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As a 10-term congressman, Bob Filner was best known for his willingness to fight, particularly for veterans.

Now he’s etching out a new national profile as a border mayor, a path widened by the latest debate over immigration reform.

Filner, who pitched a binational Olympic bid with Tijuana in his early months in office, has become a go-to for East Coast reporters who want to tell the story of life on the border and explain the potential impacts of immigration reform.

The irony is that Filner once served as co-chair of the Congressional Border Caucus and dubbed himself “California’s border congressman” but those titles didn’t translate into much legislation, as iNewsource found in a 2011 review of Filner’s congressional record.

He sometimes spoke out about border-related concerns such as funding for border infrastructure but other issues took a higher priority.

That changed when Filner became San Diego’s mayor.

On Inauguration Day, Filner greeted the crowd in English and Spanish and declared he’d work daily to improve cross-border relations and alleviate the long lines that hamper cooperation.

Filner’s new identity became all but official last week when he was appointed co-chair of the U.S.-Mexico Border Mayors Association, a post he now shares with Mexicali’s mayor.

National media coverage helped Filner establish himself as an authority on border issues.

National Journal highlighted Filner’s willingness to criticize the Obama administration’s characterization of life on the border during the U.S. Conference of Mayors convention in January.

“The level of abstraction here is incredible,” (Filner) said, following comments by Walter Bastian, the Commerce Department’s deputy assistant secretary for the Western hemisphere. “You’re pleading with us to help. I mean every one of us here would say, ‘Hey, listen to us.’ We’re there, we know the problems, you should be talking to us. Don’t plead with us to help you.”

Filner made national news again with his suggestion that San Diego and Tijuana submit a binational Olympic bid for 2024.

Filner conveniently brought up the idea when he opened the city’s office in Tijuana in February. By April, the story made national headlines.

Outlets including USA Today, The Christian Science Monitor and dozens more carried stories about the long-shot Olympic bid.

Next up was a glowing New York Times profile on the mayor’s cross-border efforts.

Filner’s arguments for improved infrastructure at the border and increased binational cooperation got front-page billing. The story also noted that Filner hasn’t gotten any pushback from opponents in his attempts to promote partnerships with cities in Baja California.

“We need to make the border the center, not the end — but the biggest problem we have is not security, it is openness and communication,” Filner told the Times.

Filner’s new profile as a border mayor was also highlighted in a May 23 chat on HuffPost Live.

Host Josh Betts’ introduction of Filner acknowledged that identity.

“Dozens of trans-border communities are thriving from San Diego all the way down to the Rio Grande Valley and one man who is looking for ways to maximize the benefits of cross-border collaboration is of course, the mayor of San Diego, Bob Filner,” Betts said.

Filner, who appeared via webcam, spoke about the long lines at the border and the “stupid” policies that all but ensure their existence.

“We can do this differently and that’s what I’m trying to get across to our federal government,” Filner said.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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