ESCONDIDO — A blog post accusing the mayor of saying he is in politics only for his “personal finances” and an accusation that the opposing campaign has stolen 20 percent of its signs.
These are the insinuations which have arisen in the Escondido mayoral race pitting Mayor Sam Abed against challenger Paul McNamara. Though both sides have made these allegations, neither side has backed up its claims with verifiable documentation, information that The Coast News tried but failed to obtain from either camp.
The first shoe to drop came on Oct. 9, when the website Alianza North County — a liberal- and Democratic-leaning monthly bilingual Spanish-English newspaper distributed throughout Escondido — published an article titled, “My Meeting with Mayor Abed” by Wendy Wilson. Wilson, now the executive director of the Bonita Museum & Cultural Center, described a meeting she had with Abed back when she served as director of the Escondido Arts Partnership, Escondido Municipal Gallery.
“At the start of my meeting with Mayor Abed, he told me right off … My first priority as mayor is my personal finances. I could not believe he said that out loud,” wrote Wilson, who did not specify the date of the meeting in her piece. “The mayor’s priority was his own personal finances … Is he serious? Our tax dollars go to serve him?”
Wilson’s piece also alleges that Abed told her he does not support women in the workplace, does not believe in public schools or public libraries, and is opposed to both nature and open spaces. Wilson did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but her article is now on the front page of the October/November edition of Alianza North County. And the “personal finances” quote features prominently on a campaign mailer distributed by the McNamara campaign.
Although the website does not openly disclose it, Alianza North County was co-founded in 2014 by Nina Deerfield, who now serves as campaign director for McNamara.
Deerfield told The Coast News that multiple people could corroborate that this meeting took place and that Abed said these things, but would not provide any names of these people, nor did she make them available for an interview. She said that the meeting had “been talked about for years” prior to the article being published.
Additionally, the Times-Advocate — a local Escondido newspaper — reported that Deerfield said that the article was actually written back in 2015 and not published until now. Asked about whether the Alianza North County article could have the appearance of being published in coordination with the McNamara campaign, Deerfield told The Coast News, “I can’t control what others think.”
But Abed said that he is now considering filing a defamation lawsuit in response to the article, calling it “fake news.”
“Apparently, my challenger’s campaign is responsible for publishing an alleged ‘interview’ that never took place. It is unfortunate that a campaign would join the ‘fake news’ express in a desperate effort to become relevant,” Abed told The Coast News. “Let me be perfectly clear, I have never had such a meeting with Wendy Wilson. Absolutely everything in her written account of a meeting with me is a complete fabrication and legally actionable.”
Abed has called on the McNamara campaign to “repudiate these false smear tactics by his campaign, saying that he has no problem with those who “disagree with my political views, but concocting pure fabrications is beneath the dignity of our political process.”
Though he said he may file a defamation lawsuit, Abed did not detail who his attorney is or make that attorney available for an interview, only saying it was a personal attorney and not a city of Escondido lawyer. Two lawyers interviewed by The Coast News disagree that a lawsuit filed by Abed would gain much traction.
Under U.S. Supreme Court precedent, “there is a requirement that a ‘false statement’ be reckless with respect to the public figure — that is, that there was a conscious disregard for the truth or falsity of the statements concerning him,” said Michael Overing, an adjunct law professor at University of Southern California and media attorney based in Pasadena. “Abed will have a hard time proving that the statements made were done with that sort of malice. Part of the reason for the higher standard is that the politician has access to the press to rebut the charges. Abed can sue, but he’ll lose. Our First Amendment is just too strong to reward such a lawsuit.”
Echoing much of Overing’s legal analysis, Rancho Santa Fe attorney Carla DiMare called a prospective Abed defamation lawsuit “an extremely difficult mountain” to climb and one which would likely not succeed. She also bemoaned the current state of the political arena more generally.
“Politics is a vicious arena, to the detriment of the public, which is consistently fed false and hurtful claims about people,” DiMare said. “It is horrible how people treat each other. When someone deliberately makes a false claim about another person, the accuser is truly only hurting himself or herself.”
Another contested claim is that of yard signs, 20 percent of which Abed says were stolen from his campaign in an Oct. 15 Facebook post.
“20% of my solen/vandalized (sic) signs by my opponent/supporters this weekend were replaced today,” wrote Abed. “We are following up with couple of leads. We reported it to (the Escondido Police Department). This is a crime and we will prosecute.”
Christopher Lick, the public information officer for the Escondido Police Department, said that the department had looked into the matter and to date, had yet to find evidence that ties the missing signs to the McNamara campaign.
“(T)he Mayor reached out directly to (Chief of Police Craig Carter) by phone regarding the campaign signs,” Lick explained. “We are waiting for actionable information from the mayor’s office. If they provide information that can be followed up on, we will do so.”
The Coast News has filed an open records request with the mayor’s office pertaining to the complaint brought by Abed, also filing a request with the Escondido Police Department, which was denied on the grounds that no documents exist because everything has been handled via phone between Abed and Carter.
Deerfield said the McNamara campaign did not steal any of the signs and that signs going missing are par for the course during election season. Signs for the McNamara campaign, too, have gone missing, she said.