Former Temecula mayor James “Stew” Stewart — who resigned in June after his email about police and people of color sparked a backlash — is trying to get his old seat back in the Tuesday, Nov. 3, election.
Stewart stepped down following an email to a resident in which he wrote he didn’t “believe there’s ever been a good person of color killed by a police officer.” Stewart apologized for the word “good,” which he said was added in the late-night email as he dictated the message, which he does because he is dyslexic. At the time, he could not remember a Temecula-area example of police fatally shooting a black person, Stewart later said.
Stewart said that, since then, he’s done self-reflection, had conversations with community leaders and Black residents, researched and read books. Being “confronted as a racist set me back on my feet,” he said, adding that “ignorant behavior promotes racism.”
Hearing people’s stories of racism has been a “learning experience and an education,” Stewart said.
Stewart was elected to the council in 2016, and became mayor in January. The Temecula City Council voted to leave the post vacant until the election.
He is now running against Mark Gular, Sonia Perez and Adam Ruiz.
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“I’m not a racist — I was the biggest racist on the planet for 24 hours, it was an astonishing situation,” Stewart said, noting that he resigned days before George Floyd’s funeral, and would never forget that time.
“Racism goes a lot deeper and farther than many people realize, and that’s what I want to communicate… the last six months have been really good for me, coming from my background with no experience with racism, and have helped me move forward.”
He said he’s had “zero blow-back” from the public for running, and that enough “time has passed” since the incident.
Temecula has made recent moves to fight systemic racism, forming a Race, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Commission in August after multiple citywide protests. Stewart thinks it will be an asset and is generally “a good idea — but without the right motivations and direction, it’s going to go nowhere.”
Some of Stewart’s opponents don’t buy his intentions.
Perez said it’s human to make a mistake, but the important thing is taking accountability for it.
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“He doesn’t stand for our constitution — he left the position and walked away, and for him to throw his hat back in the ring and run again, I think that’s irresponsible,” Perez said.
Ruiz said that “in my opinion, given the widespread coverage and magnitude of the negative attention brought to the city, it is too soon for Mr. Stewart to be rerunning for election.”
Gular said Stewart has a right to run.
“Although we may not always agree with one another, he went through the same process as each candidate on getting the nomination from our district.”
But Willie Oliver, president of the NAACP Southwest Riverside County chapter and pastor of Grace and Truth Worship Ministry church in Lake Elsinore, is giving him a fair chance. He said that he’s had multiple conversations with Stewart — and that he’s learned from the past.
“He understands why those statements were damaging, and has shown not just remorse, but also growth from the incident,” Oliver said. “But actions speak louder than words.”
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