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Until partway through his speech explaining his resignation, Mayor Bob Filner had not embraced the rhetoric of his most enraged supporters, some of whom claimed in corners of the internet that he was the victim of a lynch mob.
Until that moment, when asked if this was some plot against him, he had said no, it was brought on by his own frailties. He had a monster inside of him, he said.
“The city should not have been put through this. And my own personal failures were responsible. And I apologize to the city,” he said.
Then it suddenly changed.
“Those of you in the media and in politics who fed this hysteria I think need to look at what you helped create. Because you have unleashed a monster,” he said.
The monster was now someone else’s responsibility. He said a lynch mob had come for him. After apologizing to the victims, it was suddenly he who was the victim.
It was, he said, “the removal of a democratically elected mayor purely by rumor and innuendo.”
He called it a “coup.”
So if he was responsible for it, and it was a coup, was he responsible for his own coup?
Filner anticipated this question and explained it like this:
“People opposed me from the beginning. They found the weapons they needed in my own failures as a human being. But they found those weapons. And they used them. In a bloody and vicious way. You’re going to have to deal with that if you care about democracy,” he said.
Filner’s right that his enemies seized on his failures and pushed them. But what was crazy about this story from the beginning was that the calls to resign came from people closest to him.
People like David Alvarez, the Democratic City Councilman who helped Filner negotiate through his standoff with the hotel owners. Alvarez, at first, accepted Filner’s apology only to say almost immediately that he heard directly from a victim of the mayor’s “failures.”
And then he immediately advised the mayor to resign, right to his face.
Looking back, it seems Filner’s fate was sealed the moment he said “I need help” and “I have failed to fully respect the women who work for me and with me.”
That was the day his former ally and director of open government, Donna Frye, demanded he resign after leveling vague and unspecified accusations about him sexually harassing women. The message from her and the two lawyers she lined up with was basically: We know what you did. You know what you did. We discussed this. You need to resign.
It was stunning. All eyes turned to him. What would he say?
He handed out DVDs with scripted video message. He did not say he had no idea what she was talking about. He did not say this was an absurd attack coming out of nowhere.
He said “I need help.”
It was at that point that a shocking story exploded. It became a full-blown national scandal. What exactly did he need help for? What did he do?
Then came more detailed accusations. To handle this, he would need, first of all, not to have done anything like what was said. And he would also need an extremely talented communications and political team.
Instead, his staff unraveled.
He had no communications team. He lost two chiefs of staff. Every single public appearance brought on more questions than answers.
Part of the reason he struggled so much was the message he offered was terrible. He did something “inexcusable” and yet we were supposed to excuse it. He needed intensive therapy, and had failed to fully respect women, but he would be able to lead the city toward a progressive future. He was sorry for what he had done to women but, you know, nothing about what they said was verified.
That is what will haunt him most from the speech. He gave the victims a sincere apology:
“To all the women that I offended, I had no intention to be offensive. To violate any physical or emotional space. I was trying to establish personal relationships. But the combination of awkwardness and hubris, I think, led to behavior that many found offensive,” he said.
And then he took it away.
Were you to take the middle section of his speech and read only that, you’d think he was denying everything he had been accused of.
He told the City Council he did not sexually harass anyone.
“Unfortunately, on my own, and you helped cut off any support for that, I can’t afford to continue this battle. Even though I know if given due process, I would be vindicated,” he said in his speech.
But that’s where the disconnect really is. Filner seems to believe that yes, he treated women badly and did all these things to them, but he did not actually “sexually harass” them in some sort of narrow legal definition.
You can’t treat women badly, admit you did not fully respect them, and apologize and expect them to just pat you on the head and reassure you that it’s OK.
There was a mob. It didn’t need rumors and innuendo to fuel it. The mayor’s own words were flammable enough.