The Morning Report
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Dozens of men and women have represented San Diego in Congress, and they include mighty politicians whose names surround us even if we don’t know who they are. Like Rep. Bill Kettner, namesake of the downtown boulevard, and Rep. Bob Wilson, whose name graces the naval hospital in Balboa Park.
But you won’t find a “Duke” Cunningham Elementary School or a Bob Filner Concourse, and soon-to-be-former Rep. Duncan D. Hunter most definitely is not getting a memorial fountain. In fact, Hunter, who pleaded guilty Tuesday to a single count of conspiracy, is joining the San Diego Congressional Hall of Dishonor.
Here’s a look at our 13 most regrettable reps, including notable scoundrels, starting with the most notorious of all:
1. The Crook: Richard M. Nixon. Wait, did Tricky Dick ever represent San Diego? He sure did. In addition to serving as a House representative, vice president and president, Nixon was a U.S. senator representing California from 1950-1953. He served as president from 1969 until 1974, when he resigned in disgrace.
Fun fact: Nixon won San Diego County every time he ran for president (three times, losing once), vice president (winning twice), senator (winning once) and governor (losing once). By the way, you can credit Nixon for San Diego’s “American’s Finest City” slogan.
2. The King of Corruption: Randall Harold “Duke” Cunningham. As the Union-Tribune puts it, Cunningham is “the most corrupt congressman in American history, a war hero sentenced in 2005 to prison for taking $2.4 million in bribes.” He served a chunk of North County from 1991 to 2005, then he served a term in federal prison. We haven’t heard from him since he was released in 2014 and planned to live in a gated community in Arkansas.
3. The Creep: Bob Filner. A Democrat known as the most liberal member of Congress, Filner represented southern parts of the county from 1993-2012. His reputation as workplace bully and mammoth jerk, plus unconfirmed rumors of sexual harassment, didn’t prevent him from winning a race for San Diego mayor in 2012. But then the women he abused began to speak up. He resigned in disgrace in 2013, although he did not go quietly.
4. The Grifter: Rep. Duncan D. Hunter. The Republican son of former Rep. Duncan L. Hunter (see below), Hunter and his wife ensnared themselves in a colorful campaign-funds-spending scandal. “The couple was accused in a sweeping indictment of using more than $250,000 in political contributions to pay personal expenses, including private-school tuition for their children, fast food, home repairs and even $600 in airfare for the family pet rabbit, Eggburt,” the U-T reports. Hunter is expected to quit as congressman and serve time in prison.
5. The Toucher: Jim Bates. Thirty years ago, the House Ethics Committee – for the first time – reprimanded a representative for sexual harassment. It was Bates, a Democrat who represented southern sections of San Diego County. He lost his election in 1990 after the reprimand, although the allegations didn’t stop him from winning his first race in 1988. As KPBS notes, a Roll Call reporter “found Bates would ask women on his staff for hugs every day so he would ‘have more energy,’ and touched them in ways that made them feel uncomfortable.”
6. The Hypocrite: John G. Schmitz, a right-wing, family-values Republican who briefly represented Orange County and part of northern San Diego County in the early 1970s, loved to say the rudest things possible about anyone he didn’t like – gays, liberals, minorities, Jews, women. In the early 1980s, when he was a state senator, a woman in Orange County lost custody of her baby when he suffered a bizarre injury, according to UPI. She disclosed that Schmitz was the illegitimate father of the baby and another child, and his flamboyant political career ended. Schmitz had other children, including celebrity child rapist Mary Kay Letourneau.
7. The Drunk: According to legend, California Sen. James A. McDougall, who served in the 1860s, once drunkenly crawled into a hearse in Philadelphia. When the hearse’s drivers stopped at a saloon, McDougall surprised them by popping out of the hearse and declaring, “Hey! The corpse is dry.”
His term in office, where he notably stood against banning whiskey in the Senate, wasn’t a laughing matter. McDougall, a racist and notorious drunk, nearly got kicked out of the Senate. He was almost censured by the California state Legislature and managed to spark an an international incident with France that the secretary of state was forced to clean up.
8.-10. (tie) The Check Kiters: Bill Lowery, Ron Packard and Duncan L. Hunter. Back in 1992, the congressional check-kiting scandal (“Rubbergate”) exposed how hundreds of representatives overdrew their checking accounts at the House Bank. The scandal ensnared three local Republican congressmen: Lowery (who served much of the city of San Diego), Packard (North County) and Hunter (East County). Former Rep. Jim Bates was implicated too.
As the L.A. Times reported, Hunter “had written 407 overdrafts totaling more than $129,000 at the House Bank over a three-year period.” The paper added: “The notion of a clubby congressional check-cashing service — where the depositor is always right and no check is too big to clear — hit with particular force among San Diego voters who are watching their checkbooks down to the penny.”
11-13. (tie): The Shootists: David Broderick, Edward Gilbert and James W. Denver. Should members of Congress try to shoot people to death? No? Well, what if they really deserve it because they’re rude? Three men who represented San Diego in the 19th century decided the answer is yes. Escandalo!
Most notoriously, California Sen. David Broderick and California Chief Justice David Terry dueled near San Francisco in 1859 after insulting each other. The judge shot the senator to death and was later gunned down himself after slapping a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Gilbert and Denver, both House representatives for all of California in the 1850s, dueled near Sacramento in 1852 in another battle fueled by bad blood. It could have ended without anyone dying on the spot: Gilbert shot first, missed, and Denver gallantly shot into the air, as polite duellers were wont to do in that kind of situation. But Gilbert didn’t accept the gesture. They agreed to shoot again, and Denver shot Gilbert to death.
Later, Denver gave his name to the biggest city in Colorado and advocated for American Indians, proving that scandals — even bloody ones — don’t always end careers.