It was Nov. 15. The USS Mayor’s Race had finally passed but we were still rocking in its wake. The city was only beginning to understand how much it had changed us and how fast.
Walt Ekard, the chief executive at the county of San Diego, was having a reception for his retirement at the US Grant downtown. Elected officials, their staffs and loads of local elites packed into the room: the departing mayor, the sheriff, the district attorney, Ekard’s replacement, the county supervisors and a bevy of lobbyists, consultants and government officials.
The first person I saw when I walked in was Bob Filner. He was alone. Although he was the new mayor-elect, the room did not tilt to him. Frankly, he and I both seemed out of place, and we started a conversation.
Irene McCormack, a vice president at the port, approached us and congratulated him. They knew each other and clearly had something to discuss. Before I left them, I made a joke that the two needed to plan for Filner’s vast overhaul of the port. Remember, the port was the centerpiece of Filner’s economic plan.
McCormack left and Filner was again alone. I asked him whether he had persuaded Ekard to be his chief operating officer. He tried, he said, but he couldn’t get Ekard to take the job.
As planned remarks began, Filner was called to the front. He made a couple jokes to the crowd. They didn’t land well.
That wasn’t that long ago. Yet the list of how things have changed since then is dizzying.
McCormack ended up enthusiastically taking a job, and a pay cut, with Filner. She wanted to be part of his progressive neighborhoods revolution. She became his director of communications — an intense role managing the press in a system where the mayor speaks for almost the entire city government.
Filner then subjected McCormack to relentless come-ons and sexual harassment, she claimed Monday.
Then there was Ekard, who would not take Filner’s offer months ago. Now he’s on board.
How things change.
A lot of us were taken aback when we heard that the first accuser to stand up and speak out in person was McCormack. She was a journalist for many years. And then she was the journalists’ liaison at the port.
She advanced at the port. She oversaw the port’s lobbyists and flew to Washington D.C. frequently to meet with people like then-Rep. Filner.
But McCormack was in a tough spot as Filner’s employee. The mayor is a notorious micromanager and he was clearly unaccustomed to the microscope he was under and the sheer volume of press questions he’d have to handle.
Everything went through him; every statement, every question, no matter how benign. The result was that, whether by choice or incompetence, the press corps was shut out. We couldn’t get basic information, let alone tough questions answered. This led me to appeal, often frustrated, to McCormack.
Needless to say, we ended up talking often as I tried to press her to improve things not just for our reporters but for the city.
As we talked, I asked why she took the job. She told me she had wanted to work for an elected official for some time. During the campaign, she let Filner know she’d be interested. And when the offer came, she was delighted.
It was a perfect fit. Then it wasn’t.
Perhaps the most illuminating scene she painted Monday was what happened when Allen Jones, Filner’s longtime ally and deputy chief of staff, walked out of the office during a policy meeting.
It was a scene of which we had only gotten very vague descriptions.
But in the lawsuit, McCormack offered a more detailed view of the amazing confrontation from her point of view.
Here’s how it went in her memory: Jones interrupted the policy meeting at its start, McCormack claims.
Jones reminded the mayor that they had been friends for 35 years. He said the mayor was running the office terribly. According to the complaint, Jones said, “You are treating women in a horrible manner. What you are doing may even be illegal.”
Until this, we had only heard that the mayor was demanding and humiliating to his staff. If this is true, Jones was also addressing Filner’s specific behavior toward women and offering a precursor to the discussions about whether what he was doing was actually sexual harassment.
To which the mayor said maybe Jones just didn’t want to be there. Jones agreed and left. McCormack said she stood up and said she agreed with Allen.
“Really Irene, give me just one example, I dare you,” the mayor responded, according to the complaint.
“How about when you said I should take my panties off and work without them?” McCormack said she replied.
Do you remember that day? That was the day the mayor told me, after a panel I moderated with him, that Jones had not quit. Officers had merely helped him carry some boxes he was moving, Filner told me.
An already interesting day seems to have been almost historic, in retrospect. The panel I moderated with the mayor and British magnate Richard Branson began first with a movie.
McCormack was there before and after to help Filner deal with the press and logistics. I had heard that she quit or was fired, so I asked her about it. She wouldn’t say anything. I tweeted that she must not have left because, after all, here she was working for him.
When he arrived, after the movie began, McCormack directed Filner to his seat.
She had walked out of what she now says was the worst experience of her professional life.
But she still helped him deal with one last remote event and the journalists who had come to it.
As the movie played, the mayor slept soundly.
Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit that depends on you, our readers. Please donate to keep the service strong. Click here to find out more about our supporters and how we operate independently.