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As the scandal about Mayor Bob Filner’s alleged sexual harassment of employees and women in public affairs hit its peak, I heard the same thing over and over.
“How embarrassing!” National, even international, reporters were suddenly keeping tabs on our politics. We were supposed to feel bad about our burg by the bay. Again.
It was as though Filner’s admitted “failure to respect women” was our own. Filner himself tried to spare us. “It was brought on by my own frailties. The biggest monster is inside of me.”
Yet of course, as a people supremely obsessed with our image, we all had to be the victims. We may not have put someone in a headlock or asked them to work without their underwear, but we elected someone who supposedly did!
Bah. Get over it. I’m proud of our city. Here’s why.
Democrats waited 20 years for a mayor of their own. This city’s demographics have been trending left for some time, but the mayor’s office was Republican domain. Until 2012.
This was the Democrats’ election. Filner was a disorganized mess as a candidate. But he had boundless energy. Labor and activists, many of whom were furious with other questions on the ballot and excited to support President Obama, kept him afloat. Even Carl DeMaio, Filner’s Republican rival, let his team help Filner “run the campaign he wasn’t capable of” to get him through the primary.
It was the exact set of ingredients Filner needed to become mayor. And he became a strong mayor, the chief executive of the city. As he soon proved, he could wield power for Democrats in ways nobody ever imagined.
He may be an ass, but he was the Democrats’ ass. Until he wasn’t.
It wasn’t angry Republicans who dealt a crippling blow to Filner. It wasn’t developers or hotel owners.
It was Donna Frye, and dozens of liberals following her. She hasn’t always fit perfectly with allies on the left, but she ultimately belongs there. She steadfastly supported Filner in the campaign, even as some pushed her to support the leftward marching Nathan Fletcher.
She went to work for Filner. And then, months after they parted ways, she stunned us all with hints of something awful the mayor had done. She called on Filner to quit. His treatment of women had so jarred her that she said he had no other option. It was so powerful, it led Filner to acknowledge he needed help.
And that was enough to raise a million eyebrows. Help for what? Who responds to allegations like that with “I need help”?
Obviously, conservatives teed off on the mayor. But it was his allies, down to his closest staff and friends, who made the story.
Why am I proud? Because we live among citizens who won’t tolerate this kind of behavior from their civic leader, regardless of how inconvenient it is politically. We live in a place that stood up for its women who want to be involved in public affairs and said they should not be made to feel like these women did.
That brings up the other question we heard a lot at Peak Scandal: “How could this only be coming out now?” There are probably many answers. Some may not make the Democrats look very good.
But there’s also this answer: Things like this need leaders. Every movement needs a spark. This is how human history works: Even if a bunch of people know, someone has to be brave enough to say it. In this instance, Frye was that spark. Filner should thank her.
This commentary also appeared in the September 2013 issue of San Diego Magazine.