By Mark Gabrish Conlan • for East County Magazine, www.eastcountymagazine.org
L to R: San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, Queer activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez and San Diego LGBT Pride director Stephen Whitburn at the San Diego LGBT Pride Festival July 14. Filner ducked the parade the day before due to controversies over his treatment of women, including staff members, but he dropped in quietly at the festival and visited the San Diego Democrats for Equality booth.
Just when you thought the current sex scandal involving San Diego Mayor Bob Filner couldn’t get any weirder, it did. On July 17 KGTV Channel 10 broke the news that Filner had been booked to be the keynote speaker at the National Military Women Veterans’ Association of America’s gala event in San Diego August 30-31. They had originally planned to give him a “Lifetime of Leadership” award honoring his work on behalf of veterans in general and military veterans in particular. But with allegations that Filner routinely harassed women, including his staff members, in the workplace and at community events, the group decided to rescind the award but keep him on as a speaker. “He is now the keynote speaker for these injustices,” said the group’s official statement.
The Filner scandal is making none of its participants look good. Filner sold himself to the San Diego electorate in general and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in particular as a tireless fighter for civil rights whose idealism had been honed by his arrest in the Freedom Rides — national protests against racial segregation on interstate buses — in 1961. Unfortunately, his attitudes towards women in the workplace also seem to have been flash-frozen in 1961. The conduct he’s being accused of — telling a female staff member women employees would do better “if they worked without their panties on,” making leering comments towards women, groping them and forcibly kissing them — sounds like the stuff of a bad Mad Men script, a throwback to an age when male bosses routinely treated women who worked for them as sex objects and women were told that submitting to sexual harassment was the price they had to pay for having a career at all.
But his principal accusers from the progressive Democratic community that used to be his political power base aren’t looking any better. The campaign against Filner has been led — at least in public — by three people: former San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye and attorneys Marco Gonzalez (brother of former San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council chair and recently elected Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez) and Cory Briggs. They came out on July 11, gave a remarkable press conference in the parking lot of Briggs’ law office in Linda Vista and announced that Bob Filner should resign as Mayor immediately because they had, as Gonzalez put it, “very specific facts from women who work for the Mayor that his behavior does not conform to community standards.”
The three participants in the press conference refused to reveal either who these women were or what exactly they were saying Filner had done to them. “It’s not important for us to detail what these women have told us,” Gonzalez said, and Frye followed up with a stern warning to the reporters present that if they tried to find out who the women were or what they were accusing Filner of, they would themselves be complicit in the abuse of the women. Apparently Frye, Gonzalez and Briggs were hoping that the shock of three long-term progressive Democrats who’d helped elect Filner in the first place coming out against him and demanding his resignation would lead him to admit guilt, fall on his sword and resign as ordered.
Instead Filner sat in front of a video camera in the Mayor’s office and recorded a two-minute apology that wasn’t any more specific about what he supposedly had done than his accusers had been. “I have diminished the office to which you elected me,” he said. “The charges made at today’s news conference are serious. When a friend like Donna Frye is compelled to call for my resignation, I’m clearly doing something wrong. I have reached into my heart and soul and realized I must and will change my behavior. As someone who has spent a lifetime fighting for equality for all people, I am embarrassed to admit that I have failed to fully respect the women who work for me and with me, and that at times I have intimidated them.”
Filner acknowledged — at least in words — that standards of how to treat women in the workplace have changed and “behavior that would have been tolerated in the past is being called out in this generation for what it is: inappropriate and wrong.” He said, “I need help” — playing the “therapy” card surprisingly early for a politician reacting to a scandal about his personal behavior — and admitted, “If my behavior doesn’t change, I cannot succeed in leading our city.” But he didn’t offer a resignation, and when he gave an interview to local TV station KUSI on July 15 he seemed to back away from his earlier admissions. Filner told KUSI, “I’m a very demonstrative person. I express myself demonstratively. I’m a hugger, of both men and women. And if it turns out that those are taken in an offensive manner, I need to have a greater self-awareness of what I’m doing.”
For the record, I have known both Bob Filner and Donna Frye for many years. I have written about them as a journalist and frequently been greeted by both of them at public events. In fact, Donna Frye came to my home to be interviewed during her first City Council campaign. Bob Filner has never hugged me in public. Donna Frye has, and when she did my reaction was to be jazzed that a sitting San Diego City Councilmember was hugging me on the floor of the Council chambers during a recess of a Council meeting. I have never personally witnessed Bob Filner hugging another man, nor have I seen him exhibit any untoward behavior towards women. But just because I’ve never caught him at it personally doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.
