Twenty years ago, Bob Filner was campaigning door-to-door in the Otay and Nestor neighborhoods in southern San Diego. He was running in a tough primary for a new U.S. Congressional district, the only one in San Diego dominated by Democrats and minorities.
Filner entered the house of a Filipino family and asked them to name their most important issues. Filipino World War II veterans, they told him. They began talking about promises the U.S. government had made to pay their full military benefits, promises that weren’t kept. Filner knew nothing about it.
A couple of houses later, Filner met another Filipino family. Their most important issues? Benefits, said an elderly World War II veteran.
At the next Filipino house, the message was the same. The fourth time he met a Filipino family, Filner was ready.
“I said, ‘Let me tell you what I’m going to do about Filipino veterans,’” Filner recalled.
Filner won that Democratic primary, leading to a two-decade career in Congress and now a bid for San Diego mayor. During his time in Washington D.C., he’s delivered time and again for veterans and his constituents. But he’s also seen his effectiveness blunted because of personality clashes.
The Filipino veterans issue epitomizes Filner’s Washington tenure. He was successful: In 2009, he helped secure $198 million for their benefits. He took care of his constituents: His district has one of the country’s largest Filipino populations. And he fomented conflict: According to a veterans advocate, Filner’s relationships with the Clinton administration suffered because of his forceful activism.
During 20 years in Washington D.C., Filner has built a reputation for being capable but brash, productive but isolated. He’s made a career by focusing on specific interest groups or even specific people. Part of this was by design. Filner learned that effective congressmen specialize and seized an opportunity to make veterans his cause. Filner also believed that district-centered congressmen get re-elected and involved himself personally in solving constituents’ problems.
But when he came to the nation’s capital, Filner said building relationships with his colleagues would be the key to his success. By his own admission, he has struggled.
Fellow San Diego Congressman Brian Bilbray, a longtime friend and Republican antagonist, said people in Washington D.C. will talk about Filner’s personality more than his accomplishments once he’s gone.
“He’s left his mark, good or bad,” Bilbray said. “But you know he’s left his mark.”
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered soldiers from the then-U.S. commonwealth of the Philippines to fight for the Allies.
Hours after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese invaded the Philippines. Eventually, at least 200,000 Filipinos fought alongside Americans in World War II. The then-U.S. Veterans Administration entitled all Filipino soldiers to American veterans benefits in 1942. But once the war ended, lawmakers reneged on the deal, instead spending money to rebuild the Filipino economy.
Over the decades, advocates and legislators tried to push the Filipino veterans cause without much success. But Filner’s election in 1992 brought a new and forceful supporter of the effort to Washington. Within five years, his drive for greater recognition gave him rock-star status in the Philippines. A Los Angeles Times reporter likened him to a Filipino Elvis.
The victories started to add up.
In 1999, Congress allowed the veterans to maintain a small U.S. government stipend if they moved back to the Philippines. Then came burial benefits and access to VA clinics. In 2009, Filner helped broker a deal to give the veterans up to $15,000 in a lump sum payment as part of the stimulus package. When it became law, elderly veterans so overwhelmed the VA office in Manila, the Philippines’ capital, that the line extended to the curb and grass outside.
Eric Lachica, executive director of the American Coalition for Filipino Veterans, called Filner “our most visible, strongest advocate in the House.”
“It wouldn’t have happened without his leadership,” Lachica said.
Filipino veterans benefits represent one of Filner’s hardest-fought successes. The major policy victories in his career have come on veterans issues.
Filner’s interest in veterans didn’t come from his own experience. He never served in the military, missing the Vietnam War because he was a student.
But when Filner arrived in Congress, departing California Sen. Alan Cranston advised him to get on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Cranston’s rationale was simple: Filner could show that dyed-in-the-wool liberals support veterans issues, burnishing his reputation in military-heavy San Diego.
Fate, as much as Filner’s interest, determined the rest.
During his early years in Congress, Filner worked on transportation, border and maritime issues as much as veterans. Then he noticed his spot was climbing on the veterans committee roster as other legislators begged off to seek more prominent assignments. Filner realized he could be a leader.
“Because it’s not considered a ‘juice’ committee — juice meaning you get campaign contributions — people try to move to other things,” Filner said. “I saw it as key for my city and my district.”
When Democrats won the House of Representatives in the 2006 elections, Filner had the most seniority of any Democrat on the veterans committee. He was elected chairman, giving him broad authority over the House agenda for veterans issues.
“Chance favors the prepared mind,” Filner said. “If you prepare yourself, you’re there to take advantage of it.”
While chairman, he helped secure advance funding for veterans benefits, sparing them the pain of federal budget delays, and significantly increased spending for veterans health care. Filner also shepherded a new GI bill to promote a college education for troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Veterans groups are worrying about a leadership vacuum once Filner is gone.
“I don’t see anybody in my travels that I’ve done that can stand up like he did,” said Bobby Price, the former head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in California.
Shiggy Yamada was riding a San Diego bus on his way to his off-the-books restaurant job in La Jolla one spring day in 2004. Border Patrol agents boarded for a random inspection. Yamada was an undocumented immigrant. All he had was a student ID. The agents detained him and threw him in an Otay Mesa jail.
Yamada’s mother moved from Japan on a student visa in 1992 when her son was 10. She became engaged to an American, but died in a car accident before she married. Adoption plans for Yamada by American relatives never materialized.
Facing deportation after the run-in, Yamada turned to Filner as a last resort. Yamada’s story moved Filner because he believed Yamada was unfairly caught up in bureaucracy. He sponsored what’s known as a private bill for Yamada. It helped keep Yamada in the United States and, if passed, would give him a path to American citizenship.
