“Political Reflections” commentary by Mark Gabrish Conlan • for East County Magazine, www.eastcountymagazine.org
San Diego Mayor Bob Filner (right) with Activist San Diego president Leon Thompson at the launch of KNSJ 89.1 FM July 4
L to R: Marco Gonzalez, unidentified, Cory Briggs, Donna Frye at the July 11 press conference
There’s an old joke about why no progressives successfully settled the Old West. When their wagon trains were attacked, they circled the wagons, pulled out their guns and shot — inward, at each other. That’s what it seemed was happening on July 10, when KPBS broadcast the explosive news that former San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye and attorneys Marco Gonzalez and Cory Briggs, all people with solid professional credentials who had backed San Diego Mayor Bob Filner in his campaign for that office in 2012, were now calling for his resignation. The claim was that he had sexually harassed at least three women on his staff, and that this conduct was so awful, so reprehensible, so contrary to common standards of morality and decency, that Filner no longer deserved to be Mayor and he should quit his office immediately.
“I have recently received credible evidence of more than one woman being sexually harassed by you,” Frye wrote in a letter dated July 9 that KPBS released — apparently without her permission. “Despite past rumors, I tried to give you the benefit of the doubt. However, those who have spoken to me recently would not make the allegations lightly or without cause, and I believe them. I cannot in good conscience remain silent on this, even if those who have spoken to me choose to do so out of fear of retribution or the possibility of a media circus where they could be twice victimized.”
Gonzalez’ letter took a similar tone. Dated July 10, it read, “At our recent meeting I was of the impression that you understood the gravity of circumstances surrounding your treatment of staff, and in particular, the women who work for you in the Office of the Mayor. … Unfortunately, I and numerous of my colleagues have reached the point where we do not believe your behavior will change, and thus must request that you immediately relinquish your position as Mayor. … While this is an extremely difficult message to convey, as members of a progressive community that prides itself on our support for women, their issues, and especially equality in the workplace, we cannot sit idly by and watch your inexcusable behavior continue. What we would not accept of our enemies, we cannot condone of our friends.”
The public letters left one big hole in the story: exactly what is Bob Filner supposed to have done to these women? Frye, Gonzalez and Briggs called a press conference, which took place Thursday, July 11 in the parking lot of Briggs’ law office in Linda Vista, but they specifically avoided saying anything that would fill in that hole. “Donna and I have very specific facts from women who work for the Mayor that his behavior does not conform to community standards,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not appropriate for us to detail what these women have told us, but it’s important for us to call to account a political ally.”
Wait a minute — “it’s not important for us to detail what these women have told us”? It’s one thing to claim that the women involved fear intimidation and retribution and therefore Gonzalez, Frye and Briggs aren’t going to tell us their names. It’s quite another thing for them to say that they’re not going to give us any more information on what Filner supposedly did to his alleged victims than the highly charged and elastic term “sexual harassment,” which could mean anything from an off-color remark to physical contact verging on rape.
Without any clue as to what they’re accusing Filner of beyond ambiguous talk about “community standards” he is accused of violating, Gonzalez, Frye and Briggs are basically saying, “Trust us. We know what he did, we have found him guilty, and we are demanding his resignation as his punishment.” It’s not that different, really, from the military tribunals that are going on now at Guantánamo, where individuals accused of serious crimes are being judged on evidence so “secret” neither they nor their own attorneys are allowed even to see it, much less refute it.
What’s more, Frye came out during the press conference and as much as told the journalists present that if they tried to find out who these women are and what they’re accusing Filner of doing to them, they would be complicit in the abuse. “I will just ask that you please exercise good judgment,” she said. “I’m sympathetic that you have to do your jobs, but I’m more sympathetic to the women who are too scared to speak.”
And yet, and yet … Donna Frye, Marco Gonzalez and Cory Briggs are not politically naïve. They’re certainly aware that the leadership of the San Diego County Republican Party has already set in motion a campaign to recall Filner from office and was just waiting the six months after his mayoralty began before state law allows a recall to begin. They surely must know that given the closely divided electorate in San Diego (Filner won with about 53 percent of the vote), if he either resigns or is recalled the most likely replacement is either a conservative, pro-business Republican like Kevin Faulconer or a conservative, pro-business Democrat-in-name-only (DINO) like Todd Gloria. (One thing Frye specifically said at the press conference is that she will not run for mayor herself if Filner either quits or is booted out.)
