WASHINGTON, D.C. | Rep. Bob Filner has gotten himself into some interesting situations during his time in Congress — arguing with fellow congressmen, disputing presidents, raising hell and getting thrown in the slammer.

But recently in Washington, Filner was on the phone with his constituents in a conference call with whoever wanted to call his office from San Diego and Imperial counties. Filner was as smooth as still water. With caller after caller, there were no disagreements, just total love fest, warm and soothing.

“Did I pronounce your name right?” he politely asks one woman. To another man, Filner checks in about that day’s nice temperate climate in usually hot El Centro and notes “sol” is Spanish for sun.

Another man has mortgage problems, fearing his house may soon be lost to foreclosure.

“Please call my office tomorrow, I would like to help you work with your bank,” Filner says. To another caller worried about his safety net of health coverage, Filner bluntly asserts, “Insurance companies get away with murder.”

His even-keeled talks with constituents, and his history of quarreling with the establishment, underscore the two Filners in Congress. There is the Filner who is a cantankerous curmudgeon with his colleagues, news media and even presidents, the one who is assertive and downright blunt. Then there is the Filner who listens to and works hard for his constituents.

He’s had to.

The congressman who is far more liberal than many of his fellow Democrats has seen his district become more and more diverse, including a large increase in the Latino population.

Filner’s had to keep a lock on his job the old-fashioned way — working the streets, attending festivals and celebrations, learning as much Spanish as he could, and taking on a signature issue — veterans — that embraces both Democrats and Republicans.

Outreach in a Diverse District

Over the years, Filner’s district has evolved, and he has sought to keep up.

The 51st district looks a little like Massachusetts upside down, a string from Chula Vista and southern San Diego along the border with Mexico through a big stretch of Imperial Valley through Yuma. One of the most ethnically diverse districts in the nation, the district’s population is 53 percent Latino, 21 percent white, 15 percent Asian and 11 percent black.

Filner has been able to reach out to conservative Latinos and Filipinos and make them his own. His supporters say an exhaustive work ethic is responsible.

When he’s in his district, away from Washington D.C., Filner’s schedule is often grueling.

One Saturday in August, for instance, Filner began his day discussing health-related issues with a constituent, from 9:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. He ended it at 9 p.m. after being a keynote speaker at a United Veterans Council Gala, in which he discussed pending legislation affecting veterans.

It was a virtually nonstop day for Filner, according to his staff. During the day, he presented a flag at an Eagle Scout ceremony in National City, rode in a San Ysidro Health Center float at the San Ysidro Centennial Parade, spoke at a Fiesta del Sol Community Festival in San Ysidro, met with at least four constituent representatives to discuss veterans issues, and border infrastructure, and attended a Democratic Club potluck dinner before attending the veterans gala.

Waynee Lucero, Filner’s community representative in Chula Vista, called the congressman’s day in the district “average.”

“This is pretty typical,” she added.

Jesse Durfee, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party, said Filner and his staff “are phenomenal at working with constituents.”

“They don’t let anything go without a response or explanation,” Durfee said. “Filner is also tireless at coming back to the district on weekends, being absolutely everywhere. I’ll see him more where I live and it’s in Susan Davis’ district.”

Filner acknowledges that a congressman’s hold on his seat can be tentative at any time, especially when there isn’t enough attention paid to the local district. Filner is quick to remind anyone about the lesson offered unwittingly by the late Sen. J. William Fulbright, who was the seemingly all-powerful head of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee yet lost his bid for nomination in Arkansas 30 years after first elected.

“He was probably the most important (senator) and they kicked him out,” Filner said. “He never went home.”

With population changes in many districts, representatives have no choice but to adapt to what their constituency demands — to succeed, according to Mary Beth Sullivan, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based California Institute for Federal Policy Research.

“The ones that lose sight of that are more likely to be unseated,” Sullivan said.

‘Yelling and Screaming Is an Expression of Weakness’

From the beginning in his tenure in Congress, Filner got into verbal scraps with his elders in Congress, rubbed some members the wrong way, and got arrested occasionally in San Diego over civil disobediences, a throwback to June 12, 1961 when he was arrested as one of the Freedom Rider protestors who rode together on buses and spoke out against civil injustice.

Some of Filner’s run-ins aren’t for the greater good. In August 2007, he was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault and battery after he entered an off-limits baggage area at Washington Dulles International Airport. Filner was upset that his luggage had not appeared, so he entered a restricted area to retrieve his luggage and pushed aside an airport baggage attendant. The charge was subsequently reduced to trespassing and he was fined $1,000.

Those hotheaded days may not be quite over, but Filner insists he’s changing, especially in Washington, learning the ways of the Capitol after all these years. Relationship building is among the ingredients, he says. In the eight years Bush was in office, Filner would wait for Bush to say something about immigration or defense and he would pounce, unleashing a litany of verbal tirades.

“With the Democrats in charge, there is a greater responsibility in that you have to govern,” said Filner, 67, a former San Diego city councilman and history professor at San Diego State. “It’s easier to throw verbal bombs and be in the minority. I’m happier getting thing done. Yelling and screaming is an expression of weakness.”

As Republicans look ahead to unseat Filner, they insist they see weaknesses, and party leaders contend they have their best chance in years to challenge the veteran congressman in 2010.

“He’s a very hard worker and willing to pander to his constituents,” said Michael M. Rosen, secretary of the San Diego County Republican Party. “But I think this is our most promising year since 1994. The economy is in deep trouble and people blame the White House and the Democrats.”

Closer to home, “both in San Diego and Imperial counties, there are many Latinos and they generally tend to line up with Democrats, but that doesn’t make them liberal. I think the congressman is out of touch with them with the most liberal voting record in the House,” Rosen added.

Nick Popaditch, a decorated Marine, is one of the contenders vying for the GOP nomination to face Filner.

“Bob Filner has been in office too long and he has become the master of misleading the voters. He says he supports the unions, but he votes for cap and trade. He says he supports the traditional families of our community, but votes for abortion funding,” he said.

Popaditch, 42, became famous worldwide after an Associated Press photographer captured him in Baghdad smiling and smoking a cigar with the fallen statue of former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein in the background. Known as “Gunny Pop” Popaditch, he was awarded the Silver Star for combat operations in Fallujah, where he was blinded in one eye by a rocket propelled grenade to the head. He took a medical retirement in 2005 for his injury.

But Filner gets things done and his staying power has been credited to how well he stays connected to his constituents. “Filner stays in [office] because he delivers to his constituents — military, Hispanic, unions, small business,” said Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego’s Mesa College.

As chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Filner “has as much influence on vet policy as anyone in the country,” Luna said.

Although the district is increasingly Latino, Filner has been able to maintain support among them. Key challenges put forth by Latino candidates over the years have fallen short. The most serious was that of former San Diego councilman Juan Vargas, who challenged Filner in 1992, 1996 and 2006. Filner maintains his leadership has done the job.

The Veterans Committee chairmanship has lifted Filner to being more of a national figure. Filner acknowledged that he doesn’t go home as much as he used to, only about “half the time.”

“Obviously, there are competing demands for the job, always more to do,” he said. “My slogan is you always stay in touch with your constituents. They want to see you and touch you.”

Joe Cantlupe covers San Diego issues in Washington, D.C. Please contact him directly at joecantlupe@yahoo.com.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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