File photo by Kelly Bennett
Bob Filner at a protest before the City Council's vote on the Plaza de Panama remodel plan.
Bob Filner stabs you in the front. And he stabs you in the back. He’s abrasive, aggressive, impolitic, caustic, truculent, brash and, according to one memorable formulation, “the Grand Canyon of assholes.”
Filner, a 69-year-old congressman who is running for mayor of San Diego, has acquired all these descriptions during his three decades in local politics. For him, the labels are the byproduct of an activist approach honed during the height of the country’s civil rights movement, one that incites confrontation to defend the powerless. Filner’s a fighter, and fighters have to bruise to win.
“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.”
But often people have focused more on Filner’s personality than the change he wants to create. He’s fought two of the longest feuds in San Diego’s recent political history, paid a court-ordered fine for haranguing an airport baggage clerk and gone out of his way during the campaign to antagonize debate moderators and potential allies. Some well-known Democrats backed other mayoral candidates or stayed out of the race in the primary, even though Filner was the only Democrat.
It’s not his positions — even liberal detractors say they agree with him almost all the time. It’s him.
When Filner recently asked Laurie Black, a longtime Democratic adversary, if she was going to support him over his opponent, Republican City Councilman Carl DeMaio, she said no.
“For me,” Black said, “it’s just basically evil vs. evil.”
In November, San Diegans face a choice between two candidates who don’t fit the mold of city mayors. Unlike leaders in the past 40 years, Filner and DeMaio wear their partisanship on their sleeves. And like Filner, DeMaio’s personality often is his biggest liability.
Filner said his political persona stems from weakness, the kind that goes along with the powerlessness of the political minority. He’s the champion of the underdog, a role that also happens to win him his most ardent supporters.
His tactics will change, he promised, once he’s elected mayor. When you have control, Filner said, you have to move people by bringing them together.
In the 1950s, Filner’s father, a businessman and labor organizer, became an early and enthusiastic supporter and fundraiser for Martin Luther King, Jr. Then a teenager, Filner recalls King visiting his family’s New York home. Filner devoured the writings of King and Mohandas K. Gandhi and wrapped himself in their philosophy of nonviolent protest.
So when Filner was studying for finals in May 1961 as a sophomore at Cornell University in upstate New York, the image of a bus burning in Anniston, Ala. called to him.
“I’m genetically programmed for it,” Filner said.
The burning bus was from the first Freedom Ride, a protest movement that fought segregation in the South. Freedom Riders bused into southern states from around the country to forcibly integrate southern society. Filner rode one of the next buses after the Anniston incident. He was arrested in Jackson, Miss. for trying to enter a transit terminal and spent almost two months in jail. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction and others’.
The experience became Filner’s first and most profound example of using a political strategy King had developed called “creative tension.” The idea, Filner explained, is to make people uncomfortable and make them think, all without resorting to violence.
So, he said, if you’re in a protest and someone spits on you, the response isn’t to hit them back or to do nothing. Instead, you ask them for their handkerchief.
Filner has carried this lesson with him for a half-century. Police arrested him and other demonstrators outside the White House in 1997 as part of a protest for Filipino World War II veterans. Filner has championed the Filipino veterans’ case for military benefits.
The same philosophy extends to how Filner makes his points on the mayoral campaign trail. He excoriates San Diego’s downtown political establishment for not prioritizing the needy. To him, it’s also the source of the enmity directed toward his personality.
“Politically, they’re hurting my constituents,” he said. “If my kids in Sherman Heights can’t get nightlights on the damn soccer field because they’re doing downtown redevelopment that makes me mad. But how do you make that point? I could talk about the soccer field, which I do. But I gotta talk about the special interests and their funding and how they do it, so I’m truculent.”
This, according to Filner, explains why he keeps getting elected despite appearances that might suggest otherwise. He’s a white New York Jew representing a Latino-majority district on the country’s border with Mexico. His constituents may not look like him, but Filner said they love how he fights.
It all goes back to 1961, said Denise Moreno Ducheny, a former state legislator and Filner supporter.
“Some of us grew up in the ‘60s and never really changed,” Ducheny said. “He’s still riding Freedom Rider buses.”
Everything needed to go right if Peter Navarro was going to beat Republican Brian Bilbray in the 1996 race for Bilbray’s congressional seat. Navarro, a Democrat and UC Irvine professor, had previously lost a county supervisor race, a City Council race and a mayoral election all by a whisker.
Key to Navarro’s campaign was a get-out-the-vote strategy that would tie four candidates together on one Democratic ticket. The party would concentrate its resources in neighborhoods where state contests overlapped with Navarro’s race. The strategy left out Filner, who faced token Republican opposition in the general election.
But Navarro, who tells the story in his 1998 book about San Diego politics, maintains that Filner and an ex-aide sabotaged the plan by rerouting get-out-the-vote efforts to Filner’s own district. It was just one of many times during the campaign that Navarro says Filner undermined him for his own gain. Bilbray smashed Navarro, and although Navarro blamed many things for his defeat, he put some of it on Filner. Navarro is the one who deemed Filner, “the Grand Canyon of assholes.”
“It’s All About Bob,” Navarro said in an interview. “That’s the book he should write.”
Longstanding Filner adversaries repeat this point to explain why they’re longstanding Filner adversaries. They say Filner’s prickliness springs more from his concern about hoarding his own power than helping others.
San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, a Republican, began fighting with Filner in the late 1980s when both served on the City Council.
“His personality is one in which he has to dominate every contact,” Roberts said. “That’s part of who he is.”