If the sordid details Frye, Gonzalez and Briggs trotted out in their July 15 press conference are accurate — if his penchant for making sexual advances on women who work for him was known for so long that they called him a “dirty old man” and coined the phrases “the Filner headlock” and “the Filner dance” to describe how he corners women and pushes himself on them — then Filner is one sick puppy. His ex-fiancée Bronwyn Ingram, who seemed joined at the hip to him when he was campaigning for Mayor in 2012, left him just days before the first Frye/Gonzalez/Briggs press conference and said that even while they were on dates together he’d be e-mailing and texting obscene messages to other women.
All this, quite frankly, suggests a classic pattern of sexual addiction, a deep-seated problem that, in this admittedly non-expert person’s opinion, is probably something that’s been part of Filner’s behavior his entire adult life. It’s preposterous to think it’s going to be cured with just a few quickie therapy sessions and some sexual-harassment training from the city — training one would think the Mayor and his staff members would have gone through as a matter of course. In fact, one could make the case that the best argument for Filner’s resignation would be the benefit to Filner himself. If his issues about women and his own sexuality run as deep as the allegations say they do, it’s not likely he’s going to be able to address them effectively and still govern the city. Filner himself seemed to realize this when he called in another person, former San Diego County Administrative Officer Walt Ekard, and hired him basically to run the day-to-day operations of the city during the crisis.
So if it’s such a deep-seated behavior pattern, why haven’t we heard of it before? After all, Bob Filner is no stranger to public scrutiny or controversy. He’s held public office in San Diego continuously since 1979: first as a San Diego Unified School District board member, then as a City Councilmember, then as a Congressmember and now as Mayor. He’s been the subject of scandal before, notably in 2007 when he pushed an airline worker in Washington, D.C. because he didn’t think his baggage was being processed fast enough. Why was he able to get away with it this long if his behavior towards women has been so terrible, especially given the irony that he got to Congress in the first place at least in part by beating Jim Bates, another long-time Democratic officeholder in San Diego who was driven out of office for sexually harassing women?
Perhaps because there are few people in politics more invisible than a back-bench Congressmember, especially one from the minority party — and for all but eight years of his 22-year tenure in the House of Representatives, Filner was in the minority party. One local political operative explained to me that as a Congressmember, Filner had a small staff and a low political profile. While the shoving match with the airline worker made national headlines — and was seized upon by San Diego Republicans in hopes they could use it to beat Filner at the next election — most of what Filner did in Washington, D.C. really did stay in D.C. As Mayor under San Diego’s relatively new strong-mayor charter, Filner’s “staff” included virtually all the city’s employees, and as a single executive he was alone in the spotlight.
Filner was also a thorn in the side of San Diego’s (mostly) Republican business establishment, who have become accustomed over the decades to running the city pretty much their own way no matter whom the people elect. San Diego has had nominally Democratic Mayors before, but none from the progressive wing of the party. Filner’s immediate predecessor, Jerry Sanders, responded to the Occupy movement by telling his staff members not to let so-called “Occupy people” into his office at all — thereby denying them their First Amendment right to petition their government for the redress of grievances. Filner showed up at the Embarcadero Marina Park for the first anniversary of Occupy San Diego in October 2012 and gave a brief but supportive speech.
The substantive politics Filner was pursuing — including blocking Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs’ massive remodel of Balboa Park; questioning the city’s sweetheart deals with developers like Sunroad Corporation; refusing to blame the city’s budget problems entirely on its workers; standing up against a giveaway of public property to build the San Diego Chargers a new stadium — were so much a threat to the Republican establishment that they had already planned a drive to recall Filner before the scandal broke. All they were waiting for was the end of the six-month period in which, under California law, you have to let an official serve before mounting a petition drive to push them out of office and force a new election. By coincidence — or maybe not — Frye, Gonzalez and Briggs chose to explode their sexual harassment bomb on Filner and demand his resignation just when that six-month period ended.
Filner made the sort of stupid mistake you can’t afford when your enemies are as powerful as his are. What’s more, his mistake — though it seems to me so compulsive it qualifies as an addiction instead of just a “mistake” — was one that directly attacked the principles and priorities of a good chunk of his political base. That’s why the people leading the attack on Filner and calling for his immediate resignation are not the ones you’d expect — not the Republicans who have never liked him anyway and particularly hate him for using the powers of the strong-mayor charter they pushed through as a way of blocking Democratic City Council majorities from doing much of anything — but three former supporters from his own party.
