When Oceanside Mayor Jim Wood first filed papers to run for county supervisor, he was relatively unknown outside of his beach city. That anonymity was considered an asset, though: All people needed to know was that he was not Bill Horn.
Horn is a Republican who has served on the Board of Supervisors for two decades. His penchant for polarizing positions and inflammatory rhetoric earned him a slew of enemies over the years, including those willing to put forth hundreds of thousands of dollars to unseat him.
Part of Wood’s strategy is to be the anti-Horn: patient, centrist, populist and pro-smart growth. Perhaps the biggest difference between him and Horn, Wood says, is he will listen to constituents.
“The feedback that I got from a lot of people, not only complaining about him, but asking me to run, was he’s totally out of touch with the voting populace of the 5th District, doesn’t listen to them at all,” Wood said.
But in cultivating a folksy, old-fashioned persona on the campaign trail, the 66-year-old Wood has also showcased his own vulnerabilities. One of his early campaign advisers wondered whether he would have been better-suited for an election half a century ago.
Wood sometimes comments on women’s appearances and often refers to them as “girls.” He parted ways with Chris Crotty, an early campaign manager, in part because he uses a wheelchair. And Wood’s past is dotted with allegations of inappropriate behavior, including at least one formal recommendation that he change his ways.
Crotty said he and other advisers had to frequently admonish Wood for his behavior on the trail, especially about commenting on women’s clothing and appearances.
“We repeatedly reminded him that it was in fact the 21st century,” Crotty said, “and things were different now.”
For Jennifer Cunningham, the choice is easy: Horn has to go. Cunningham is a member of SEIU Local 221 and said she can vividly recall the moment about a year ago when Horn fully lost her confidence.
“I decided to actually go to the Board of Supervisors [meeting] to talk,” Cunningham said. “While I was talking, Bill Horn spent the entire time talking to other people and didn’t listen to what I was saying … He’s been there so long, he doesn’t even pretend to care what other people say.”
Cunningham’s union is sponsoring the not-so-subtly named political action committee Citizens Against Career Insider Politician Bill Horn for Supervisor 2014, which has already spent some $250,000 to unseat the incumbent.
Ask Cunningham about the candidate her union is boosting, though, and the passion in her voice deflates noticeably. Her praise of Wood is generally framed by her spite of Horn.
“He’s not a career politician, but a leader who has really listened to the residents rather than the special interests that Bill Horn seems to be in the pocket of,” she said.
Wood’s candidacy rests on the dedication and breadth of this anti-Horn fever rather than any pro-Wood euphoria.
Wood has been on the Oceanside City Council since 2002 and mayor since 2004 (in Oceanside, the mayor remains part of the five-member Council).
Early in the campaign for supervisor, Wood’s team worked to partner with several neighborhood groups upset with Horn’s stances – real or perceived – on various development projects.
Their gripes soared to the top of his agenda and included issues like the proposed Gregory Canyon landfill – essentially a dump planned for the backcountry of North County – that many residents worry will harm the environment and water supply, especially if it is placed near the San Luis Rey River.
Born in New Hampshire, Wood’s father was a Navy Corpsman and the family moved to Oceanside in the mid-1950s. He graduated from Mira Costa College and joined the Oceanside Police Department in 1971, where he stayed for just over three decades. Wood quickly transitioned to politics and was elected to the City Council just as he left the force.
A self-defined moderate Republican, Wood said it is impossible to live in a beach city and not also be an environmentalist because of all the coastal issues involved. He has also, naturally, used his time as mayor to champion public-safety issues like improving emergency response times.
But Wood has also clashed fiercely with colleagues on the council, and as mayor was stripped of some important powers by a slight majority of them, including his post with SANDAG, the regional planning agency.
In person, though, it’s difficult to imagine Wood getting riled up about much at all. His demeanor is cool, measured and even playful.
At a Carlsbad fundraiser in early May, supporter Lilia Pickens squeezed a tray of fried lumpia in next to a spread of hummus and celery sticks before leading her son to the center of the clubhouse where Wood was shaking hands.