For almost 20 years, Filner has feuded with Lynn Schenk. Both of them were elected to Congress in 1992, but Democrats had a tenuous hold on Schenk’s district. In the two years they served together, Schenk noticed Filner outmaneuvering her to take credit for local successes and snatching the limelight, according to Black, who was Schenk’s chief of staff.
When it came time for Schenk’s 1994 re-election, Black said, instead of helping her, Filner worked to boost her Republican opponent Bilbray’s campaign. Filner, she contended, didn’t think there was room for both him and Schenk in Congress.
“Bob Filner really taught me that power reveals you,” Black said.
Filner unequivocally denied that he helped Bilbray, and wasn’t sure why Schenk’s camp still blames him for the loss. But afterward, the frustration between the two continued unabated.
More than 10 years after her loss to Bilbray, Schenk was vying to lead the Metropolitan Transit System. Filner, who served on the House’s transportation committee, got wind of her potential appointment. He started calling transit board members to advocate for her opponent. Black said Filner torpedoed Schenk’s chances.
Schenk had pushed him around for years without reason, Filner said. So he decided to fight back.
“Let’s say I’m the asshole, wrongfully so,” Filner said. “But then I do something. I am the asshole. Well, I just proved their case. It never stops.”
Last summer, Juan Vargas walked up to Filner in a beer line at a South Bay festival with a message he’s never given Filner before. Vargas told Filner he was going to endorse him.
“He said, ‘If you support me, buy me a beer,’” Vargas recalled. “I said, ‘OK. Bob’s beer’s on me.’”
Asked what kind of beer he bought Filner, Vargas laughed.
“Bitter,” he replied.
For almost 15 years, Vargas vs. Filner defined southern San Diego politics. Filner beat Vargas in a wide-open Democratic primary for the congressional seat in 1992. Four years later, Filner beat Vargas, who had been elected to Filner’s old City Council seat, again. In 2006, Filner defeated Vargas, then a state assemblyman, a third time.
The fight brought out the comic and the nasty. Vargas wouldn’t debate Filner during the 1996 campaign, so Filner instead sparred with a life-sized Vargas cardboard cutout. In 2006, Vargas accused Filner of being paid off by developers and improperly lining his then-wife’s pockets with campaign cash.
All these efforts came against someone who Vargas said he agrees with on “99 percent” of issues. They still don’t like each other, he said. But he’s believed since the start of the mayoral campaign that Filner would best represent his values.
“If you were to ask Bob who was your most hated enemy in San Diego a year and a half ago, I don’t think he would have hesitated to say Juan Vargas,” said Vargas, who now is running for Filner’s abandoned congressional seat. “He would have said it loud and he would have said it clear. So if we can get together and get past it, I think anyone can with him.”
While Vargas’ situation is one of the most extreme, many potential supporters have found themselves in a similar place with Filner’s mayoral bid: Can they support him despite past disagreements or Filner’s disagreeableness?
Indications increasingly are that they can. Democratic City Council members Todd Gloria and Sherri Lightner, who sat out the primary, have already endorsed for the general election.
Helping Filner out is his opponent. DeMaio not only alarms those on the left because of his extreme anti-union and pro-privatization positions, but also because he’s considered just as grating a personality. DeMaio, for instance, was once caught fiddling with his cell phone during a city police officer’s funeral.
Vargas called Filner “a piker compared to DeMaio.”
“Even Bob has never annoyed me that much,” he said.
Still, Filner doesn’t make it easy for those who remain unaligned.
Despite moving in local Republican circles for the past 40 years, lawyer Mike McDade has had warm relations with Filner. He served on Filner’s kitchen cabinet when he was first elected to City Council.
McDade supported Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher in the primary, but was undecided for the general election. Then McDade watched Filner protest Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs’ planned $45 million renovation of Balboa Park earlier this month.
McDade said he could handle Filner’s opposition to the project, but not the way he handled himself. Filner pondered the project’s fate if Jacobs died and ended his speech by calling up a costumed impersonator of park maven Kate Sessions to criticize the plan.
Filner said later that he used his traditional methods to point out that government decisions should drive philanthropy and not the other way around. But McDade called the congressman’s behavior “outrageous” and said it unnecessarily insulted the city’s largest benefactor.
“That convinced me at that point I could under no circumstances support him for mayor,” McDade said.
Weakness, Filner said, often drives his action. Most of his career on the school board, the City Council and in Congress, he’s been in the minority. When he’s there, he’s willing to yell, scream and even get arrested to make his point.
But if you examine the times he’s been in charge, he said, from his presidency of the school board, to when he controlled a City Council voting bloc, to when he was chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, his name disappears from the newspapers. The antics stop. The political philosophy switches from “creative tension” to just plain “creative.”
“I have a reputation, but I think people are going to find that the reality when I’m governing they’ll see a whole approach that will bring people together,” he said.
A quarter-century ago, Filner defeated a young firebrand attorney named Mike Aguirre to win his City Council seat. The race was so bitter that Aguirre sued Filner over a negative campaign ad afterward.
Later, the two became friends. When Aguirre became the city attorney in 2004, Filner paid close attention. Aguirre continued to fight anything and everything. Even though Filner thought Aguirre was right much of the time, he pleaded with Aguirre to take a less combative approach. It never happened and Aguirre’s behavior overshadowed his work. Aguirre turned supporters into enemies and got crushed after one term.
“He killed himself,” Filner said. “That’s not what I’m going to do.”
Correction: The original version of this story said Peter Navarro worked at UC San Diego instead of UC Irvine. We regret the error.
Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major supporter of Voice of San Diego.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5663.
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