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After almost a year and a half, San Diego’s mayoral campaign ends Tuesday.
Here’s our Reader’s Guide on Democratic Rep. Bob Filner, which reviews all you need to know about him before you vote. Yesterday, we published our take on Filner’s opponent, Republican City Councilman Carl DeMaio.
The Pitch to Voters
As the city’s first Democratic mayor in two decades, Filner would bring a new direction to City Hall. He would focus on neighborhood priorities instead of large downtown projects and public services rather than initiatives that support private interests. His 30-plus years in local politics show that he has the experience and passion to advocate aggressively for San Diegans.
Three Big Issues
Like DeMaio’s, Filner’s big issues haven’t changed throughout the campaign. Filner has emphasized his party affiliation, neighborhoods and port commerce. Unlike DeMaio, Filner has expanded and amplified his messages on all three rather than trying to soften his image.
Filner’s political party provides a stand-in for all the ways he’ll be different. He promises to focus more attention on more progressive causes such as affordable housing, rejects tourism as the city’s primary economic development strategy and says he’ll surround himself with environmental, open-government and renewable-energy advocates traditionally ignored by the city’s power structure.
Filner wants to shift the city’s policy emphasis and money away from downtown to neighborhoods. He proposes funneling money from the unwinding of the state’s redevelopment program away from downtown to outlying areas. It’s unclear, however, how much of that cash will be available for him to use.
Filner has tied DeMaio to downtown through his opponent’s support of a tax increase to fund the proposed Convention Center expansion and a hotel-room tax extension for tourism promotion.
Filner’s economic development plan relies on expanding commerce at the Unified Port of San Diego’s cargo terminals. He calls the port the best opportunity the city has to create thousands of middle-class jobs. But maritime experts say the port’s prospects for growth are much more limited. Filner hurt his cause in the spring when he botched basic facts about port operations. More recently, he’s released some more details about his ideas.
In general, however, Filner providing details on his plans is more an exception than the rule. Big questions about how he’d finance or accomplish many of his ideas remain unanswered.
The experience Filner gained as a teenager shaped the rest of his political life. In 1961, he traveled to Mississippi as part of the Freedom Rides to end legalized segregation in the South. His approach of problem solving through direct confrontation defined his political career.
But when Filner’s off, like during his 2007 run-in with an airport baggage clerk, he can come off as overly aggressive or entitled. (Filner also misrepresented the incident in a radio interview during this campaign.) Here’s how we explained Filner’s two sides in our July profile:
For him, the labels are the byproduct of an activist approach honed during the height of the country’s civil rights movement, one that incites confrontation to defend the powerless. Filner’s a fighter, and fighters have to bruise to win. …
But often people have focused more on Filner’s personality than the change he wants to create. He’s fought two of the longest feuds in San Diego’s recent political history, paid a court-ordered fine for haranguing an airport baggage clerk and gone out of his way during the campaign to antagonize debate moderators and potential allies. …
It’s not his positions — even liberal detractors say they agree with him almost all the time. It’s him.
Filner has spent the last 20 years representing southern San Diego communities in Congress. He made his mark on veterans’ issues and by helping individual constituents, we found in our September profile on his tenure in Washington, D.C. But Filner’s impact in other areas is less clear and his personality at times overshadowed his accomplishments.
How He’s Changed Since The Primary
After two strong, opposing partisans emerged from June’s primary, the conventional wisdom was that both candidates were going to move to center. DeMaio’s certainly tried to do that.
At first, Filner looked like he was going that way, too.
In the primary, Filner was vehement about his opposition to the Proposition B pension initiative, the financing plan for the Convention Center expansion and a proposal from Qualcomm founder and Democratic philanthropist Irwin Jacobs to remake Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama. After the voters or the City Council approved them all, Filner started to emphasize that despite his misgivings, he would faithfully implement them. Filner also hired Tom Shepard, a Republican political consultant who guided three out of the last five mayors into office with moderate pitches.
But as time wore on, the “I’ll implement it” message got lost amid Filner’s continued distaste for all of the efforts. He continued to rail against them during debates and forums. He muddied his pension position by going back and forth on a borrowing scheme and then falsely saying he abandoned it immediately after the primary. He used DeMaio’s support for the Convention Center expansion plan as one of the centerpieces to his argument that the councilman backs downtown interests over the public. And Filner’s City Council performance against the Plaza de Panama plan had to have helped push Jacobs toward endorsing DeMaio.
Filner is ending the general election campaign much closer in message and style to where he was in June than DeMaio.
Filner shows up anywhere and everywhere. Counting the primary, he probably attended more than 50 mayoral debates and forums all over the city. He danced in Zumba classes in Barrio Logan and pedaled through Little Italy and Old Town on a bike tour.
He’s much less polished than DeMaio, but was also more willing during the campaign to admit when he was wrong or could have handled a situation differently. Filner comes across as much more human than his opponent.
Filner had many missteps.
There’s his lackluster fundraising: Filner’s campaign is more than $140,000 in debt, according to the most recent filings. His digressions and difficulties with facts and details during debates have come back to haunt him.
But let’s focus on an issue that was a toss-up going into the general election: Which candidate’s personality was going to be more of a liability?
Filner has a ready-made response to the charge that he’s too antagonistic: His passionate, decisive action helped end legalized segregation in the South.
But Filner’s actions on the trail allowed DeMaio to push the narrative that Filner is unstable.
Among other things, he falsely accused DeMaio’s partner of criminal involvement in a Balboa Park vandalism incident, told the metro columnist at the region’s largest newspaper to “get out of my face” and started a silly flap over a coin toss at a debate.
DeMaio also used a quotation attributed to Filner — “I’m a congressman and can do whatever I want” — to sell Filner’s volatility time and again. Filner contends that the line was less a clear-cut case of him asserting congressional privilege for personal gain than aggressive advocacy for a constituent.
In short, Filner either never realized that he was losing the temperament war or more likely didn’t care.
A Snapshot of Filner’s Views
You can quickly understand Filner’s positions on major city issues compared with DeMaio’s through our mayoral candidate scorecard. The scorecard also has links to more detailed stories on Filner’s policies.
How He Wins
Two words: Hold on.
The city’s demographics overwhelmingly favor Filner. Registered Democrats have a double-digit edge over registered Republicans and by all accounts, Democratic President Barack Obama will win the city by double digits over Republican challenger Mitt Romney. If enough Democrats vote Obama-Filner and enough independents are swayed by Filner’s neighborhoods vs. downtown message, the mayorship is his.
The Bottom Line
Back before the primary, we wrote that Filner’s “lack of campaign organization and failure to produce detailed policy proposals raise questions about his effectiveness in running a large American city.”
It’s hard to see how much of that has changed since June. Filner’s consistently struggled to grasp the import of the city’s most significant issues, even the ones he raised himself like port commerce.
There’s no doubt Filner will preside over a much different City Hall than San Diego’s seen for a long time. Exactly what it might look like, though, remains less clear than it could have been.
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 email@example.com 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.
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