That suggests that what Filner did is so reprehensible, so horrible, so far beyond not only “community standards” but common decency that Frye, Gonzalez and Briggs are willing to let San Diego’s city government slip back into Republican hands to achieve the higher goal of protecting women in the workplace from a sexually abusive boss. But we don’t know that. We won’t know that as long as Frye, Gonzalez and Briggs refuse to tell us just what the h--- happened between Filner and his alleged victims. Why won’t they? “We won’t victimize these women twice,” said Briggs at the press conference. And it seems to me that voiding the result of a popular election — which is what Mayor Filner’s resignation would be — should be done on a more solid factual basis than, “Trust us. We know what happened.”
Briggs also said that he stumbled on the information because he’s representing plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the Sunroad Corporation over the so-called “scandal” regarding their apartment development. It encroached on a city park, but the San Diego City Council voted unanimously to give them a so-called “easement,” basically a right to take city property for their own private money-making purposes. Filner threatened to veto the Council’s action, though given that the Council vote was unanimous they would have no particular trouble overriding their veto.
Depending on who you believe, Filner either virtuously hit up Sunroad for $100,000 compensation to the city, which he directed to two pet projects of his, or shook down the developer for a $100,000 bribe to two of his pet charities in exchange for not vetoing the easement. Later Filner’s office returned the money, leaving Sunroad with the easement and the city with nothing. That’s what Briggs’ lawsuit is challenging. While researching the Sunroad case, Briggs said at the July 11 press conference, “I became more aware of this behavior. I received calls from women sharing this story.”
Whatever their intentions, Frye, Gonzalez and Briggs certainly hit Filner when he was down. The FBI was already investigating him over the allegations of a “shakedown” of Sunroad. He’d been getting relentless criticism of his mayoralty from U-T San Diego (which since local developer and political contributor Doug Manchester bought it has basically become a propaganda sheet for his pet causes in general and his remorseless opposition to labor unions in particular), KUSI Channel 51 (which in the 2012 mayoral campaign gave so much air time to Filner’s opponent, Carl DeMaio, that wags called it the “all DeMaio, all the time” channel) and other local media outlets.
There’s no evidence that Frye, Gonzalez and Briggs timed their press conference to coincide with the deadline past which it’s legal to start a petition campaign to recall Filner. They ducked a question about whether they would support a Republican-led recall effort against Filner if one materialized, though they said in the press conference that that weren’t planning to start a recall drive themselves. Asked what he would do if Filner doesn’t resign, Marco Gonzalez said several times, “The Mayor is in charge of this story” — as if they’re so sure he’ll admit guilt, fall down on his sword and quit that they haven’t bothered to work out a Plan B.
But it’s hard to believe that three such politically savvy people could have released this story when they did without taking into account its likely electoral ramifications. “No one knows what this means better than I,” Gonzalez acknowledged. He said, both in his letter and in the press conference, that he’d met with Filner about the issue, but he refused to say what was transpired and a good chunk of the letter displayed on KPBS’s Web site was redacted. Frye stated the hope that the story could be judged without it turning into a political circus, but after her own 10 years as the San Diego City Council’s most loved and hated member, it’s impossible to believe that she could be so naïve.
So we’re left with a story with a hole in the middle. What did Bob Filner do with the women in his staff? What do they think he did? What does Filner think he did? As I noted above, sexual harassment comes in many gradations from off-color remarks to something close to out-and-out rape. A lot of people accused of sexual harassment don’t necessarily know that what they were doing constituted harassment. Frye, Gonzalez and Briggs evidently believe that Filner, as a political progressive who has made fighting for civil rights in general a major priority throughout his career, should have known what he was doing was wrong.
Maybe. But it’s awfully convenient that these allegations have come forth when they have. Bob Filner has been in public life for over 30 years. He has held many elective offices, including the San Diego Unified School District board, San Diego City Council, U.S. Congress and now Mayor of San Diego. One can’t help but wonder why, if he treated women on his staff so reprehensibly, we didn’t find out about it earlier. It’s possible this is a behavior pattern Filner has only recently fallen into, but usually people who do this sort of thing in their 70’s did it in their 40’s as well. Maybe Filner has been treating the women on his staff this way all along — whatever that is — only we didn’t know it because he was in the U.S. Congress and what happened in Washington, D.C. really did stay in Washington, D.C.
