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This post has been updated.
Four months ago, Mayor Bob Filner’s push for cross-border partnerships landed him a glowing profile on the front page of the New York Times.
Filner made the front page of the Gray Lady again Tuesday, this time on a different note: He’s missing in action as recall organizers gather signatures in hopes of ousting him.
Now Filner, who was named co-chair of the U.S.-Mexico Border Mayors Association in May and once dubbed himself “California’s border congressman,” seems unlikely to be remembered for bolstering San Diego’s relationship with Baja California – or to have accomplished much on that front.
Filner’s crumbling border efforts appear to be yet another piece of his legacy torn apart amid a series of allegations of unwanted sexual advances and other mounting scandals. Each erupted before he could follow through on much of what he promised.
Filner pleased border advocates within weeks of his inauguration when he hired Mario Lopez, a well-respected authority on border issues who has worked for both U.S. and Mexican politicians, to serve as his director of binational affairs.
A couple months later, the mayor showed off the city’s new office in Tijuana: a cubicle at the Tijuana Economic Development Corporation headquarters. That day, he suggested the two cities should host the first binational Olympics.
Those are his most tangible accomplishments.
He hasn’t led formal initiatives between San Diego and Baja California, or hosted the binational meetings he once proposed. His abrasive behavior during an April trade mission to Mexico City made headlines. And though the mayor claimed otherwise in a response to recall organizers, those binational Olympic dreams have been dashed for now.
There are also questions about whether Lopez will remain in his post. Patrick Osio, of the Mexico-American Chamber of Business in San Diego, recently emailed Lopez and City Council members urging Lopez not to resign. (Officials and business leaders, including City Councilman David Alvarez, say Lopez has continued to attend meetings in the city.) Lopez did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Filner hasn’t had much time to make a big impact on the border, and his recent troubles don’t help.
“He’s had a lot of quotes, a lot of discussion about it but what have you done in six months? It’s not a very long window,” said Denise Moreno Ducheny, a former state senator who has long advocated for improved border infrastructure and relations.
Mostly, she and other border advocates acknowledge, Filner simply utilized the power of the mayoral pulpit. Filner touted the importance of cross-border cooperation and shorter border waits and got national media exposure.
“Bob mega-phoned it,” Ducheny said. “Bob elevated the discussion and made sure it was loud enough that lots of people could hear it.”
Flavio Olivieri, executive director of the Tijuana Economic Development Corporation, agreed.
Business leaders have long heralded the economic benefits of cross-border partnerships, he said. “But having the mayor of San Diego echo that and say that he sees a benefit for San Diego to work closer with Tijuana, that amplifies the message. It caught the attention of media.”
Border advocates who spoke to Voice of San Diego this week are divided on whether binational efforts could suffer if Filner leaves office.
Oscar Romo, a UC San Diego lecturer who’s worked on both side of the border, said whispers about the sexual harassment allegations against Filner have slowed engagement between Baja and San Diego leaders.
And Filner’s initial efforts – while they sounded promising – may not be enough to ensure he leaves a legacy, Romo said. “It didn’t mature enough to make it something that another mayor or the citizens of San Diego will embrace. I really hope that a relationship will not deteriorate or that the attention will not shift to something else.”
Others are more optimistic.
Even Osio, who emailed Lopez to urge him not to quit, acknowledged he’s confident the binational affairs office wouldn’t disappear without Filner.
“That office has existed long before Filner came on board so I don’t think there’s any danger of losing that office,” said Osio, who said he sent the Aug. 12 email because he thinks Lopez can use his connections to take the city’s relationship with Mexican officials to the next level.
But Elsa Saxod, who twice served as the city’s binational affairs director, emphasized that the commitment to such efforts varies by administration.
San Diego first created an office of binational affairs in the mid-1970s. Under some mayors, the division was more focused on scheduling get-togethers than working on daily business or new initiatives. Others abandoned the office altogether.
Saxod said it would be best to keep binational affairs out of the mayor’s office.
“If San Diego truly believes that we want to move things forward then institutionalizing the office is important because while we’ve seen Mayor Filner show a great deal of interest, in the past some mayors have and some mayors haven’t,” Saxod said.
Alvarez committed to ensuring the office remains, whether it’s a standalone city department or filled by mayoral appointments. He thinks Filner’s emphasis on border issues made its existence more certain.
He’s also confident the Tijuana Economic Development Corporation will continue to offer space for the city’s Tijuana office. Olivieri, the group’s director, said Tuesday the corporation would provide the space as long as San Diego wants it.
As Filner has stepped out of the spotlight, Alvarez said he and others have attended events across the border to maintain relationships. Earlier this month, Alvarez and Council President Todd Gloria met with Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante and Mayor-Elect Jorge Astiazarán Orcí at Tijuana City Hall.
Still, Alvarez said, Filner’s absence could hamper efforts to improve relations.
“We probably lose time, we probably lose any momentum but that’s why we can’t give up. I’m not giving up. Others who have been really championing these issues are not giving up,” Alvarez said.
While Filner used his mayoral platform to emphasize border issues, what he promoted wasn’t revolutionary, Alvarez said. “Some of us had been working on this for some time and this mayor just decided to also make it part of his platform.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Patrick Osio.