In recent years we’ve seen both Democratic and Republican politicians accused of inappropriate behavior towards women — and the contrast between how the two parties have handled these scandals is dramatic. Filner is going the way of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and former New York Congressmember Anthony Weiner: immediately condemned and driven out of office by a lynch mob from his own party; treated less like a sad, pathetic but still human person and more like a cancer they want lanced or burned out of the body politic immediately. On the other hand, Republicans accused of sexual harassment have got away with it because their partisans have had their backs. Republicans united behind Clarence Thomas in the 1980’s and Arnold Schwarzenegger when Filner-like allegations were made against him in the last days of the 2003 recall campaign. And because their partisans stayed loyal to them, Thomas got on the Supreme Court and Schwarzenegger served seven years as governor.
Why? I suspect it’s largely because of who each party’s political base is. The Democrats long ago lost the white male chunk of America’s electorate. The last Democratic Presidential nominee who actually carried a majority of white men was Lyndon Johnson … in 1964. Democrats remain competitive as a party only because of the votes of women and people of color. This is why the five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and thereby allowed Republican-controlled states to pursue voter ID laws and other so-called “reforms” aimed at preventing people of color from voting at all.
It’s also why Democrats have to be far more tough against politicians accused of sexual harassment than Republicans do. There are probably a lot of white men in the Republican base who don’t see anything particularly wrong with pushing a woman up against a wall, telling her how hot you think she is, and groping and kissing her, so long as you stop before it becomes out-and-out rape. Democrats, desperately dependent on the votes of women, can’t afford to have this sort of boys-will-be-boys tolerance of sexual harassment — especially since out of all women, the ones with the highest tendency to vote Democratic are single, college-educated women in white-collar professions: exactly the kind most vulnerable to the sort of slimy behavior of which Filner is accused.
But there seems to be something else going on here, a really unpleasant strain of moralism in the Democratic body politic. Democrats like to accuse the Republican party of trying to police everybody’s private sexual behavior — but when it comes to allegations of sexual harassment against their own, it’s Republicans who take a live-and-let-live attitude and Democrats who mount their moral platforms and issue fierce condemnations that make them sound like Salem’s witchhunters. Obviously there are limits to Republicans’ tolerance, as former Idaho senator Larry Craig found out. Get caught soliciting sex from another man in a restroom and your Republican buddies will wash their hands of you as quickly and completely as San Diego Democrats are doing with Filner — likely because the Republican Party can ill afford to offend the radical Christian Rightists in their base just as the Democrats can’t afford to offend the single professional women in theirs.
Maybe it’s the difference in loyalty you’d expect between a party that at least claims to base its stands on abstract “principles” and one which frequently identifies its causes with the people who embody them. When I covered one of the failed attempts to limit land development in North County by initiative, I noticed that the initiative’s supporters talked about the issue in abstract terms and its opponents kept bringing up the name of the initiative’s principal sponsor. I also recall a Right-wing talk-radio host describing in detail how Al Gore’s marriage had broken up because he was having an affair with his masseuse, and then saying, “After that, how can anybody still believe in global warming?”
Maybe it’s that Democrats, like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s socialists, love humanity but hate people. Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade who later became an abortion-rights activist, said she changed because the members of the radical-Right church she was invited to go to were the first people she’d met who treated her as a human being. The people on the pro-choice side — including Sarah Weddington, the Texas attorney who became a feminist heroine for taking the case — saw her as a test case, a symbol, a convenient tool to advance a challenge to restrictions on abortion, but were so wrapped up in Jane Roe the symbol they couldn’t have cared less about Norma McCorvey the person, she said.
Or maybe it’s Realpolitik. Filner’s accusers seem either ignorant or, more likely, blithely unconcerned with the fact that, by destroying him, they’re essentially handing back the mayoralty of San Diego to the Republican party and the business establishment it represents. Certainly one can’t imagine, if the parties’ positions were reversed, pillars of the Republican establishment so eager to get rid of the first mayor they’d managed to elect in 20 years. With Bob Filner gone and a “safe” Mayor in his place — either a “safe” Republican like City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer or a nominal Democrat like Council President Todd Gloria, who throughout Filner’s term has used his power to block Filner’s agenda and protect the establishment’s interests — progressive San Diegans will lose their best chance in decades to break the establishment’s power and have San Diego governed of, by and for all its people. That will be a tragedy for San Diego — and the fact that Bob Filner largely brought his downfall on himself through his personal weaknesses doesn’t make it any less tragic.