Filner: Missing The Boat On The Port
KPBS media partner Investigative Newsource sat down with Congressman and mayoral candidate Bob Filner for a talk about the Port of San Diego on March 2. Filner, who represents California’s 51st Congressional District, told Newsource, “I’ve made [the Port of San Diego] the chief economic point of my campaign.”
Yet during a fact check of Filner’s interview, we noticed a few important claims made by the candidate that merited further review. What we found were a number of issues about which the Congressman was incorrect. What’s more, Filner has made many of these claims in the past — almost verbatim — while speaking with other news outlets.
We have laid these issues out below, one at a time. Below each of Filner’s claims lies a fact check paragraph. Below that — Filner’s response to the data, as quoted from a recent follow-up phone interview with him.
Claim #1 — “Zero commerce”
Regarding the Port of San Diego, Filner said:
“It’s a great tourist destination and a spot that we put a lot of hotels on. But up until a few years ago, we’ve had zero commerce. Zero. That is, there’s no loading and unloading of vessels. And the way the port looked at things for decades was, ‘that’s dirty, and San Diego is clean. And we don’t want dirty stuff here.’ So we don’t have dirty docks, we don’t have dirty longshoremen. And it’s been the policy, literally, of the port not to have commerce.”
When Filner was later given a chance to correct himself, he said:
“Virtually nothing has come into this port… we’ve brought literally nothing into this port.”
At no point in the history of the port has it not had commerce. In fact, the Port of San Diego has brought in more than $4 billion in imports alone every year since 2003, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Foreign Trade Division, which monitors the import and export data of shipments into and out of the U.S.
In total, more than a million tons of cement, fuel and lumber were offloaded in 2011, along with 272,168 vehicles, according to Port figures, which are based on bills of lading received with every shipment.
“I don’t know where those numbers come from.”
When Newsource told Filner the numbers are from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Foreign Trade Division and the Port itself, the Congressman said, “Show me a ship that comes in here. There’s no way to unload or load. It’s close to zero. We are not a port. You can argue over what the statistics are, but there’s no infrastructure for doing anything. You cannot call San Diego a port.”
Lorena Gonzalez, the CEO and Secretary-Treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, was surprised by many of Filner’s claims. Gonzalez and the Council support Filner’s bid for mayor, but she told Newsource on Monday that this was the first time she’d heard any of these claims.
“I don’t think he’ll be writing the policy,” Gonzalez said, referring to what would happen if Filner were elected. “I could be wrong, I hope not.”
“...Not to excuse his wrong figures, because I think in some ways it’s inexcusable,” she said. “You really have to be prepared and he needs to prepare himself…”
Claim #2 — “A dozen longshoremen”
Regarding the workers at the port, Filner said:
“Up until five, ten years ago, we had like a dozen longshoremen in all of San Diego. L.A. has thousands and thousands, we have a dozen.”
The Port of San Diego had 132 registered longshoremen last year, according to the 2011 report by the Pacific Maritime Association — self-described as the “labor relations arm of the West Coast maritime industry” that processes payroll information for longshore workers.
Five years ago, in 2007, there were even more — 148 registered longshoremen. Ten years ago, in 2002, there were 73 registered longshoremen. And in 1990 — the oldest data available online through the Pacific Maritime Association’s website — there were 69 registered longshoremen.
“Someone told me [those numbers] about ten years ago.”
Filner then said the numbers don’t matter, whether it’s a dozen or a few dozen — the Port needs hundreds if not thousands more workers. Newsource then brought an August 2011 CityBeat interview to Filner’s attention in which the Congressman was quoted as saying, “Can you imagine having 100 [longshoremen]?”
“I don’t remember saying that,” Filner told Newsource. “Someone told me we had a dozen, this was from the Union. I may have misremembered or something, but there’s a handful here. I don’t care if it's 50, I don’t care if it’s 68 — compare that with thousands.”
Claim #3 — A “niche market”
Regarding his plans for the Port’s future, Filner said:
“What if we had a niche market for bulk materials? People would save a lot of time, and therefore money, by coming to San Diego instead of to Long Beach or L.A.”
When Newsource attempted to correct Filner by telling him that San Diego is, and has always been, a “niche port” for, specifically, bulk materials, he responded:
“Virtually nothing has come into this port.”
Later on in the conversation, Filner brought up the “bulk” market again:
“I mean we don’t have to renovate, we don’t have to change, because we don’t have anything! So what if we built to meet whatever the demands were? If it were for bulk loading? If it were for a certain, I don’t know, whatever the modernization was required. What if we did that?"
The Port of San Diego has never been equipped to compete with the massive ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and therefore has always served as a niche market for non-containerized commodities — such as cars, cement, sand, lumber, fuel and windmill parts — which do not need nearly the same amount of land that containerized shipments do once they are offloaded from a ship. These commodities are considered “bulk” or “breakbulk” commodities, meaning they aren’t loaded or shipped in standard containers — and they have made up the majority of shipments offloaded at the Port nearly every year throughout the last 20 years, according to statistical data from the Pacific Maritime Association.
“Go down there any day and you could never find a ship. The guys in National City have a lumberyard so maybe they brought in some lumber, I don’t know. It’s not a port. You don’t have the volume. You don’t have anything here. San Diego is simply not a maritime place.”
Claim #4 — “The first floating port”
(Note: Filner was not asked to respond to this claim during the follow-up phone call.)
When asked what he would do differently for the Port as mayor of San Diego, Filner said:
“…when you talk about climate change, our coast might not be there… You’ve got to think through these things, even though half the Congress thinks climate change doesn’t exist. So there are people talking about floating ports. What if we were the first floating port?
“That is, you build your infrastructure as much as a mile offshore and you have taxi or ferry ways to come in. But you better start thinking about what happens if our coastline doesn’t exist anymore. What are LA and Long Beach going to do then? It’s a whole new world…”
The idea of San Diego as the nation’s first floating port seems “highly unfeasible,” according to Joel Valenzuela, the Director of Maritime Operations for the Port of San Diego.
“…Especially with environmental regulations in California,” he said. “It’s very hard to create a new pier, much less create a floating port.”
Peter Hall, an expert in seaports, port cities and logistics and a professor at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, said the idea of a floating terminal is “novel, to say the least.” And the idea that climate change will eliminate the coastline “is clearly wrong.”
“I have seen one example of a floating pier for cargo… in Portland, Oregon,” he wrote in an email to Newsource on March 30. “But this was… self-propelled, relatively light cargo, nothing as heavy as a container or something else that requires a crane.”
Hall then alluded to the idea as akin to a prank.
“First of April’s coming up, eh?” he asked Newsource.