Filner: Being a Freedom Rider Changed the Course of His Life

Times Staff Writer

The path that led Bob Filner to this fall’s San Diego City Council 8th District race began in a Mississippi jail in the early 1960s.

For it was there that Filner, arrested along with other “Freedom Riders” who challenged racial separation laws, realized that the engineering career that he had mapped out for himself was too narrow for someone who, by his own description, “has always pretty much done things full throttle (and is) never comfortable just standing on the sidelines.”

His involvement in the civil rights movement, combined with a second pivotal event--working as a legislative aide to the late Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) in the mid-1970s--dramatically altered Filner’s career plans, drawing him first to teaching and later, politics.


“The first event showed me that people could change things, and the experience with Humphrey reinforced that by exposing me to a lot of practical political skills needed to make those changes,” said the 45-year-old Filner.

A Pittsburgh native raised in New York City, Filner was one of the hundreds of college students who traveled to the South in the summer of 1961 to push for abolition of legal separation of the races. In Jackson, Miss., Filner was arrested for being part of an integrated group in a bus station waiting room--a violation of a law requiring that blacks and whites wait in different rooms. He was convicted and, pending an appeal, spent about two months in city and county jails and state prison.

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately overturned Filner’s and other activists’ convictions and, in the process, struck down the racial separation laws. That legal victory provided the foundation for Filner’s abiding faith that personal involvement and commitment can change society--a guiding tenet in his political career.

‘Never Been Passive’

“I’ve never been a passive person,” said Filner, the oldest of two brothers. “I’ve always felt that, if you think something should be changed, it’s your responsibility to actively pursue that change.”

After graduating in 1970 from Cornell University with a doctorate in the history of science, Filner began teaching at San Diego State University. Five years later, feeling he “needed a break,” he won a scholarship under which he spent a year in Washington working for Humphrey and two congressmen.

Impressed with the senator’s seemingly indefatigable nature, Filner sought to emulate Humphrey’s work habits by “imposing that pace on my own life.” Now known for his 16-hour days and workaholic habits, Filner “simply wears down his opposition,” former schools Supt. Tom Goodman once said.


When he returned to SDSU, Filner, a history professor, became involved in faculty politics and, in the late 1970s, became entangled in city school issues when school administrators, citing declining enrollments, targeted about two dozen schools for possible closure, including the elementary school then attended by Filner’s son and daughter.

Filner became a leading critic of the plan and organized a citywide committee of parents representing the schools facing closure. He also became a fixture at the weekly school board meetings, where what he perceived as the “contemptuous treatment” he received led him to challenge board member Dorothea Edmiston in 1979. In an election in which nearly 125,000 ballots were cast, Filner upset the incumbent by about 1,000 votes.

Implemented Tougher Classes

During his four years on the school board, including one year as its president, Filner’s persistent and often vitriolic criticism of school policies led to development of a mandatory homework policy, tougher graduation requirements, stricter discipline and attendance regulations and a streamlining of the district’s administration.

As board president, Filner also engineered a buyout of Goodman’s contract--the two often clashed over what Goodman saw as Filner’s interference in administrative matters--and led the board through the process that resulted in the hiring of Supt. Tom Payzant.

With even his detractors expressing grudging admiration for his record, Filner was criticized primarily for his abrasive style during the first half of his four-year term, a period when he displayed what former board member Phil Halfaker described as “a complaint-of-the-week style.”

Later, Filner became less confrontational and more of a team player--partly because, he admits, he realized that his earlier tactics were sometimes counterproductive.

“My kids got a different kind of education because I was there,” said Filner, who lives in Hillcrest with his wife. “They graduated with these more rigorous standards and other improvements in place. There’s a strong personal satisfaction in what I was able to do.”

In 1983, Filner, hoping to move up the political ladder, gave up his school board seat to challenge appointed 3rd District Councilwoman Gloria McColl. Though he defeated McColl in the district primary, Filner lost the citywide general election as leading Republicans and business leaders, fearful of his liberal Democratic philosophy, coalesced behind McColl.

Very Difficult Times

“That was a very difficult period because I not only lost an election but also left office at the same time,” Filner recalled. “I went through a complete change of life. I enjoy the process of making decisions and affecting policy. Suddenly, I was pulled out of that, so I went through a withdrawal-type experience.”

The next year, he re-entered the political world by taking a one-year leave from SDSU to join the staff of Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego) as a district representative for the Mid-City area. Though Filner also served as Bates’ 1984 reelection chairman, Bates has endorsed his opponent, lawyer Michael Aguirre.

If elected, Filner said he hopes to continue teaching on a limited basis, perhaps one course a year, “because I think the two jobs could reinforce each other.”

“I enjoy being in office, but not because I need it for my ego or as an ultimate goal,” Filner said. “I like to make things happen in government. So, after four years on the outside, I’m eager to get back in the middle of things.”

District 8

Next month, San Diegans will elect four new members of the San Diego City Council. These short profiles of 8th District contenders Michael Aguirre and Bob Filner are intended to help acquaint voters with the candidates’ personal backgrounds. This is the second in a series of profiles on the two finalists in each of the council races.