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How Bob Filner's Chief of Staff Went From Public Servant to Pariah

Lee Burdick, who served as former Mayor Bob Filner’s chief of staff, offers her own account of why she joined the mayor’s team and stuck in the role as things came crashing down. Since Filner’s implosion, Burdick says her career has suffered from guilt by association. “I’m angry that I am no longer being evaluated – or even valued – based on my own merit,” she writes.

On Aug. 30, 2013, at precisely 5 p.m., San Diego Mayor Bob Filner resigned from office amid an infamous sexual harassment scandal. Five minutes later, I was fired. As Filner’s chief of staff, I was terminated along with three other top senior advisers. My only transgression was serving in a doomed political administration.

I’m not naive. I understand that when a chief executive, or even an NFL coach, is let go for cause, his or her senior advisers often follow. So I had no expectation that I would be kept on the city payroll after the mayor was forced from office. However, what followed my firing – prolonged unemployment after a successful legal and public policy career, abandoned by people who I thought were friends, financial devastation – was completely unexpected. I became a pariah in a community I had served with dedication and integrity for a decade before I met, let alone associated with, a man who would be my downfall. In the aftermath of the Filner debacle, none of that seemed to matter.

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Have no doubt that Bob Filner at 71 with 30-plus-years in public service was an abrasive, narcissistic personality who offended virtually everyone at one time or another. Although many people (I was not one of them) apparently knew about Filner’s sexual proclivities before he was elected, it was revealed publicly only after his election that he often used his political visibility and power to try to attract women for romantic and sexual trysts. In his efforts to “hook-up,” he was sloppy, insensitive and often juvenile. On many occasions, he overstepped the bounds of propriety and committed acts so unfathomably offensive that it was difficult to see how he could have gotten so far in public life.

For instance, Irene McCormack Jackson, who served as Filner’s communications director, said that he grabbed her around the neck and pulled her close to him; trapped her in her office and begged her to marry him; and suggested that she come to work wearing no panties, among other offenses. Two black women veterans said they met Filner at a dinner dedicated to eliminating sexual violence in the military, where he stroked one woman’s back and asked her tell him about her rape while she was in the service. And there was 67-year-old grandmother Peggy Shannon, who has since passed away and who claimed that Filner kissed her hands and asked her if she thought he “could go all night … ”

How was he elected mayor of the eighth largest city in the U.S. when he was such an obvious ass for so many years? The answer is, well, complicated.

Within weeks of Filner’s election as mayor, several colleagues urged me to try to join his administration. He was the first Democratic mayor the city had seen in 20 years. He was joining a Democrat-majority City Council. It seemed as if there was nothing we couldn’t accomplish if we tried. And after 20 years of business-friendly, “trickle-down politics,” there was much work to be done for our underrepresented citizens.

Filner had quite an agenda and a new canvas on which to paint it. He was committed to returning the power back to the people in the communities where deferred maintenance, crumbling infrastructure and a dearth of city services had reigned for two decades. His commitment to veterans’ issues during his congressional service was unassailable, and he brought that same enthusiasm to his new office. His interest in transformational change ranged from energy, water and good-paying jobs to affordable housing, open government and beautifying parks, all the way to saving seals and cleaning up bird poop in La Jolla.

What liberal policy wonk wouldn’t jump at the chance to join Filner’s administration? Me. That’s who.

I didn’t know Filner before his campaign for mayor. Although I had lived in San Diego for over a decade, I never had any reason to know him. His congressional district didn’t cover me, so I did not concern myself with deciding whether to vote for him. I did, however, on occasion, read the lively news stories about his propensity for negative campaigning and his unmitigated arrogance. Like many who are disgusted with the behaviors and choices of some of our elected representatives, I would shake my head with disappointment after reading about Filner.

I’ve been practicing law for over 25 years. Although I’m a Midwestern girl, born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., I’ve lived on both coasts and moved to San Diego in 2002. Seven years later, in 2009, the San Diego City Council appointed me to serve as a Port commissioner.

I was in that role when I was approached to join Filner as his director of special projects and legal affairs. After the sometimes incompetent and often politically motivated actions of the current and former city attorneys at the time, the mayor needed his own lawyer on staff, someone he could trust to give him straight answers, even if those answers contradicted his political objectives. Because I liked the team he was assembling, because he seemed interested in understanding opposing viewpoints, and because I truly embraced his agenda, I agreed to join his administration.

It went downhill from there.

Maybe not immediately, as the administration had a nice honeymoon period where real progress seemed possible. Filner began his fight for our underserved communities and taxpayers. And he was winning. Unfortunately, he was also alienating the very people we needed to get things done: the City Council.

I recall one Council meeting where Filner wasn’t getting what he wanted. I could tell he was becoming angry as representatives from the hotel and tourism industry criticized him, and the Council was clearly indicating its inclination to vote against his requested action. He stood at the podium to address the Council and angrily (and erroneously) accused each of them of having taken thousands of dollars in campaign contributions – his word was “bribes” – from the hoteliers, which explained, in his mind, why they were voting against him. After he sat down, he leaned close to me with his shady grin and whispered, “Do you think I went too far?”

It came as no surprise then, when both the Democratic and Republican leaders on the Council demanded Filner’s resignation for alleged sexual offenses even before the first victim had come out publicly.

During that time, I was rapidly promoted to deputy chief of staff and then to chief of staff as we moved out of the frying pan and into the scorching flames. Some will tell you I’m a horrible villain, as bad as Filner himself, because I stayed with his administration to the very end. Others have called me a hero – though I would never characterize myself that way – because, despite the chaos that marked the end of his administration, I stayed to fight for the hopes and ideals of those who elected him…my hopes and ideals…and for his (then my) staff, most of whom had themselves been terrorized by the man. Staying cost me greatly – physically, emotionally and financially. Yet, after much reflection, I see that I was the only one who could have fought that fight and, like every right thing, someone had to do it.

