On Sunday, Bishop George McKinney had two prominent guests for his Sunday service at St. Stephens Cathedral in southeastern San Diego.
In the front row was Mayor Bob Filner, reeling from weeks of scandal and national media frenzy. Kitty corner from him was Council President Todd Gloria, also taking in the St. Stephens experience.
McKinney told me that Filner and Gloria came separately, without any fanfare. Neither spoke to the flock from the pulpit. Afterward, McKinney met with Filner.
He would only tell me that Filner was humble.
“He is sincere about his apology and his repentance,” McKinney said.
In its own compassionate way, even that statement is an indictment. We still don’t know what Filner thinks he should apologize for or what Filner thinks he did that he even said was “inexcusable.” As Gail Collins at the New York Times put it, we’ve been getting both claims that he is innocent of what’s alleged and that he’ll never do what’s alleged … again.
Which is it? Either he didn’t do it, or he’s done doing it.
Filner’s remaining supporters have not settled on any one of their three main arguments: 1) that he deserves to be presumed innocent and that what’s happening is a frenzy or, worse, a vast conspiracy 2) that he did something but it wasn’t that bad or 3) that he did something that may have been bad but he can redeem himself.
I wanted to talk to McKinney because he provides a window into why some residents, particularly in southeastern San Diego communities, are standing up for the mayor as he retreats from public view. McKinney’s perspective helps explain why Councilwomen Marti Emerald and Myrtle Cole held out so long before ultimately insisting the mayor should resign. It helps explain why those who rallied for Filner outside of City Hall Monday sang “We Shall Overcome” as they walked to the podium.
McKinney is one of Filner’s supporters who is not selling a conspiracy theory or denial. He’s arguing for redemption.
“In no way, form or fashion do we support behavior that is demeaning, ungodly or disrespectful. But we understand that we are all creatures with moral and spiritual failings and we always believe there is a possibility for forgiveness and redemption,” McKinney said.
McKinney’s support for Filner is as much about deep, earned historic loyalty as it is about present-day interests. Across the street from McKinney’s office, a vacant city-owned lot remains undeveloped. McKinney has tried for years to develop the land, called Valencia Park. He’s been awarded the project several times.
Most recently, he lost his development partner, the group with the expertise to pull his vision off. The city’s redevelopment agency, Civic San Diego, had to decide whether to send out a request for bids on the project again or try to help McKinney get back on track.
It’s unclear if anyone else would want the gig.
“It’s not like this site is in UTC. It’s off the beaten trail and doesn’t have freeway visibility. It’s not a site developers will beat down the door to get to,” said Jeff Graham, president of Civic San Diego.
Filner told Graham and his team to stick with McKinney. It’s no small decision. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) loaned the city’s redevelopment team $2.5 million to buy that land many years ago.
That loan came with an agreement that the city would create 96 jobs on the property. HUD has so far been patient, but last week told the city that if progress didn’t come soon, it will ask for its money back.
It’s one of the many land use deals with which Filner is directly involved that would be left uncertain if he departs.
“He’s been courageous and stuck his neck out on our behalf and we don’t want to discount that,” McKinney said of Filner.
The men have a long history. McKinney started our conversation with a description of the respect he has for Filner and his family’s civil rights advocacy.
“He put his life on the line and went to prison as a Freedom Rider. And I don’t take that lightly. His father was one of the earliest supporters of the civil rights movement,” McKinney said.
He said Filner, as a member of the school board decades ago, stood with McKinney in support of a private school he and other religious leaders wanted to build. McKinney remains moved, he said, that a school district leader would support a private parochial school and acknowledge education services in southeastern San Diego were below standard.
The school, St. Stephens Christian School, was closed after 25 years of operation.
And that probably best captures why support for Filner remains strong in some areas of town: He was the one who, quite simply, showed up. He worked for leaders like McKinney in South Bay, Barrio Logan and southeastern San Diego. Unprecedented voting in those areas buoyed Filner to a win.
And some residents there are taking an attack on Filner as an attack on them.
But McKinney is not alone in pushing a redemption message.
This was the subject line activist Enrique Morones sent for a rally Monday in support of the mayor: “Time to heal, forgive and get back to moving city forward, with Mayor Bob Filner.”
What does it take to forgive? McKinney said he recognized the gravity of the situation the mayor faces.
But he said Filner is “open to counsel.”
“Personally he has demonstrated to me a sense of responsibility,” McKinney said.
The redemption argument is probably Filner’s best. But in the Christian tradition McKinney articulated, it often first involves confession. It’s not clear if McKinney got one of those.
It’s hard to imagine redemption coming quick enough to save Filner’s job.
Gloria and Filner did not talk at McKinney’s church Sunday. But they reportedly met Monday and Tuesday in mediation sessions with Councilman Kevin Faulconer, city attorneys and Gloria Allred, the attorney suing the city and Filner on behalf of his former communications director, Irene McCormack.
Allred has demanded Filner’s resignation and it may be on the table as they negotiate.
If he resigns, there are some very old and very new reasons people like McKinney will feel a deep loss.