Next up on the list of Reader’s Guides on the four major mayoral candidates: Democratic Congressman Bob Filner. Here’s what we’ve learned about Filner in the year-long campaign.
The Pitch to Voters
Filner’s the only Democrat in the race and he represents the biggest change from two decades of Republican leadership.
Three Big Issues
Whenever he can, Filner tries to make the case that he’s different from his three major opponents. His key issues, Democrat, neighborhoods and the port, all attempt to show a distinction in substance and emphasis from everyone else.
You might have heard that Bob Filner is a Democrat. He’ll tell you that himself multiple times in a television advertisement. In part, saying so is a simple strategy to make the November runoff. He’s the only Democrat running in a city that has a Democratic plurality. He has to make sure enough Democrats know that, and turn up to vote along party lines on Election Day.
But his liberal perspective isn’t just about his pitch to voters. He opposes a pension initiative, a ban on mandating union-friendly contract deals, outsourcing city services and the Convention Center expansion plan that all his opponents support. He’s more likely to talk about grand visions for homeless issues, mass transit and alternative energy than them, too.
Filner also builds his campaign of difference on transfering power from downtown to other neighborhoods. He wants to accomplish this plan by giving neighborhood activists more seats at the table in his administration than they have had previously. He wants to create redevelopment-like structures in various sections of the city to boost revitalization efforts. But, like many of Filner’s ideas, it’s unclear how he’d implement his proposal.
Filner’s economic development plan relies on a massive expansion of San Diego’s port. He believes that targeting the port will create more middle-class, sustainable jobs than the Convention Center expansion or permitting and fee cuts favored by his counterparts.
Filner’s political activism goes back a half-century.
As a college student in New York, he travelled to Mississippi to protest legalized segregation. He was arrested for integrating a bus station waiting room and spent two months in jail.
When he moved to San Diego to teach history at San Diego State, he became upset when the local school board was planning to close his children’s schools. So in 1979, he ran for school board and won.
That began a long tenure in San Diego politics. He later served on the City Council. Filner has spent the last two decades in Congress, representing California’s entire border area with Mexico.
His biggest accomplishments in Congress have come through his work on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. After Filner announced he was running for mayor, Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call examined his committee efforts (subscription required):
Veterans’ groups generally agree that Filner’s brash and abrasive in-your-face style of politics helped secure the significant funding increases the VA has enjoyed over the past several years. They also agree they need an advocate, such as Filner, to protect their interests as budget realities begin to catch up with programs once considered untouchable.
Filner’s biggest asset and liability during his time in San Diego politics has been his personality. Many longtime local officials have stories of fiery run-ins with Filner, not to mention that one time with an airport baggage attendant.
But he has a knack for fighting hard for those he represents.
We’ve termed the phenomenon, The Two Filners:
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.
Where Filner’s Weak
Before he entered the mayoral campaign, Filner had lots of swagger.
“Certainly, I’m the most qualified,” Filner said in November 2010, “and there’s no question I would win if I run.”
Now with the primary winding down, Filner has sounded a much more humble tone. He said he should have devoted more time to raising money, and his lackluster fundraising totals hurt his ability to communicate with voters. He underestimated Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher’s aggressive candidacy. The race, he said, is much closer than he thought it would be.
On issues, Filner hasn’t done himself many favors. He repeatedly promised a pension reform plan for 10 months before releasing one that mirrored proposals discarded in the early stages of the city’s pension crisis. At times, he’s shown a reckless disregard for the importance of fact, even for matters vital to his platform.
And compared to his opponents, Filner has taken less advantage of the media to spread his message, something particularly significant for campaigns that aren’t well funded. For the other campaigns, staffers and surrogates get quoted all the time. For Filner, it’s only him and it’s sporadic at best.
In all, Filner’s lack of campaign organization and failure to produce detailed policy proposals raise questions about his effectiveness in running a large American city.
He’s been on the trail constantly. Along with Fletcher, Filner has shown up to nearly every forum or debate all across the city since the fall. His affability, candor and humor have proven to be a refreshing departure from DeMaio and Fletcher’s more polished approaches and the times when District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has appeared detached from the race.
If you’ve been paying even slight attention to the race, you can’t miss Filner’s message. He’s different than everyone else.
In April, Filner flubbed basic facts about the Unified Port of San Diego, the center of his economic development plan. Filner refused to back down from his erroneous claims. To make matters worse, his cell phone rang during a television interview on the subject.
The incident epitomized what many had seen from him. He hadn’t taken the campaign seriously and failed to grasp the importance of facts underpinning his platform’s basic tenets.
Top Endorsements and a Snapshot of Filner’s Views
Filner’s Key Supporters: San Diego County Democratic Party, San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, former City Councilwoman Donna Frye, San Diego Municipal Employees Association.
You can quickly understand Filner’s positions on major city issues compared to his opponents through our mayoral scorecard.
How He Wins
Filner wins by having enough Democrats show up to the polls and getting them to pull the Democratic lever. The strategy isn’t automatic because there isn’t a “D” next to Filner’s name on the ballot. But Filner’s pitch remains the easiest of any of the four major candidates. At the start of the race, the numbers were in his favor. He just has to make sure they stay that way.
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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