exciting. It shows that the community is ready for change.”

In a statement, Cole campaign consultant Jennifer Tierney said, “We have been preparing for a strong general campaign since the day after the primary. Myrtle will be continuing her duties as Council President while mounting the campaign required to win in the general.”

Search San Diego City Council primary election results

Click here to explore voting results by precinct in the four San Diego City Council primary elections.

Republican political consultant Jason Roe said before the results were released Thursday that he was surprised by how close the race was. He said he thought some of Cole’s political moves in the past year would have bolstered her chances.

She was elected council president in 2016 with the backing of the council’s four Republicans, but she stripped three of them of leadership positions when she was re-elected in 2017.

“I expected that she would be politically rewarded by her allies on the left,” Roe said. “But it doesn’t seem that everybody got the memo.”

Geneviéve Jones-Wright, who lost her race for district attorney in June, endorsed Montgomery on Monday, calling her “the leader our communities need.”

Montgomery is an attorney with San Diego’s ACLU chapter and previously worked as a policy adviser to Cole. She said she quit working for Cole after the councilwoman made comments about the racial profiling of blacks by police that suggested it was justified.

An inewsource voting results map shows Jones-Wright did particularly well in her contest against District Attorney Summer Stephan in precincts in Cole’s district, which includes Skyline and Oak Park.

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Close second-place race

In the race to replace termed-out Councilman Alvarez, Moreno easily finished first. She works in Alvarez’s council office.

But second place came down to the wire. Martinez beat Christian Ramirez by three votes.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported Sunday that Martinez and Ramirez were considering requesting a recount, depending where each finished. A 2014 recount in a Chula Vista council race cost $50,000, according to the Union-Tribune. The most recent campaign finance filings show Ramirez had almost $41,200 on hand heading into the June vote. Martinez had about $3,900.

Moreno is a Democrat, as are Martinez, a San Ysidro School District board member, and Ramirez, a director at the advocacy group Alliance San Diego. The southern San Diego district includes Barrio Logan and San Ysidro.

Four candidates competed for Alvarez’s seat. In the end, Moreno bested Martinez by 1,240 votes.

Supermajority on the line

Four City Council seats were on the line in June. And though the nine-member council is technically a nonpartisan body, party politics play a role in how the council’s business gets done. Currently, the council is split with five Democrats and four Republicans.

Cole and Alvarez’s seats will remain in Democratic hands no matter who wins in November. Republican incumbent Chris Cate, whose district includes Mira Mesa, Rancho Peñasquitos and Kearny Mesa, easily finished first in the primary and likely will prevail in the fall.

Republican incumbent Lorie Zapf may have a harder time in November.

She won the primary with about 43 percent of the vote, about twice the number of votes second-place finisher Jennifer Campbell captured.

Campbell and three other Democrats challenged Zapf for her seat. When you total the votes for all of the Democrats, they collected almost 54 percent of the vote. The remaining votes went to a Republican and a no party preference candidate.

If Zapf loses her coastal district seat, the Democrats would have a supermajority on the City Council. That means Republicans wouldn’t have the four votes needed to get an item on the council agenda. Democrats would also have enough votes to override a veto by Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

Roe, who managed Faulconer’s successful campaigns in 2013 and 2016, said a Democratic supermajority would affect the mayor’s ability to govern.

“I think he would probably find himself in a position of playing defense rather than playing offense, and having to use his veto,” Roe said.

The high stakes in the fight for Zapf’s seat mean both candidates will likely be bolstered by large sums of money. A pro-Zapf political action committee sponsored by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and Lincoln Club raised $370,000 ahead of the June primary.

“I think this is going to be the most expensive City Council race we’ve seen in some time,” Roe said.

He said he expects Zapf will do well in November by focusing on her experience and just one opponent. She had six challengers in the primary.

That said, a 2016 inewsource analysis of San Diego council elections found Democrats do better in November than in June primaries.

UPDATED at 4:40 p.m. on Thursday, July 5, 2018: Story now includes a comment from council candidate Monica Montgomery.

UPDATED at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 5, 2018: Story now includes a comment from Myrtle Cole’s campaign.


We’ll let you know when big things happen.

Leonardo Castañeda was a reporter and economic analyst for inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email leocastaneda [at] inewsource [dot] org.