Thursday evening amid the backlash over an email he wrote about police killings that went viral Temecula Mayor James “Stew” Stewart has resigned. Regarding Stewart’s plans to end police violence and racial policing in the community, stating, “This issue is very important to me and my family.”
The email response was posted online, sparking controversy among residents. The 11:02 p.m. reply stated: “I don’t believe any good person of color has been killed by police.” He went on to say that he had several African American friends, which sparked outrage on social media.
He publicly responded to the backlash his email generated, stating the message was sent over voice-text and that he did not proofread what was recorded… He said he meant that no person of color was murdered by police in Temecula or Riverside County.
“I absolutely did not say that. What I said is and I don’t believe there has ever been a person of color murdered by police, on context to Temecula or Riverside county,” he wrote in the post. “I absolutely did not say ‘good’ I have no idea how that popped up.”
Stewart asked for forgiveness for “this egregious error” and added that “as you can see by the second half of the statement racism is not tolerated at any level in the city or the county.”
Critics were quick to respond to his apology, citing the 1998 death of Tyisha Miller, a 19-year-old black woman who was killed by police as she sat in her car at a Riverside gas station.
Hannah de la Cruz, a 33-year-old resident, called Stewart’s response to the email passive and disrespectful.
“After all the events that have transpired, the words our elected officials use are even more important,” De la Cruz said. “I do agree with him resigning. It’s the very least he owes us.”
Some residents — such as Jennifer Evans, a 39-year-old legal assistant who has lived in the city for two years — were disappointed in Stewart’s resignation.
“Not only are we losing a mayor that has proven he loves his community, but our safe haven has become polarized due to these events,” Evans said.
Kevin Willis, a 35-year-old resident and president of Veterans Advocacy Associates, said Stewart is an example of a “good, community-oriented citizen.” Willis said he believed the situation was blown out of proportion.
“Not to discount the real raw emotions that we are experiencing in society at the moment, we need to be careful not to let the people who are trying to better society get rounded up with the bad actors who are the true problem,” Willis said.
Stewart said he was hurt by citizens who do not know him personally labeling him as racist.
“It was incredibly horrible timing, but at the same time, I need to protect the city too,” he said in an interview. “With the massive protest [on Friday], this could cause the city much more harm and focus on the city that doesn’t belong there, so I figured I’d just resign.”
He was formerly an elected Member of Rancho California Water District from 2011 to 2015, and is involved in numerous community service organizations. In 2012 and 2015, he served as the president of the Old Town Rotary club. He was vocal about reopening businesses in the city amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stewart took to Facebook, one of his main forms of communication with residents, to announce his resignation and apologize for his “off-the-cuff response to an email on a serious topic.” Stewart was elected to the City Council in 2016 and began serving as mayor this year.
“My whole goal was to bring the council to the people. I was always on Facebook, always communicating with the residents about what was happening — the good, the bad and the indifferent,” he said.
Councilman Matt Rahn said that his time working with Stewart was relatively positive and that Stewart’s presence helped the council reach equitable decisions. However, Rahn said he was “very critical” of what he called Stewart’s casual language and style of shooting from the hip on consequential issues during his time as mayor.
“City business should not be done on social media. That’s why we have city meetings,” Rahn said. “Being a mayor or any elected official demands a level of care that lets people know they are being heard.”
Rahn said Stewart’s comments in the viral email did not reflect the thoughts of the city or the City Council. “It was unacceptable, and frankly our city deserves better.”
Mayor Pro Tem Maryann Edwards said in a statement: “Stew is a hard-working and honest man. Temecula is poised to close this chapter and continue our long-term commitment to preventing racial injustice in any form.”
Stewart has lived in Temecula for 29 years and operates a chain of barbershops in Murrieta and Temecula. Edwards will take on mayoral duties for the remainder of 2020.