Photo by Sam Hodgson
Bob Filner addresses the media at Trolley Barn Park in University Heights following his victory over challenger Carl DeMaio.
Thirteen years ago, Bob Filner openly pondered running for mayor of San Diego. In his view, San Diego had become dominated by Republican interests, and increasingly out of step with the city’s growing Democratic population. But Filner passed — he didn’t think he could win.
Seventeen months ago, Filner announced a mayoral bid expressing certainty that now was his time. The city has only grown more ethnically diverse and Democratic in the years since he had floated a bid.
Filner was right.
He defeated Republican City Councilman Carl DeMaio 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent, according to unofficial returns from the county registrar on Wednesday. Thousands of provisional ballots remain uncounted, but DeMaio conceded the race early Wednesday.
Filner’s victory highlights the rise of the Democratic Party in San Diego city government, one of the last bastions of Republicanism in California’s big cities. Before Filner, San Diego had not elected a Democratic mayor in two decades.
Filner, a 70-year-old congressman, rode a 13-point Democratic registration edge to victory. But Filner represents a break from past San Diego mayors that goes beyond party affiliation. Where his predecessors have been calm, moderate and pro-downtown, Filner is feisty, unabashedly liberal and pro-any-neighborhood-but-downtown.
DeMaio tried to paint Filner as too erratic to run the nation’s eighth largest city. DeMaio, 38, threw his superior knowledge of city issues, campaign organization and finances at Filner.
But Filner survived. The city was ready, he said, for a new direction.
“We are a city that is a majority of ethnic minorities,” Filner said during a victory press conference at a park in University Heights. “We are a city where the energy of small businesses, especially in the different ethnic groups, has changed who we are. We have a population that thinks more about liveability and walkability and bikeablity than we had before. I don’t think the downtown power structure, as I called them, was even aware of those changes.”
Throughout the campaign and in his victory speech Wednesday, Filner repeated a quote popularized by Bobby Kennedy: There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?
Fittingly, Filner spoke often of the big changes he envisioned for the city.
He said San Diego should end homelessness, provide public schoolchildren with before- and after-school programs and free public transportation and develop a new rapid bus system that runs with the frequency of a subway.
Filner wants to create 6,000 new jobs by expanding commerce at the Unified Port of San Diego’s cargo terminals and through growing related industries. He also wants to divert money from downtown interests to build up neighborhoods.
Those ideas, however, often came with few specifics, a major contrast between Filner and his opponent.
DeMaio deemed his 300-page budget and economic development plan a “Roadmap” for all the changes he wanted to make. Filner’s plan was more of an atlas — he offered broad ideas for voters to piece together themselves rather than telling them how he’d get there.
“He still has a ways to go to come forward with a real plan and a vision for how he sees the city going,” said Bill Wachob, a longtime Filner consultant who ran a pro-Filner PAC during the general election.
Among the many challenges Filner will face, he’ll have to mend fences with the business community.
Nearly every prominent business leader in the city eventually lined up behind DeMaio during the general election campaign. That includes Irwin Jacobs, the founder of Qualcomm, the city’s most prominent philanthropist and a prolific donor to Democratic causes.
Filner turned off Jacobs in July with an over-the-top performance at a City Council meeting in which he opposed Jacobs’ proposal to remake Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama. Filner later said he regretted his behavior and pledged to implement the plan if it receives court approval.
Vince Mudd, head of a business task force that recently examined city finances, said the business community will judge Filner by the people he hires for his cabinet.
“I don’t think Bob Filner can mend those fences by himself,” Mudd said.
Filner seemed to recognize that shortcoming at the beginning of the general election campaign. He offered a civic projects czar position to independent Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, a darling of business leaders who finished third in the primary. (Fletcher never answered).
Filner also announced Wednesday that Allen Jones, a vice president at developer H.G. Fenton Company, would lead his transition team. Jones previously served as Filner’s chief of staff when Filner was a councilman in the late 1980s.
Filner has also promised to bring in environmental, neighborhood, open-government and clean-energy advocates who have traditionally been excluded from the city’s power structure. Former Democratic City Councilwoman Donna Frye said she would accept a job offer Filner made during the campaign.
Filner’s ability to implement ideas likely became easier when Democratic City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner decisively won her re-election bid to continue representing La Jolla and other coastal areas.
Lightner’s victory gave Democrats a 5-4 council majority and ensured that Councilman Tony Young, a Filner endorser, will keep his job as council president.
The council majority will help Filner keep his pledge to select a more diverse group of people to serve on city boards and commissions. Supporters believe that will expand the city’s often small group of decision-makers, derisively referred to as the San Diego 20.
“The San Diego 20 becomes the San Diego 200,” said Lorena Gonzalez, a Filner backer who heads the region’s largest labor group. “I think that’s a good thing.”
The City Filner Inherits
In many ways, the era in which this election took place is an anomaly in San Diego politics.
The pension crisis hit almost a decade ago, buckling the city under the weight of numerous criminal and civil investigations, a mayoral resignation and a national reputation as “Enron-by-the-Sea.”
Filner missed most of that while he served in Washington, D.C. (though DeMaio often knocked him for drawing various pensions).
But the unrelenting focus on pensions and finances in city politics appears to be over.
Current Mayor Jerry Sanders will leave the city’s budget in much better shape than what he inherited, though another deficit seems probable next year. Proposition B, the June pension initiative, gave most new hires 401(k)s instead of pensions, likely putting the issue to rest for the time being. Though Filner opposed Prop. B, he’s pledged to implement it, including a pensionable pay freeze for city employees through mid-2018.