What was supposed to be at least a four-year gig ended in flames after just nine months. That short blip on my otherwise outstanding service career has been devastating. People who have known me for at least a decade, and who have helped me move up professionally in the past, wouldn’t take my calls or return emails. Most of those who were at least willing to give me the time of day weren’t willing to expend any effort to refer me for open jobs or to their friends and colleagues who were in positions to make hiring decisions. The very few – and by that I mean two – who’ve made such efforts on my behalf have led to a total of one meeting with the president of a local agency whose publicly advertised jobs were suddenly filled the moment I sat down in his office.

My unemployment compensation ran out, and some now think I’m a lazy “taker” who has no interest in working for a living. As a new chronically unemployed person, I’ve fallen off the unemployment rolls, and they’re no longer even counting me in the jobless rates that suggest our economy is improving. The truth is that I have sent out over 200 résumés, many for jobs for which I am incredibly over-qualified, and have had only a couple of bites, including a short stint at a labor union after moving all the way to Sacramento.

Emotionally, I’m modestly better than a basket case: alternating between extraordinary optimism that my next great opportunity will be revealed at any moment and bone-chilling fear that my dog and I will be homeless in a matter of weeks. Oh, and I’m angry. Still. Very. Angry.

I’m angry, first and foremost, at Bob Filner, who was so clueless to the wrongness of his actions against a bevy of women who did nothing but support and respect him in his elected capacity. I’m angry that he did absolutely nothing to shield his staff – who all changed their lives to come work for him – from the consequences of his nuclear implosion. And I’m extremely angry that he may have soiled the Democratic brand in San Diego to the point we may not have the opportunity to lead our city from the mayor’s office again for another generation.

And, of course, I am angry at myself for choosing to work for a man I suspected had a personality deficit disorder. I disregarded my own instincts and intuition that warned me against his toxic approach to politics in my belief that the opportunity to advance the public interest from the mayor’s office was too good to pass up. And now I’m paying the price.

I’m angry that I am no longer being evaluated – or even valued – based on my own merit. I’m now a pariah in a community I embraced and served with integrity and dedication for over a decade, but which has cast me out because of my guilt by association. Elected representatives, whom I’ve known personally and supported unconditionally, still ask for my campaign contributions, but will no longer give me a meeting or hear my side of the Filner story. At one point, months into the Filner administration, I was being courted to run for office myself. I’ve since been told that my reputation is so tainted by my association with Filner that it will be many years before I should even consider a successful attempt at leadership.

A few months back a mutual acquaintance told me he had run into Filner who was out and about in the community. “He looked good,” my friend said. “He’s obviously been exercising and has lost some weight. He looks calm and even happy.” Of course he does, I thought. He’s harmed dozens of women and many others who will remain nameless, but he walks away with three pensions (I’m told) – from his days in Congress, for his prior service on the San Diego City Council and from teaching at SDSU – to sustain him for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, I struggle with the very real impacts of his devastation and the irony of this twisted outcome.

Some say, “Be patient! San Diego is a very forgiving community. Time will heal all wounds and this, too, will be forgotten.” After all, they say, if Roger Hedgecock (the former San Diego mayor who was convicted of one count of conspiracy associated with illegal campaign contributions and forced to resign) can become a local and nationally syndicated, right-wing radio talk show host, then anyone can be forgiven in time. But I feel compelled to ask: I need to be forgiven for what exactly?

In these days, when we’re so discouraged by the polarization of our politics and by the endless gridlock that flows from it, and we need strong leaders committed to an agenda that will move our cities and our country forward, can we truly afford to discard dedicated public servants like waste from a scandal not of their own making? I’m hoping the answer is no. But from what I’ve seen and experienced, I’m not so sure.

What I do know is that I have no intention of giving up. In fact, I am taking my life back by telling my story – with all of my flaws and vulnerabilities fully exposed – in a very public way. It has taken these years for me to gain perspective on the events that led to Filner’s ousting, and it is my hope that we as a society can actually benefit from this experience. That is why I wrote my book, “Bob Filner’s Monster: The Unraveling of an American Mayor and What We Can Learn from It.” I do believe some good can come from the havoc wrought by this extremely fallible man.

I believed in Filner’s agenda for San Diego. I see economic injustice in our poorer communities where our middle class is sinking into poverty and where 50 percent of our public school children are living below the poverty line. I feel a growing distrust between dedicated peace officers and the communities of color they serve because of the very bad acts of a few. I fear climate change and the sea-level rise that threatens all of San Diego’s infrastructure around the Bay. Filner’s agenda didn’t fail us. Filner, the man, did. There are simply too many challenges facing us that demand innovative ideas and solid leadership to solve – leadership that Filner couldn’t provide as mayor.

Even with Filner out of office, there are still men – and women – who abuse their power to satiate their most primitive desires. Pariah or not, I will continue to fight for an agenda that values people above all else. I’ll give of myself until there is nothing left. I will help women stand up so their voices and stories can be heard and believed. And at the end of my days, I will look back on all of this without regret, knowing I learned greatly from this experience and, like steel forged in the hottest fire, it made me stronger.

Lee Burdick is a lawyer, political strategist and crisis manager, and served as Bob Filner’s chief of staff. She is author of the book “Bob Filner’s Monster: Inside the Unraveling of an American Mayor and What We Can Learn From It,” set to publish Feb. 8.

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