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Statement: “No special interests support me, have ever supported me. I am an independent person who has been elected in this city about 25 times,” Bob Filner said at a mayoral candidate forum Jan. 16.
Analysis: At 69, Filner is the oldest of San Diego’s four high-profile candidates for mayor and often makes note of this along the campaign trail, aiming to portray himself as a tested elected leader.
During a debate hosted by conservative groups earlier this month, the Democrat even referenced a famous quip by President Ronald Reagan. Filner stood aside his Republican opponents and said, “I will not make the issue of their youth and inexperience an issue in this campaign.” The audience laughed.
Then, at a candidate forum hosted by the Tea Party the following week, Filner again cited his age and history in elected office as a distinguishing feature. Only this time he was on defense, not the attack.
Filner’s been endorsed by several city employee unions and the region’s largest labor group. Critics at the forum accused him of being a union stooge and not a voice of voters. Filner responded:
I’m going to the voters, just as you know I’m going to the Tea Party. I’m going to everybody because I believe in people. No special interests support me, have ever supported me. I am an independent person who has been elected in this city about 25 times.
The quote gained traction locally, landing in a report published by U-T San Diego and spurring a debate on Twitter about Filner’s election history.
“Filner said he was elected 25 times? Can that be true?” tweeted Jonathan Heller, a spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office.
A few politicos offered a theory that Filner had counted every primary and runoff election involving San Diego voters.
“If you count primaries, Filner’s estimate is probably close,” tweeted Craig Gustafson, the U-T San Diego reporter who attended the forum.
Heller was satisfied. “Makes sense now,” he tweeted. “My apologies to Filner for ever doubting him.”
But CityBeat editor Dave Rolland wouldn’t let it slide. He called the claim misleading and argued Filner shouldn’t count both primaries and runoffs. If Filner faced a tough primary election, Rolland tweeted, then “the general was a cakewalk.”
“Maybe misleading in some sense,” responded Evan McLaughlin, a top labor official, “but an election is an election.”
I wanted to get to the bottom of it so I tracked down four decades of election results, which are illustrated below. (Thankfully many records are already online.)
In total, Filner has won 25 primary or general elections since his first victory in 1979. He didn’t receive the most votes in only two elections — a school board primary in 1979 and a City Council runoff in 1983.
That’s certainly a lot of victories, but the statistic doesn’t back up the claim Filner made at the Tea Party event. He claimed to have been elected 25 times. Voters actually put him in office only 13 times.
No matter how contested a primary election, candidates can’t say they’ve been elected after advancing to a runoff election. They still must pass another test before winning the ultimate prize, a position in elected office.
Though he won 25 elections, Filner significantly overstated how many times voters put him in elected office. San Diego voters made him their representative half as often as he claimed.
Though not mentioned in the Twitter debate, we also found another factual problem with Filner’s statement. He claimed, “No special interests support me, have ever supported me.”
That’s not true.
As we’ve previously noted, unions are special interest groups. Each advocates for the interests of their membership, whether that’s better pay, benefits or equipment. Unions spend money independently of campaigns, but candidates certainly court their financial support.
When David Alvarez said he had no ties to special interests while campaigning for City Council last year, we rated the claim False because he’d got several union endorsements and financial support from those organizations and other lobbyists.
Filner’s case is no different. He currently lists endorsements from four labor groups on his campaign website. When the city’s white-collar union endorsed Filner for mayor in December, Filner shook the union president’s hand at a press conference.
“We are here to support Bob Filner for mayor because we cannot think of any other candidate better qualified to lead our city back to greatness,” union president Tony Ruiz said at the time.
To review, Filner’s statement significantly overstated how many times he’s been elected and incorrectly described his support from special interests. For those reasons, we determined the statement False.
If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.
Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He writes about local government, creates infographics and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at email@example.com or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.
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