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Filner the Fighter Found One Enemy He Couldn't Beat: Himself

His failures over the last few months exemplified the mayor’s inability to fully execute his ideas amid struggles with personal demons.

The end came as you might expect. San Diego Mayor Bob Filner stood at a microphone, defiant to his last breath.

Filner resigned Friday afternoon under an avalanche of sexual harassment allegations in a deal reached by the City Council to spare him some of the costs of defending his conduct. After the council voted 7-0 to approve the deal – two members were absent – Filner gave a 10-minute speech in Council chambers alternating between contriteness and strong proclamations of innocence.

In one breath, Filner apologized and said he was seeking professional help for his treatment of women. In another, he said that he never sexually harassed anyone and likened the circumstances surrounding his departure to “a political coup.”

“There are well-organized interests who have run this city for 50 years who pointed the gun,” Filner said. “And the media, and their political agents, pulled the trigger. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not what democracy is about.”

With his more bold words, his supporters within the City Council chambers called for him to fight on. He left to a small standing ovation.

The dramatic ending belied the extent of isolation for a man who spent his political career thriving off the energy of being around people. Before Friday, Filner had said barely a word in public for the past month. Just about everyone connected to him had told the mayor to leave. All nine City Council members. His own political party. His now ex-fiancée.

From the time he spent two months in a Mississippi jail 50 years ago to protest segregation to now, Filner’s been a fighter. But revelations in the sexual harassment scandal against him came almost daily over the last six weeks. Filner eventually cowered under their weight. In the process, the allegations tarnished his entire political legacy. Instead of being remembered for helping veterans and his constituents, he’ll be known for sexually harassing military rape victims and jamming his tongue down the throat of a campaign volunteer.

In November, the 70-year-old Filner became the city’s first elected Democratic mayor in two decades. He promised massive political change that would reflect San Diego’s own demographic shift toward progressivism and greater ethnic diversity and away from moderate Republican downtown elites. Filner ended up following the same path as many of his predecessors, becoming the third mayor out of the last six to leave office in disgrace before the end of their terms.

File photo by Sam Hodgson

File photo by Sam Hodgson

Filner, who served on the school board, City Council and in Congress before becoming mayor, came into office with more than his own mandate. A Democratic City Council majority would allow him to implement his agenda.

From the start, Filner battled with Republican City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and Democratic Council President Todd Gloria. But he could point to policy successes that seemed to show he was getting things done despite – or maybe because of – the constant conflict.

Major achievements, however, dulled with time. His unprecedented five-year labor deal with all city employee unions should have given the city money for more library hours and put cops on the street this year. But the mayor’s own appointees to the pension board torpedoed the plan. Filner held out for greater taxpayer protections in a special hotel-room tax deal. But the hotel industry’s unwillingness to buy in led to tourism boosters losing their jobs. Once a month on Saturday mornings, Filner had open office hours in City Hall for San Diegans to speak with him directly about their problems. But one woman said Filner used her meeting as an excuse to isolate and kiss her despite her resistance.

The failures exemplified the mayor’s inability to fully execute his ideas amid struggles with personal demons.

At the start of the summer, it began to emerge that the mayor’s office was crumbling from the beginning. Filner’s bullying of his staff was constant and intense, two of his top deputies said.

“It is difficult to put into words for anyone who wasn’t there to understand just how vicious the outbursts could be and how dehumanizing the work environment was,” former Chief of Staff Vince Hall said earlier this month.

Filner seemed to recognize he had problems. He brought in a megachurch pastor for a counseling session. He hired a management consultant for twice-monthly personal coaching. Nothing worked.

Almost half of the 26 staffers Filner introduced at a January press conference, including Hall, left or transferred out of the mayor’s office by the middle of July. Two other schedulers didn’t even last two months each.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Photo by Sam Hodgson

When the sexual harassment allegations broke on July 10, Filner found himself and his remaining employees unprepared to deal with them. Instead of inspiring confidence in his innocence, Filner’s own words indicted him.

A day after the allegations came to light, Filner released a statement on a DVD where he admitted he had “failed to fully respect” women.

“I need help,” Filner said.

In subsequent television interviews and public statements, Filner’s admissions somehow got worse:

“The biggest monster right now is inside me, which we will deal with.”

“I’m a hugger. Of both men and women.”

“My failure to respect women and the intimidating conduct I engaged in at times is inexcusable.”

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Photo by Sam Hodgson

At the same time, revelations about Filner’s other questionable behavior touched on well-worn political scandal stereotypes. The price tag of Filner’s June trip to Paris came under fire. He misused city credit cards. Federal investigators were looking into Filner’s role in city development deals. All of it became daily fodder for national media.

In the six weeks the harassment scandal raged, no one prominent ever provided Filner with a full-throated defense. Lorena Gonzalez, the labor leader turned assemblywoman, became the first elected Democrat to call on him to resign even though she was credited with leading him to victory in November. Her successor at the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council and other labor leaders were the city’s only major interest group never to ask him to leave, but they never advocated for him, either. Filner’s other previous supporters, including five Democratic City Council members and the local Democratic Party, simply melted away.

This could speak to Filner’s legendary cantankerousness– an enemy once called him “the Grand Canyon of Assholes.” The theme emerged early in the 2012 mayoral campaign and never really ended. Filner’s political allies backed the Bob-the-Concept instead of Bob-the-Person.

Bob-the-Concept still has strong supporters. Murtaza Baxamusa, who works for the San Diego Building Trades Family Housing Corp. and volunteered as a special policy adviser for Filner, said Filner forever changed how the city does business. Filner, Baxamusa said, made it so that working class and neighborhood advocates could be appointed to boards and commissions and pushed for new plans to address climate change, neighborhood development and cross-border trade.

“The dynamic has changed to such an extent that the momentum is going to be difficult to reverse,” Baxamusa said.

If that’s true, it will happen without Filner. Soon after news of the deal that led to Filner’s departure broke Wednesday night, Filner’s director of community outreach, Linda Perine, posted a photo of Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama on Facebook. Filner had the plaza repaved for pedestrians for pennies on the dollar compared with a $45 million plan developed by Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs that outraged preservationists and failed in court.

“For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been,'” Perine captioned the photo, quoting 19th century poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier.

The anti-slavery reference made sense. Filner’s political career began in the Civil Rights movement and it’s where he says he learned how to fight. On the campaign trail, Filner was fond of saying he’d won 25 elections in San Diego so he knew how to beat anyone. In the mayor’s office, Filner found an opponent he couldn’t defeat: himself.

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