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Filner, Bob: The Definitive Entry on San Diego's New Mayor

Consider this the Voice of San Diego encyclopedia entry on the new mayor.


San Diego’s new Mayor Bob Filner has a half-century history of political activism, and it’s tough to keep track of all he’s done.

In time for the holidays, we’ve compiled a short Filner biography that links to some of the best stories about the new mayor’s background and political motivation. Consider this the Voice of San Diego encyclopedia entry on Filner.

The Freedom Rider

Let’s start with the most formative political experience of his life: his decision in May 1961 as a college sophomore at Cornell University to join the Freedom Rider protest of southern segregation. Filner rode a bus to Jackson, Miss., where he was arrested after integrating a transit terminal. He spent two months in jail and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned his conviction.

It became Filner’s first and most profound example of using a political strategy developed by Martin Luther King Jr. called “creative tension.” The idea, Filner told us for a July profile, is to force change by making opponents uncomfortable without resorting to violence.

“People don’t change unless there’s tension,” Filner said. “Status quo. Nobody thinks about anything, right, if you don’t create the tension. But if you don’t do it creatively, then they hit you or they shoot you. You gotta make them think about it.”

Filner’s Freedom Rider history has become the touchstone in his political biography and public profile. Oprah Winfrey, for one, honored him and others in summer 2011 during a show about the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.

Filner has said he was “genetically programmed” for political activism. His father, a New York businessman and labor organizer, was an early and enthusiastic fundraiser for King.

The Professor

Filner graduated from Cornell and eventually earned a doctorate from the school in the history of science. (Those who really want to understand Filner can check out his nearly 500-page doctoral dissertation on science and politics in World War II-era England.) Filner moved to teach history at San Diego State University.

His local political career began after a slight at a 1978 San Diego Unified school board meeting. The board dismissed him after Filner asked why the district was considering closing an elementary school his children attended. Filner eventually made a bid for school board, and won his seat in 1979.

From the school board, Filner ran for San Diego City Council but lost, the only time he has come up short in his political career. He tried again and won a council seat in 1987. He jumped to Congress five years later.

Filner represented communities in southern San Diego and the boundaries of his congressional district included Chula Vista and other areas outside the city.

The Congressman

Never one to submit to authority, Filner found Congress’ strict hierarchy stifling.

“The only way you can get anything done around here is through personal relationships, lord-vassal relationships,” Filner told a Washington Post reporter for a 2006 book on congressional partisanship. “You kiss the ring or the rear end of your chairman. If they don’t like you you’re finished. It’s not about issues.”

Filner struggled with relationship-building throughout his House career, which likely affected his ability to get things done.

But Filner did deliver for the veterans’ community and his constituents. In the four years Filner chaired the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, veterans’ health care funding received major increases and he won a long-sought victory to give benefits to Filipinos who served in World War II. Leaders of veterans’ advocacy groups have wondered where they’ll find their next congressional champion.

Filner prided himself on personally dealing with constituent problems. He called federal agencies to cut through red tape and was a prolific sponsor of bills addressing individual problems, such as those giving citizenship to an undocumented immigrant.

His combative personality worked for and against him in Washington. Sometimes he seemed like the only honest person in the room, such as when he skewered Veterans Administration officials at hearings. Other times, such as his misdemeanor trespassing plea after a 2007 incident at Dulles airport, he came off looking angry and erratic.

The Candidate

Filner’s name had been floated as a possible mayoral candidate in almost every election over the last two decades.

The city’s population is growing more diverse and Democratic, changes that favored Filner’s liberal lion candidacy.

He argued that he alone among the four major mayoral candidates could change the city after 20 years of Republican leadership. Filner would prioritize other neighborhoods over downtown, talk about more progressive causes like alternative energy and affordable housing and bring a new crop of advisers into City Hall.

He made his message clear during the campaign, but also digressed often and struggled with basic facts about his platform. He falsely accused the partner of his opponent of criminal activity, called on the local U.S. attorney to resign and pulled out his ringing cell phone in the middle of a television interview. A lack of detailed policy proposals made it hard to know how he’d try to accomplish many of his ideas.

“There’s no doubt Filner will preside over a much different City Hall than San Diego’s seen for a long time,” we wrote in a Reader’s Guide a few days before the election. “Exactly what it might look like, though, remains less clear than it could have been.”

The Mayor

Filner, who turned 70 in September, won the election by almost five percentage points over Republican City Councilman Carl DeMaio.

Key promises include a massive expansion of the Unified Port of San Diego’s cargo terminals, solar powering every city and school building within five years and diversifying the city’s political appointees.

Filner has spent his first few weeks in office showing up at a Hanukkah menorah lighting in Scripps Ranch, a rally for a skate park in City Heights and a potluck dinner in Clairemont.

“I said that the neighborhoods are going to be important and we need to show it by being in neighborhoods, by being out with people in neighborhoods so I know what they’re doing and what they want,” Filner said after an event.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

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