Flyers supporting and opposing candidates in the special election for the County Board of Supervisors are shown on Jul. 27, 2023. (Jill Castellano/inewsource)

Why this matters

Independent groups can play a huge role in informing voters in upcoming elections, but their advertisements can be inaccurate or misleading.

UPDATE: Aug. 11, 2023

After publication, the San Diego Police Officers Association provided new emails to inewsource that it contends support the following statement in its mailers: “Monica Montgomery Steppe tried to fool voters, claiming a 50% drop in district homicides on her ballot statement. . . . The Registrar of Voters didn’t let her get away with this lie and made her remove the false claim.”

The new emails show the county Registrar’s Office was in communication with Monica Montgomery Steppe’s campaign on June 15 and 16, 2023, after the police union submitted its complaint about her ballot statement claim that “Monica helped reduce homicides by 50% in her district.” In the emails, the Registrar asked the campaign for information backing up the claim, and a Montgomery Steppe campaign staffer emailed a response. The response began by stating that the “statistics on homicide reduction were provided by Captain Manuel Del Toro of the Southern Division of the San Diego Police Department.” The response included a copy of a September 13, 2022, email from Del Toro, which stated that, in the Southeastern Division (which, as the Police Officers Association has pointed out, does not precisely coincide with Montgomery Steppe’s district), “for murders, this time last year we were at 13 and currently year to date we are at 6, for a better than 50% decrease in homicides.”

Then the Registrar invited the campaign staffer to a phone call and later followed up with an email to “confirm agreement” that the claim would be removed from Montgomery Steppe’s candidate statement. None of the emails from the Registrar’s Office state a conclusion as to whether the claims by the Police Officers Association or Montgomery Steppe were accurate.

On Aug. 11, inewsource asked the county and Montgomery Steppe about the emails, including the details of what the parties had discussed on the phone. County spokesperson Michael Workman said the county stands by its initial comment to inewsource — that the Registrar’s Office did not ask Montgomery Steppe to remove anything from her ballot statement or fact check it (meaning that, while the Registrar’s Office asked for supporting information, it did not reach a conclusion as to the accuracy of the statement). Though the Registrar’s Office was in touch with Montgomery Steppe’s campaign, the county said Montgomery Steppe did not have adequate time to submit a full rebuttal before an election deadline and chose to remove the statement voluntarily. Montgomery Steppe’s campaign said the description of events provided by the county and written in inewsource’s original story was accurate.

Previously reported on July 31, 2023

Law enforcement unions have funneled more than $160,000 into the upcoming San Diego County Board of Supervisors special election, propagating misleading advertisements that paint the race’s most high-profile candidate as a threat to public safety.

The election on Aug. 15 will replace former District 4 Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, who stepped down following sexual assault allegations, and play a key role in turning the tide of the five-person board, which is now split between Republicans and Democrats. The board manages billions of dollars in public funds and helps oversee county operations, including the work of the Sheriff’s Department.

Candidate Monica Montgomery Steppe, now the San Diego City Council president pro tem, has spent years advocating for criminal justice reform in the city, sparking backlash from the police. She supported the ban on officers’ use of carotid restraints and the creation of a new independent commission to investigate law enforcement activities.

Her efforts have rankled the San Diego Police Officers Association, which funded attack ads circulated to voters in recent weeks. The mailers include an incorrect statement about Montgomery Steppe: that she was forced to remove a “lie” about the homicide rate from her campaign materials.

“The characterization in that mailer is false,” county spokesperson Mike Workman said.

A flyer opposing candidate Monica Montgomery Steppe in the special election for the County Board of Supervisors is shown on Jul. 27, 2023. (Jill Castellano/inewsource)

Workman said the police union submitted a last-minute complaint to the county about Montgomery Steppe’s ballot statement, which cited a 50% reduction in homicides in her city council district — a statistic drawn from recent San Diego Police data. The police union pointed out in its complaint that homicides rose by 450% in the first year of her tenure, from two to 11 deaths, according to SANDAG data.

County officials said Montgomery Steppe’s campaign did not have time to submit a rebuttal before the mandatory deadline and chose to remove the statement voluntarily. The registrar did not fact check her statement or require her to take it down, like the mailer said.