The chances of success were slim. No private bills for undocumented immigrants had become law in years.
But in 2010, after Filner had introduced Yamada’s bill six times and attracted the support of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, it passed.
“Without Congressman Filner’s assistance,” Yamada said, “I may not be here.”
Filner’s work for Yamada matches his own history in the civil rights movement: He fights to right wrongs done to individuals. It also helps explain his motivations as a lawmaker.
In recent years, Filner has sponsored more private bills, which deal with individual situations rather than broad policy, than anyone else in the House of Representatives, according to a report by Investigative Newsource. Often a private bill’s introduction is enough to stave off deportation for an undocumented immigrant like Yamada.
And Filner deals himself with the problems of many individual constituents, such as trouble securing food stamps or getting health insurance companies to pay for care. He relishes personally calling government and other bureaucracies to help break logjams.
“I get involved,” he said. “I make the calls. I go visit the people.”
Filner has had another reason to pay close attention to his district. He’s had to.
Unlike many members of Congress in safe partisan districts, Filner has had someone in his own party stalking his seat. Juan Vargas, a Latino lawyer, city councilman and state legislator, ran against Filner three times in 14 years.
Vargas’ last challenge came in 2006, after a round of redistricting that added rural, Latino-dominated Imperial County to Filner’s district. Filner learned to speak Spanish and began courting new interest groups and constituents. Filner beat Vargas in the county by 20 percentage points, and crowed the day after the election that Imperial was his base.
These fights only amplified Filner’s penchant for provincialism.
“His career in Congress was much more about preservation than it was accomplishment,” Larry Remer, Vargas’ longtime political consultant, said of Filner. “He’s a white, Jewish liberal in a Latino-majority district. He needed to make sure he could stay there.”
Filner’s commitment to Imperial County has continued. Bill DuBois, a business owner involved in the El Centro Chamber of Commerce for two decades, said he never voted for Filner because “he’s a flaming liberal.”
But DuBois said Filner’s office responded quickly to residents’ requests, from tours of the U.S. Capitol for school children or American flags for Eagle Scout troops.
“He was a fanatic about representing his district,” DuBois said. “His constituent services were second to none.”
Filner didn’t get along with former Congressman Duke Cunningham. Their takes on politics, Filner’s unfailingly liberal and Cunningham’s unfailingly conservative, couldn’t have been more different. But both shared pugnacious personalities.
At meetings, Bilbray said he would have to sit between Filner and Cunningham. For years, before Cunningham’s career imploded in a massive corruption scandal, Filner was at the disadvantage. Filner was the only Democratic congressman from San Diego and Republicans controlled Congress. He often was left out.
One time, Bilbray recalled, Filner approached him after the other San Diego congressmen had met together.
“Bob walked up to me and said, ‘Brian what does it take to get invited to the party?’” Bilbray said. “And I said, ‘Well probably you’re going to have to dress up like a piñata and let Cunningham hit you ‘til the candy falls out.’”
Filner’s time in Washington D.C. is littered with stories of feuds with politicians from both sides of the aisle resulting from Filner’s confrontational personality.
These fights frustrated what Filner believed would be the key to success when he first arrived in Washington: building alliances. While some, like the one with Cunningham, seem to have resulted in little more than humorous stories, others took their toll.
Job Nelson, who was Mayor Jerry Sanders’ liaison to federal and state legislators for four years, said Filner was near the bottom of lawmakers the city would contact for help.
“He managed to piss off so many people over the years that he didn’t have the relationships,” said Nelson, now chief of staff to Republican City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf.
Sanders often turned to Bilbray and San Diego Democratic Rep. Susan Davis for assistance even when the issue affected Filner’s district, Nelson said, including a recent push for speedier flood control permits in the Tijuana River Valley.
Even on the Filipino veterans issue, Filner’s personality hurt his cause. Lachica, the Filipino veterans advocate, said some Clinton advisors considered Filner’s approach on the issue pushy and unrealistic. Clinton’s VA secretary opposed many of the congressional bills and initiatives for the veterans that Filner backed, Lachica said.
Filner said relationship-building didn’t come easy for him. But he said it’s something he’s learned as he spent more time in Congress, especially as he knew it was vital to getting things done.
“I was more of an abstract thinker,” Filner said. “It was the ideas. I didn’t care about personalities and being friends with people, doing the small talk and all that. I was more of an intellectual. And I had to learn that lesson.”
But it appears he still has some learning to do.
Bilbray said working with Filner was “one of the greatest challenges I’ve had politically.” And Bilbray was the only member of the San Diego congressional delegation to respond to a request for comment about Filner. Davis, Filner’s Democratic colleague, has been silent on the mayor’s race.
Toward the end of a recent mayoral debate, Filner’s opponent, City Councilman Carl DeMaio, made a plea that the election focus on the candidates’ accomplishments.
Filner eagerly accepted the premise. As a 10-term congressman, Filner believes he has a clear advantage over the one-term councilman. Filner ticked off a list of his efforts in Washington D.C. that he said helped San Diego.
“We’re talking about tens of billions of dollars,” he said.
But often it’s hard to untangle Filner’s efforts on an issue from anyone else’s. And it’s hard to conclude how much his influence solved problems.
Take sewage at the U.S.-Mexico border. At the debate, Filner called building a treatment plant one of his accomplishments. But the reality is much more complicated. Early in his tenure, Filner helped secure funding for it. But it’s violated federal pollution standards ever since it opened. Later on, Filner’s solution, a privately owned plant on the Mexican side of the border, never was built despite years of Filner’s intense lobbying. Instead, the federal government paid to upgrade the original plant. The sewage is still flowing today and the plant still doesn’t meet federal standards.
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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