“Pensions, I think, are settled policy,” said Erik Bruvold, who heads the National University System Institute for Policy Research, a local right-leaning think tank.
And most experts believe the economy will perform better over the next four years than it did in the last four. That could return the focus of San Diego politics to one of the city’s traditional divides: development.
Fights over growth have defined mayoral elections going back a hundred years. In 1917, a candidate who favored industrial development nicknamed “Smokestack” beat one who favored tourism and recreational development nicknamed “Geranium.”
Housing could be one potential battleground here. San Diego has high housing costs and pressure from a projected population boom. But San Diegans also fear increased traffic and strains on parks and open space.
That stress is already evident in proposals to build as many as 2,000 new housing units on a concrete plant in Mission Gorge and apartments, shops and a new main street in Carmel Valley.
The proper venue to work these issues out is through blueprints that guide neighborhood growth, called community plans. But many of the plans haven’t been updated in years. Without overhauls and updates to community plans, individual projects can become lengthy one-off battles that poison relationships between developers and residents.
Filner and DeMaio spent little time debating these kinds of issues in depth. Filner said he wants re-establish a standalone city planning department and fund updates to community plans. In one longstanding community plan dispute between environmental and neighborhood activists and industrial businesses in Barrio Logan, Filner sides with activists.
Even if individual developments don’t rise to the forefront of city politics, big development ideas will.
A court is now deciding the legality of a hotel-room tax increase voted on by hoteliers to finance a $520 million Convention Center expansion. The city attorney has said chances are no more than 50-50 that a judge will OK the plan. If it fails in court, Filner has pledged to take the tax hike to a public vote.
Similarly, a group led by the regional Chamber of Commerce is eyeing 2014, when it hopes to put a ballot measure before voters for a major loan to finance repairs to decaying neighborhood infrastructure and new parks and other amenities.
The more than 10-year debate over a new football stadium for the Chargers likely won’t be resolved without a ballot measure, either.
And there’s the question of what to do with the struggling City Hall building. In the next two years, $12 million in leased office space for city employees will expire.
Diane Takvorian, the longtime head of public health advocacy nonprofit Environmental Health Coalition, had never before set up a PAC to support a candidate. But she did for Filner, targeting 35,000 voters in less affluent communities south of Interstate 8. She believes Filner will side with neighborhood interests when it comes to development deals.
“I think a Filner administration is going to fight for those dollars in the communities that need it,” Takvorian said.
How Filner Won
Filner likes to tout that he’s won a lot of elections in San Diego, proving that his constituents appreciate his passion and aggressiveness.
His political inspiration was Martin Luther King Jr. — Filner’s father helped fundraise for him — and Filner helped desegregate the South as a Freedom Rider in 1961.
Filner, a professor at San Diego State University in the 1970s, entered politics through the school district because he was upset at how board members treated him as a parent. He went on to the City Council and was elected to Congress representing southern San Diego communities in 1992.
He specialized in veterans’ issues and constituent services and also made waves with his style. During his third congressional term, he was arrested protesting outside the White House on behalf of Filipino World War II veterans.
Filner at first relied on the fact that he was the only Democrat in a four-way mayor’s race. As the campaign tightened during the spring, Filner conceded that he had underestimated Fletcher and that raising money was harder than he thought.
DeMaio’s campaign, which knew it had a better chance against Filner than Fletcher, even released an ad during the primary’s final days to help out Filner. It tied the congressman to Democratic President Barack Obama, who is popular in the city.
But the Democratic registration advantage weighed on DeMaio in the general election. His supporters stopped using the “D” word to define Filner.
“I never used ‘Democrat’ ever,” said Jennifer Jacobs, the consultant who ran DeMaio’s PAC. “No way. I’m not going to do their jobs for them.”
DeMaio scrambled furiously to the middle and sought to define Filner as an out-of-touch, entitled politician who lacked the temperament to run the city.
Filner briefly emphasized that he’d implement Prop. B, the Convention Center expansion and Jacobs’ Balboa Park plan, all of which he had initially opposed. But that message was lost during debates when Filner continued to bash all three.
Filner’s basic message never changed: He supports neighborhoods over downtown and greater spending on public services.
“He unapologetically stuck to his guns,” said Michael Zucchet, a Filner supporter who heads the city’s white-collar labor union.
Filner’s frequent missteps — flubbing basic facts about port operations, falsely accusing DeMaio’s partner of involvement in criminal vandalism at Balboa Park and refusing to take the stage at a debate after a coin toss dispute — didn’t sink him.
In a Wednesday morning concession speech, DeMaio said he was done in by the larger Democratic wave that swept Obama to re-election and other major Democratic victories across the country.
DeMaio said he wouldn’t have done anything differently during his campaign, and promised to stay involved in San Diego politics. Reporters asked what was next for him aside from that pledge.
“Sleep,” DeMaio said.
How Will Filner Achieve His Promises?
Filner has made many promises to many different constituencies. Some of them appear ripe for conflict.
He supports smart growth policies, which favor high-density development. But he’s also said neighborhood groups, which are traditionally wary of dense developments, should guide decision-making.
He promotes increased public transit. But he promised no new bus yards in Little Italy.
He wants a massive expansion of San Diego’s port cargo terminal. But he also backs neighborhood and environmental organizations that are most active in communities surrounding the port.
Filner has traditionally sided with activists. He’s David to the government/developers/utility companies’ Goliath.
But as mayor he’ll have to embody a new role. Filner won’t be fighting the man; he’ll be the man.
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.
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.
Like VOSD on Facebook.
Value investigative reporting? Support it. Donate Now.