Mayoral candidate Bob Filner told me for a recent profile that he was “genetically programmed” for a role in the country’s civil rights movement. It began when he was a toddler.

Filner said his dad, Joe Filner, volunteered for the Army in World War II. Joe Filner was in Italy when word came back that the Army needed Yiddish speakers to help liberate the Jewish concentration camps. He went. The experience moved him; he wrote long letters to Bob, who was 2 years old.

Joe Filner had concluded that the prison camps were the logical result of racism and he decided to dedicate the rest of his life to fighting discrimination.

Filner cited his father’s influence in his decision to head to Mississippi as an 18 year old in 1961 to protest segregation in the South. Filner said he was timid growing up, but everything was different after the experience, known as the Freedom Rides.

“All of a sudden this completely introverted nerd had something to talk about,” Filner said. “It changed my life personally. I did something that was really worthy. Even my father and mother realized. They were very hard to please.”

Bob Filner’s mug shot from 1961 Freedom Ride (Photo Courtesy Bob Filner for Mayor)

Joe Filner, who died in 2000, ran in some high-level circles. He was a businessman and labor organizer in New York and befriended a man named Stanley Levison. A New York lawyer, Levison had been a financier of the Communist Party USA and became the closest white advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr.

The bond between Levison and King is a fascinating story. It was because of Levison’s Communist Party ties that U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy authorized the FBI to wiretap King’s telephones in 1963. But a 2002 article in the Atlantic magazine argues that the FBI was aware that Levison had broken off his connections with the Communist Party by that point.

As part of its surveillance, the FBI also has transcripts of wiretapped conversations between Levison and Joe Filner.

And it caught a curious incident involving Bob Filner.

According to declassified reports from Levison’s FBI file, Levison approached Michigan Congressman John Conyers in June 1968 to ask for a job for “Bobby” Filner.

Conyers said he could give Filner a job in his congressional office, but couldn’t pay him, the report said. Levison relayed the information to Joe Filner. The report said this happened next:

Filner questioned what the salary for the post in Conyers’ office would be and Levison stated it would be about $12,000.00. Filner also questioned whether it would be  dishonest to make a contribution to Conyers in this amount and Levison, although he felt it would not be dishonest, recommended that Filner establish a research grant for one of the persons on Conyers’ staff thereby allowing Bobby to replace him.

The report, which is partially redacted, doesn’t say if the deal happened. And Filner said it didn’t.

Filner said he applied to work in Conyers’ office in 1965, but didn’t get the job. By the time of the 1968 report, Filner was studying for his doctorate at Cornell University in upstate New York and wasn’t looking for work.

He knew nothing about the referenced exchange and was surprised to know any report even existed.

“One, it’s very strange and I don’t have any knowledge of it,” Filner said. “But two, why would the FBI care whether I’m getting a job or not? I’m 26. Why are they worrying about following what I’m going do? Jeez. You’d think they have more important things to do.”

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 or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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