A day after she publicly announced the local Democratic Party wasn’t ready to turn its back on Mayor Bob Filner in the midst of a sexual harassment scandal, Chairwoman Francine Busby privately linked another Democrat to sexual harassment issues he was not involved in.

And now she wants to take at least part of what she said back.

An email obtained by Voice of San Diego raises questions about tensions caused by Busby’s dual roles as chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party and director of Run Women Run, a nonprofit group that promotes women political candidates.

After a tense central committee meeting of the Democratic Party last Thursday, members ultimately decided there wasn’t enough support to justify asking Filner to step down.  Busby played a key role in that decision by casting a tying vote and opting to kill a resolution that would have called for Filner’s resignation because of the clear divide within the group. At the time, no women had come forward publicly to accuse Filner of sexually harassing them.

Busby delivered the group’s decision to the press, becoming the public face of a party that, for the moment, was standing by its man.

One person who argued in favor of supporting Filner at the central committee meeting was Susan Peinado, president of the Point Loma Democratic Club. Peinado believes Filner should stay in office, and she spoke out against Busby and other party leadership in her comments at the meeting.

Busby emailed Peinado the next morning. She wanted Peinado to know something about a candidate in a different race, Lifeguard Sgt. Ed Harris, a Democrat who was planning to run for City Council next year.

At the time, Harris was running against another Democrat, Sarah Boot. Both would be challenging Republican Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, who currently represents District 6 but lives in the newly reconfigured District 2. Boot, a lawyer, has close ties to Busby. Boot’s a founding member of Run Woman Run, the organization Busby is paid to lead.

The Democratic Party hasn’t made an endorsement in the Council race.

In her email to Peinado, Busby alleges that Harris could face some of the same kinds of problems that are now embroiling the mayor. Busby wrote that supporting Harris could be problematic because “as a leader of the lifeguards, he will be associated with a culture that has a long history of discrimination against women.”

Busby also refers to “sexual harassment issues” in her email.

Busby included a link to a story about a woman lifeguard who sued the city over gender discrimination. Harris was not named in the suit, or deposed as part of it. His only connection to the suit seems to be working for the department where the discrimination took place. The lawsuit had nothing to do with sexual harassment.

Peinado had not expressed a preference between Harris and Boot, but Busby warned her in the email against supporting Harris.

“Whether or not you bring this issue to the attention of your members in the context of the impact that it will have on the election is your choice. If you don’t they may ask you if and when you learn of it and why you didn’t inform them and hold you responsible,” Busby wrote.

Peinado took Busby’s email as a threat and retribution for her critical comments about party leadership the night before.

“I realized she was hitting back at me because of what I said at the meeting,” Peinado told me.

Busby says she was merely putting the issue on the table for the sake of transparency.

“Some people in discussions about the mayor’s situation have voiced an opinion that party leaders had information that they didn’t share. I brought this to her attention so she would be aware of it,” Busby told me.

Unbeknownst to both Busby and Peinado at the time the email was sent, Harris had already decided to leave the race. He’d become increasingly worried about spending so much time away from his family, and his kids were starting to voice their reservations.

He called Boot Thursday evening to tell her he was pulling out. He introduced Boot at a Saturday gathering that was supposed to be his campaign kickoff party.

Even though he was out of the race, Harris was baffled when he learned the head of the party had tied him to gender discrimination cases (Busby refers to “sexual harassment issues” in her email, but the lawsuits she references were about discrimination in hiring and promotions, not harassment).

“I’d expect that from the Republicans, I’d expect it during the campaign, but to get it from your own party, it was clear she was trying to poison the well,” Harris said.

Harris said he’d met with Busby a couple months earlier to talk about the race, and that they discussed various issues facing Lifeguard Services. “It was clear she had researched cases against (Lifeguard Services)” before the meeting, Harris said. “There was no doubt she had an agenda.”

Busby admits she Googled Harris before their meeting. But only, she said, to prepare him for possible opposition research hits Republicans might use against him.

“I even gave him some advice on how to respond to it.  I never suggested then or now that Mr. Harris was guilty of anything,” Busby said.

Harris said he was angry when he saw Busby’s email to Peinado, because it mentioned a case he wasn’t involved in and that they never discussed in their meeting.

“Using that case was odd to say the least, but that was part of the strategy to raise questions about me,” he said.

Busby says the email was misunderstood.

Whether there’s a conflict in Busby’s dual roles as head of Run Women Run and chair of the Democratic Party is a question that has already been swirling as the Filner scandal unfolds.

Run Women Run released a statement urging Filner to resign; the Democratic Party opted against demanding a resignation. Run Women Run supports women from both parties, meaning it sometimes promotes Republican candidates.

Busby’s email to Peinado only amplifies those questions.

In raising “sexual harassment issues” she said would inevitably be connected to Harris, Busby was indirectly boosting Boot, who has ties to Run Women Run. But as head of the party, Busby had an obligation not to thwart a legitimate Democratic candidate, especially when the party hadn’t yet made an endorsement.

“As party chair, I do not take positions on races. I have known Sarah for several years. I also encouraged Ed Harris and said that he was a strong, viable candidate. It is unfortunate that the original intent of my message to Susan was misunderstood,” Busby said.

I asked Busby whether she did similar research on Boot, and whether she provided Peinado or others with potential material that could be used against Boot by opponents, the way she did in the email about Harris.

“I am not doing opposition for anyone.  I have been very clear that I am not supporting anyone nor can I endorse anyone,” she said.

Peinado was unconvinced.

“There’s a question of where her loyalty is. I don’t see how she could have loyalty to two groups,” she said.

The Democratic Party is set to vote again Thursday evening on whether to urge Filner to resign.

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Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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