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The five-term incumbent has emerged relatively unscathed from several challenges over the years. But his brash style has earned a slew of enemies, some of whom are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to help unseat him.
On a recent afternoon in the halls of the County Administration Center, I spun around at the sound of loud stomping. The noise was coming from County Supervisor Bill Horn. He was boisterously trying to squash a bug.
I haven’t been covering San Diego County government long, but I’ve learned enough to know that the bug-stomping incident is an easy metaphor for Horn’s political style: The five-term incumbent is loud, brash and ready to pounce on the enemy, whether it’s a gay soldier or a stray insect.
Horn, a former Marine, frequently touts the leadership skills he gained fighting in Vietnam and likes to speak in combat and military metaphors. Here are a few he tossed out during a recent interview: “Fighting to me means winning. … Never underestimate your enemies, and if I’m making a landing on a beach I’m going to take the entire thing. … I don’t run away from a fight.”
Nuance has never seemed to stop Horn from trying to prove a point.
During the recent spate of wildfires, Horn stood in front of news cameras and revealed a bold suspicion: “I question whether or not six fires haven’t been set by somebody … I’ve never seen anything like this in 20 years.”
He said he had no evidence and that fire officials were investigating, but “all I have is a gut feeling.”
In 2010, Horn made a statement on KPBS that “we’re the only country in the world that does this – have your child [on American soil] and that child becomes a citizen.” Canada, Mexico and most Latin American nations have similar citizenship rights.
And in 2011, Horn earned Voice of San Diego’s Whopper of the Year for a downright lie about his role in the civil rights movement.
“During the civil rights movement I worked for Ralph Abernathy and went to jail over the rights of the minority,” Horn said during a heated meeting. Both pieces of that claim were false.
Horn touted his involvement in the civil rights movement, but more recently he has been a zealous opponent of gay rights, and has voiced strong opinions about their role in the military, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“I never got any gays in my unit, ever,” Horn said. “I want the people defending me to be the best there is. I don’t want any other ancillary kind of problems, whether or not they use their pinky finger.”
That was in 2000, after Horn told supporters he would seek the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate (he lost). The Times also noted that at one point, Horn’s website incorrectly listed the Silver Star among his honors.
• An inewsource story published this week argues Horn may have used a charity he bought decades ago for $25 in ways that may have “violated both state and federal laws, civilly and possibly criminally.”
• He came under fire in 2010 after giving more than $80,000 over three years in taxpayer money to a pro-life organization, according to CBS 8.
• After winning his 1998 election, he put his campaign manager on the county payroll for 11 weeks, according to the Los Angeles Times.
• A roughly $13,000 fine was issued to Horn in 2007 for violating campaign rules and not disclosing his income.
• He once sent an email, in violation of county policy, to employees at work inviting them to join him in prayer, according to the Los Angeles Times.
• In 2006, Horn earned some notoriety – and likely approval from some – for statements during his State of the County address like, “The border has become a war zone.” He also said that “shooters at the border end up on our streets shooting kids,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
• In 2005, Horn asked his colleagues to increase their salaries by more than $28,000 annually after, only months earlier cutting child-support and other services. “It is true that we are elected, but nobody who got elected took a vow of poverty,” Horn said, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. “We’re not Franciscans.”
• There were news accounts in 2006 of “how an employee at Horn’s Valley Center ranch had been living for years in a beat-up trailer without toilet facilities,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
• Deplorable conditions have been reported at apartment buildings owned by Horn, according to San Diego CityBeat.
• Perhaps a decision that best shows Horn’s penchant for isolating positions was his lone “no” vote over the update to the county general plan.
“I live in North County, my kids live in North County and my grandkids live in North County and I just want the county well run,” Horn said when I asked him why he deserves another term.
He amassed his wealth through avocados, investments and other business ventures and says the fact that he “was a builder” and “a money guy” has helped him steer the county to stronger fiscal health.
“I’ve been a member of a board that actually has done very well financially. We brought this county from the brink of bankruptcy to being one of the best-run counties in the country … with a triple-A credit rating and a triple-A bond rating.”
If elected to what would be his sixth and final term (he was first elected in 1994), Horn wants to focus on, among other issues, extending the runway at the McClellan-Palomar Airport and securing a transit station at Camp Pendleton.
A strict property-rights advocate, Horn is strongly supported by the development, investment and building communities.
A powerful local political action committee, the Deputy Sheriff’s Association PAC, appears to be helping a handful of development and real estate groups fight for Horn’s re-election with large donations, inewsource has reported.
Incumbents are notoriously hard to topple and Horn seems to have emerged relatively unscathed from several challenges over the years. His winning percentages, however, have noticeably declined since he was first elected.
Oceanside Mayor Jim Wood, a fellow Republican who is challenging Horn for the 5th District seat, cites those percentages as an indication he has a decent chance to win.
U-T San Diego endorsed Horn for supervisor this year, though it noted he “has far more baggage” than Supervisor Ron Roberts, also up for re-election with no opponent.
“He has a history of ethical corner-cutting. But Horn has been a strong voice for responsible government in an era in which too many politicians acted expediently. His pro-growth philosophy has also served his district and the county well,” the U-T wrote.
But many of the enemies Horn has earned over the years are opening up their wallets to defeat him.
A political action committee sponsored by SEIU Local 221 – Citizens Against Career Insider Politician Bill Horn For Supervisor 2014 – has already forked over some $250,000 to support Wood, and will likely spend more in the final stretch.
Horn thinks the union is wasting its money. He knows he has earned detractors over the years, but still feels he has a solid base of support that will carry him through.
“I am what I am and I don’t try to be something else. OK, you may not like the answer I give you, may seem like I’m giving you hell, but you know what, I’m telling the truth from my perspective,” Horn said. “I’m sure it wears some people out.”