Filner’s current troubles have become a sort of Rorschach test. I got a Facebook posting from a long-time woman friend (a former lover, in fact, before I came out as Gay) saying that she had no doubt that whatever was being said about Filner is true, that he should resign and suggested that the Democratic Party get behind Assemblymember (and former San Diego City Councilmember) Toni Atkins as his replacement. Another woman, a colleague of mine who was also at the press conference and who had earlier confided to me her own history of being abused in relationships with men, found the same fault with the story as I did: there’s no indication of what Filner is accused of doing, and without that there’s no way to know how seriously to take it and whether Filner’s transgressions rise to such a level that resignation is the only way he can atone for them.
But the fact that three prominent progressive Democrats who helped get Filner elected have so intensely and publicly turned against him underscores a difference between progressives and conservatives. Though conservatives have deep and well thought-out ideological convictions, they tend to view politics more personally and be considerably more loyal to each other. When this story first broke I wondered if sexual harassment was the sort of radioactive issue to Democratic politicians that being “outed” as Gay is to Republicans — an issue so passionately important to a good chunk of the party’s voter base that being accused of it is essentially a greased-rail exit to your political career.
Then I thought about that again. After all, Filner’s general-election opponent, Carl DeMaio, is an openly Gay Republican. That didn’t stop some of the most intensely homophobic people in his party, including Doug Manchester and talk-show host Roger Hedgecock, from endorsing him. I did a thought experiment and wondered what the reaction would be if DeMaio had beaten Filner in the 2012 mayor’s race and then been caught soliciting sex in a public restroom — the nearest Gay equivalent I could come up with to what Filner is accused of doing (whatever it is). I don’t think we’d have seen three prominent Republicans writing letters demanding his resignation and holding a press conference in a parking lot to say how terrible he was. Instead they would probably have pleaded for “understanding” and “forgiveness,” saying he was under a terrible strain and he should be allowed to apologize for his mistake and get on with his work of serving the community.
It goes back to that wagon-train thing again. Republicans know that when they’re under attack, they need to circle the wagons and fight outward, against the people attacking them instead of each other. Democrats (and, even more so, people too far Left to be Democrats) tend to take highly “principled” stands on issues and hold to them if it alienates or even destroys their friends. I’m not saying either is better than the other, but it’s striking how the call for Filner’s resignation is an illustration of how Democrats are willing to sacrifice people for principles, while Republicans are generally more loyal to each other and more willing to sacrifice — or at least compromise — principles for people.
POSTSCRIPT: Later on July 11 Mayor Filner issued a video statement from his office in which he acknowledged that he had “failed to fully respect the women who work for me and with me, and that at times I have intimidated them.” He called his own behavior “inappropriate and wrong” and added, “I am also humbled to admit that I need help.” Filner hinted that he is seeking therapy (“I have begun to work with professionals to make changes in my behavior and approach”) and said he and his staff will participate in city-sponsored training on sexual harassment.
Both the charges against Mayor Filner and his response are indications of how deeply one of the founding principles of modern feminism — “the personal is political” — has become embedded into the fabric of American life. It began as a realization that much of the oppression against women came not from official government or corporate policy but within their daily lives from the people closest to them: their husbands, partners and relatives at home and their immediate supervisors at work.
Sex-related scandals involving politicians, and their exploitation by political adversaries, are both as old as democracy itself. What’s specifically modern and post-feminist about the Filner scandal, and previous ones that brought down other progressive politicians like former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and former New York Congressmember Anthony Weiner, is the degree to which these men have been called out by people who generally agree with their politics but regard the contrast between their public ideals and their private behavior as so great it discredits them and renders them unfit for public office.
Filner himself seemed to recognize this when he said in his statement, “It’s a good thing that behavior that would have been tolerated in the past is being called out in this generation for what it is: inappropriate and wrong.” Through much of the 20th century sexual harassment was considered one of the prices women had to pay if they wanted a professional career at all. The just demand of modern-day feminists that women in the workplace be treated as equals and not as sex objects has been a difficult one for many older male bosses, including people like Filner who have loudly proclaimed their commitment to women’s equality in principle but have been unable to live up to it in practice.
Ultimately it will be up for the people of San Diego to decide whether Mayor Filner’s conduct towards women in general, and particularly towards the women who work or have worked for him, is so reprehensible and wrong that it justifies his removal from office. I only hope that they will be able to make that decision based on specific evidence and not just on the vague generalities offered so far both by Mayor Filner and his critics.