Our pick for the 2011 Whopper of the Year award is county Supervisor Bill Horn.
Horn told the story at a heated June 28 county board meeting about three proposals to redraw the supervisors’ districts. Critics accused the supervisors — five white people — of gerrymandering to safeguard their own re-elections and violating the civil rights of minorities in the process.
The criticism irked Horn, a conservative who represents the county’s northernmost district, so he aired a story that we found dated back at least a decade. “During the civil rights movement I worked for Ralph Abernathy and went to jail over the rights of the minority,” Horn told the audience.
Both claims were wrong and Horn should’ve known it.
He never went to jail and never worked for Ralph Abernathy, a close aide to Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. Horn had been detained during a 1960s civil rights protest and later said he once attended a speech by Abernathy.
If that weren’t enough, Horn’s spokesman made a third inaccurate claim during our investigation. The spokesman told us two men could back up Horn’s account of the 1960s protest, but they had both died.
That also wasn’t true.
We tracked down both men — alive and well — and discussed their experiences with Horn. One of them, former football star Rosey Grier, said, “I did not know him at all.”
Horn had cited the bogus civil rights story to repel criticism of a major issue before the supervisors. The county only redraws its political boundaries once a decade and sets the battleground for future elections — including Horn’s own re-election, should he run for a sixth term in 2014.
By propping up his civil rights credentials, Horn aimed to undermine a key criticism of the political boundaries he supported. Critics called for greater representation of racial minorities and Horn suggested they already had an ally in him.
After we published our Fact Check, Horn’s bogus civil rights story became part of the county debate. Former City Council member Jess D. Haro publicly challenged Horn to explain his previous comments and pressured the board to create political boundaries more favoring to racial minorities.
And in September last year, the supervisors did just that. They approved a map making racial minorities the majority of residents in the county’s southernmost district. Horn and his colleagues voted unanimously.
By comparison, claims by two other Whopper finalists, Mayor Jerry Sanders and San Diego Unified School District trustee Shelia Jackson, were egregious, but not at the same level as claims by Horn or Convention Center point man Steve Cushman.
Sanders significantly exaggerated past city layoffs while pushing pension reform. The false claim bolstered his rationale for proposing a shift in retirement plans but none of the issues surrounding that shift’s actual merits.
Jackson incorrectly described her role in defining an unpopular proposal to close schools. It helped her dodge public accountability, but again, didn’t address the merits of the proposal to close schools.
We asked readers to weigh the worst factual blunder and few backed Sanders or Jackson in the final stage of our contest. Horn and Cushman more evenly split the vote.
“Bill Horn,” wrote Pat Seaborg. “It is just too big of a lie to not get first place.”
“Cushman should win the prize because he represents the interests of the big money power mongers that rule the City,” wrote Fritz Liebhardt.
Shortly before an important vote on a proposed Convention Center expansion, Cushman falsely claimed the project’s financing plan included no money from the city’s day-to-day budget.
Not true. The plan would actually draw $105 million from the budget over three decades. If the money weren’t dedicated to the expansion, it’d flow to a pot of money that pays for a wide array of city services like police, parks and libraries.
Much of the Convention Center debate has focused on how to pay for it and how much the public would contribute. Taking money from the city’s day-to-day budget is always a contentious issue. By saying the project wouldn’t involve of that money, Cushman gave the proposal an unmerited badge of honor.
One reader who emailed argued that Cushman’s claim was more egregious because he’d misled on a costs proposal that’s being decided upon, while Horn had just inflated his past. It’s a compelling argument, but we felt Horn’s comment also had current implications.
Though Cushman cited future costs and Horn cited past experiences, both used their claims to influence long-lasting, contemporary decisions. Horn cited his civil rights story to influence how the county’s political boundaries would be drawn for the next decade. Cushman said “no general fund” when that money would be tapped for the next three decades.
In the end, readers selected Horn by a thin margin. We concur.
Our pick boiled down to Horn because he’d made more egregious claims and because he’d been making them for at least a decade. Citing two non-dead witnesses also took the level of absurdity to a whole other level that will stick in our memory for a long time.
He joins 2010’s Top Whopper winner, Ben Hueso, in infamy.
Whether you agree or disagree with our pick, please let us know by sharing your thoughts in the comments section below.
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