Pickens dug into her purse for a camera. Wood put his right arm around her son. They smiled. Click.
Hold on, Wood said, pulling his black leather wallet from his pocket and flipping it around to show his police badge, “this is my favorite.”
Wood grabbed the young man’s collar with his left hand and posed for a mock perp walk.
“They think it’s funny,” Wood said later. “I do that as a joke.”
Wood likes to tell jokes and give compliments, a part of his personality he enjoys but realizes can sometimes offend people.
“I’m very outgoing and friendly and I think I got in trouble, and I was told this, I got in trouble because I was raised in the South … where everything is to compliment people,” Wood said. “Yes sir, no ma’am, open the door, whatever.”
Wood said he tries to be careful on the campaign trail about who his audience is and how he speaks to them. For the most part, Wood said his outgoing personality helps him connect with voters.
“It’s kind of a Catch-22. That’s why I’m so popular and maybe that’s why once in a while somebody takes me out of place,” Wood said.
How much of a Southern upbringing Wood had is a bit puzzling, though. His bio on the city of Oceanside website does not mention it and says only that he was born in Manchester, N.H., in 1948 and moved with his family to Oceanside in 1955 – essentially in time for elementary school.
Wood said he lived in South Carolina as a child while his father was overseas.
Nonetheless, throughout his time working in Oceanside, Wood’s behavior has landed him in some precarious positions.
Three female police employees who sued the Oceanside Police Department over sexual harassment and workplace misconduct issues told investigators that while Wood was on the force, he was known as “having a reputation for telling sexually inappropriate jokes and making sexually inappropriate comments,” according to a copy of an internal report from 2002 obtained by Voice of San Diego.
One of the women also told investigators that “in or around approximately November, 2000, Wood sent her an e-mail of a ‘white trash’ woman with a t-shirt torn off with her breast exposed.”
“The Department should address with James Wood whatever training and disciplinary issues are appropriate in connection with and based upon” that conduct, according to the investigation, which was commissioned by the city of Oceanside.
Wood dismissed the allegations, saying he believes he was only included to pressure the city to settle the lawsuit and said nothing came of the report’s recommendations.
“It’s nothing,” Wood said recently. “I truly believe they did this for the settlement.”
Rocky Chávez – now a state assemblyman – also said recently that during Wood’s first term on the Oceanside City Council (where Chávez was also a member), a complaint was filed against Wood after he made an inappropriate remark about an outfit one of Chávez’s female aides was wearing.
“It was enough to warrant a meeting with Jim Wood to tell him to stay away … not to be alone with her and not to further any discussions,” Chavez said. He said he believes the city attorney and city manager at the time were present at that meeting.
Wood acknowledges that there was an incident but said his comments were not inappropriate.
He said there was never a sit-down meeting and the city attorney at the time informed him there had been a complaint but did so flippantly, and that was the end of it. (Oceanside’s current city attorney said there is no apparent record of such a complaint.)
Wood said he thought it was “a joke” and believes that Chavez, a longtime political rival, “used her to try and hurt me.”
Even though those allegations occurred more than a decade ago, Crotty and other early campaign advisers worried Wood’s behavior could present a portrait of a candidate out of touch with reality.
“The (former San Diego Mayor Bob) Filner thing was in full force when I was on the campaign, and so some of our admonishments about behavior were in that context,” Crotty said.
“In this atmosphere, in the atmosphere that existed,” he said, “we didn’t want even the appearance of impropriety.”
Wood and Crotty parted ways mostly over money (there was none at the campaign’s outset), but Wood also pointed to Crotty’s use of a wheelchair as part of the reason he wanted a new manager.
“Maybe at home on the phone he can help me, but boots on the ground? Well, he’s in a wheelchair,” Wood said. “I thought he needed to be near the computer, the phone.”
Crotty, who started using a wheelchair after a football injury he suffered at 19, shrugged off the comment. He knows the candidate.
“If this were the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s, someone with a disability like me would probably be put in a home or something like that,” Crotty said. “So that’s probably what he thinks when he makes comments like that.”
Sam Hodgson contributed to this report.