“I would not consider that a fair depiction,” Workman added.

Emails published in La Prensa show Montgomery Steppe relied on the police department’s own data for her candidate statement. A police captain told her in September 2022 that homicides in the Southeastern Division were down 50% from the same time in the year prior, dropping from 13 to six deaths.

Jared Wilson, the president of the police union, stood by the claims in the group’s ads.

“We believe voters deserve to know what Monica’s record is on public safety,” he said in an email. “The content of the mailers is drawn directly from Monica’s own words and actions.”

What is ‘outside spending’?

Groups known as “independent expenditure committees” can spend unlimited amounts of money in elections, so long as they do not coordinate with candidates’ campaigns. They are required to disclose their group names on advertisements and file reports with election officials showing how much money they spent in the race.

After becoming union president in early 2022, Wilson announced he would break from the practices of his predecessors, who he said were too hesitant to publicly “protect our members.” Wilson launched attacks against Montgomery Steppe last year that sparked criticism from the mayor and other council members.

In his statement to inewsource, Wilson said a staffing shortage in the police department was the result of Montgomery Steppe’s leadership. He also stated that violent crime is increasing, even though the crime rate is at historic lows for the San Diego region.

“As violent crime rises we need more than the typical politician who lies about their record representing San Diegans on the Board of Supervisors,” Wilson said.

Attacks and threats

Montgomery Steppe is facing the vast majority of opposition spending in the race, according to an inewsource analysis of campaign finance data.

The police union has spent more than $76,000 opposing Montgomery Steppe’s candidacy through digital and television ads, as well as research and surveys, according to campaign finance reports.

Another committee known as “San Diegans Against Crime,” sponsored by the Deputy District Attorney’s Association, produced mailers with nearly identical language and images to those created by the police union.

Reports show the DA group spent nearly $90,000 on surveys, mailers, video production, polling and more efforts to oppose Montgomery Steppe and support the other Democrat in the race, Janessa Goldbeck.

The ads declare that Montgomery Steppe is a “police defunder,” despite her reportedly voting for city budgets that increased the police budget every year she has been in office. Montgomery Steppe has advocated for cuts to police budgets, including a $10 million cut from police overtime funds that she said the city should spend on community programs instead. They also accuse her of attempting to “restrict police investigations” through her support of the PrOTECT Act. The proposed law would require officers to have probable cause a crime occurred when searching civilians during a police stop — a higher burden of proof than currently required.

Supporters of the act, which has yet to come to a city council vote, argue it would help address racial disparities in policing by preventing officers from searching people of color without a clear reason.

A mailer from the police union cites StopProtectAct.Com as a source for more information about the proposed law. The website was created by the police union itself, according to the Union-Tribune, and contains similar messaging to the mailer. 

The campaign materials drew ire from Lori Saldaña, a former state assemblymember, who accused the law enforcement groups of using “racial dog whistles.” She claimed the unions darkened Montgomery Steppe’s skin when they printed her image in black and white, akin to the infamous O.J. Simpson magazine cover that sparked controversy in 1994.

Saldaña also expressed concerns with one of the ads in particular, which portrays Montgomery Steppe, who is Black, next to the words: “A Threat to Public Safety.”

“It is not only just blatantly false and misleading, it also plays into, frankly, the worst kind of race-based fear of people that associate people of color with higher rates of crime,” said Saldaña, now a member of the central committee for the county’s Democratic Party, which endorsed Montgomery Steppe in the race.

Montgomery Steppe declined to do an interview for this story, but she has publicly expressed dismay over the recent attacks on her.

Earlier this month, Montgomery Steppe said at a candidate forum in Hillcrest that the opposition was a response to her criminal justice reform efforts.

“I hold our police department accountable,” she said. “I hold law enforcement accountable for these bad acts that we are talking about — excessive force, stopping Black and brown people at rates that are four times higher than their white counterparts, even though they do not have contraband.”

“I’ve already taken quite a few hits,” she added. “This is not hypothetical for me. This is what I do, because I do believe in an equitable society.”

The Deputy Sheriffs’ Association of San Diego has not directly funded ads in the leadup to the election, but the group has donated to another committee, the Protect Our Quality of Life PAC, that is sponsoring mailers in favor of Goldbeck and against Montgomery Steppe.

A sign supporting Janessa Goldbeck, a candidate in the County Board of Supervisors special election, is shown on Jul. 27, 2023. (Jill Castellano/inewsource)

Outside spending climbs

In total, outside groups are spending more money to support Montgomery Steppe than on any other candidate, according to inewsource‘s analysis.

A coalition of San Diego labor unions has spent more than $380,000 in favor of Montgomery Steppe. The group includes the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees along with SEIU Local 221 and United Domestic Workers of America.

The labor union coalition also launched a campaign recently against Montgomery Steppe’s opponent, Amy Reichert. The group spent $11,000 last week on consulting fees and mailers to oppose her.

The political arms of local law enforcement unions and labor unions are among many groups known as “independent expenditure committees” that have put money into the upcoming election. These groups can spend unlimited sums supporting or opposing candidates in messages to potential voters, so long as they don’t coordinate with candidates’ campaigns.

So far in the special election, independent committees have spent nearly $900,000 — almost five times more than the candidates themselves, who can only accept money from individual donors contributing up to $1,000 each for the Aug. 15 contest.

The candidates have distanced themselves from the outside spending. Reichert, who has the county Republican Party’s endorsement, told inewsource she doesn’t support attack ads and is focused on positive messaging.

“That’s not how I roll,” she said, noting the police union hasn’t endorsed anyone in the race.

Jennifer Gaudette, a PhD candidate at UC San Diego, said politicians may not benefit from police endorsements like they did in the past because of an “intense national polarization around policing.”

Gaudette said her research shows political candidates perform worse with liberal voters if endorsed by the police and better with conservative voters. That divide, she said, developed around 2015-16 and has grown stronger as conversations about police violence have entered the national spotlight.

Political science research shows ads fueled by independent expenditures groups are more likely to be negative and targeted against other candidates.

The three leading candidates on the ballot have each criticized the independent spending in the race. Candidate Paul McQuigg, who hasn’t reported any campaign fundraising to date, could not be reached in time for publication.

Goldbeck, a former U.S. Marine Corps officer, was outspoken about campaign finance reform at a recent candidate forum.

“Independent expenditures are the thing that I think are really twisting our politics,” she said.

Goldbeck said she supports using public money to fund elections as a way to reduce the influence of special interests in politics.

“You’re gonna see mailers and ads for all of us that none of us authorized or asked for, because that’s how the system works right now,” she said.

Clarification: Aug. 11, 2023

This story was updated to include information about Montgomery Steppe’s advocacy for cutting the police budget. It also clarifies that while there were multiple misleading statements in attack ads against Montgomery Steppe, they included only one incorrect statement.

Correction: Aug. 1, 2023

A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the number of Black candidates running for District 4. Two candidates in the race, Monica Montgomery Steppe and Paul McQuigg, are Black.

How we did it: Analyzing election spending

There is no easy way to gather data on independent spending in county elections. To do this, inewsource used several steps.

First, we downloaded spreadsheet data from each group’s spending reports through the County Registrar of Voters’ campaign finance search tool. We used several search criteria for the upcoming special election to ensure as much data as possible was captured, since the reports can be uploaded to different parts of the search system. Then, we used an R script to compile all the data into a single file. We manually added data from additional campaign finance reports from PDFs that could not be downloaded.

By going back to the original spending reports, inewsource was able to code each expenditure as support or opposition for a specific candidate. This information was not available in the data downloads but was visible on the top of each spending document.

Lastly, we analyzed the data to look for trends and calculate totals.

The data was collected on Jul. 28, 2023. Fundraising and spending is expected to increase in the weeks prior to the election.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Jill Castellano is an investigative data coordinator for inewsource. When she's not deep in a spreadsheet or holed up reporting and writing her next story, she's probably hiking, running or rock climbing. She also loves playing board games and discussing the latest chapters with her book club. Jill...