A liberal mayor takes on the San Diego establishment


SAN DIEGO — Under a pro-business Republican mayor, it was a no-brainer: allocating millions of dollars each year to buy national advertising for the tourism industry — a major economic driver in this vacation mecca.

Then Bob Filner got elected, and he had questions: Why couldn’t Sheraton and Hilton buy their own advertising? And why should the cash-strapped city lavish funds on an industry that pays low wages to bottom-rung employees like maids and bellhops?

The new Democratic mayor also thought the city attorney should provide him with legal guidance on the matter in private, not in front of reporters.


So he crashed Jan Goldsmith’s news conference.

“You not only have been unprofessional but unethical,” Filner scolded the city attorney, “and I resent it greatly that you’re giving your advice to the press.”

Goldsmith, a Republican former judge and state legislator, neither backed down nor rose to the verbal combat.

“He’s the mayor,” Goldsmith said after Filner left. “He’s got his own personality, his own character.”

Truer words may have never been spoken about Filner, 70, a former history professor at San Diego State, school board member, city councilman and 10-term congressman.

Since taking office in December, Filner has battled other elected officials, irritated the city’s business establishment and infuriated the conservative editorial page of the U-T San Diego newspaper, which has called him a bully and compared him to the Joker in the “Batman” movies.

“San Diego has never had a mayor like this, style-wise,” said Steve Erie, a political science professor at UC San Diego. “Filner is San Diego’s first really strong mayor, using the bully pulpit and aggressive style to advance his populist agenda.”

Confrontation has long been a Filner political trademark. At congressional hearings he regularly derided Veterans Affairs officials over poor care, making him a favorite of veterans groups.

But he found himself in trouble after a run-in with a baggage clerk at Dulles International Airport in 2007. He allegedly pushed the woman and was charged with assault. (He pleaded the equivalent of no contest to trespassing; she was featured in a commercial aired by his rival in the mayor’s race.)

Days after he disrupted Goldsmith’s event in late February, Filner pressed his argument at a City Council meeting.

He accused Goldsmith and others, including the Democratic council president, Todd Gloria, of doing the hoteliers’ bidding in exchange for “tens of thousands of dollars” in campaign contributions.

Audience members booed the mayor. Council members appeared taken aback. Scott Sherman, a newly elected Republican, compared Filner to “the arsonist-fireman” who starts a fire so he can put it out and be a hero. Gloria shut off Filner’s microphone and asked him to sit down.

The hoteliers “bought the City Council,” Filner told reporters as he left. “They have not bought the mayor, as they have in the past.”

So how did San Diego, where the three previous mayors were moderate Republicans, come to elect such a liberal firebrand?

To some extent, the answer lies in demographics: Democrats now hold a registration edge over Republicans, who are also outnumbered by “decline to state” voters.

After decades as an officeholder, Filner also had name recognition, and he knew which neighborhoods to mine for votes, which issues to spotlight. His Republican opponent, one-term Councilman Carl DeMaio, was more conservative than the Republicans whom San Diego voters generally favor for mayor; DeMaio also had a reputation for feuding, including with Jerry Sanders, the popular but termed-out incumbent.

By nearly all accounts, San Diego appears to be over the worst of its fiscal crisis after years of belt-tightening, reductions in services and hard bargaining with city employees. But six months into a Filner administration, a new question has emerged: Will the mayor be undone by his confrontational style?

“He’s not fighting the man anymore; he is the man,” Gloria, who has pictures of John and Robert Kennedy and Harry Truman on his office wall, said of Filner. “He’s used to being a fighter. That’s been his persona for 30 years. But now maybe it’s not about fighting, it’s about reaching consensus.”

Filner honed his approach in the 1960s as a Freedom Rider in the segregated South. He spent two months in a Mississippi jail, refusing to pay bail. He knew the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez and says they taught him that conflict and confrontation are often necessary to accomplish change.

On one of his congressional websites, Filner posted the mug shot from his arrest in Jackson, Miss.

Born in Pittsburgh, Filner was raised in New York City. His father, Joseph, was a labor organizer and World War II combat veteran who owned a scrap metal business.

The elder Filner was an early supporter of King in the 1950s. Filner has credited his father with steering him into political activism by telling him that, as Jews, they had a responsibility to help the poor and powerless.

Filner studied chemistry and engineering at Cornell University, working on the student newspaper and earning a degree in chemistry in 1963. He received a doctorate in the history of science in 1969 and moved to San Diego in 1970, where he joined the faculty at San Diego State. He ran for school board in 1979 to oppose the closing of a neighborhood campus.

Twice divorced, and with two grown children, Filner is engaged to Bronwyn Ingram, 48, a disability analyst with the Social Security Administration.

As mayor, he often approaches issues — like the tourism industry allocation — not as technical matters to be parsed but as crusades of right versus wrong: “It’s what Cesar and Martin told me: It’s all about the morality, not about winning and losing.”

Too many city officials and City Hall insiders, he added, are comfortable with an “old boys’ club” approach to government.

“We have an almost feudal system in San Diego,” Filner said. “The same kind of people have run San Diego for 50 years, and that’s hard for them to give up.”

Filner and Goldsmith have sparred over medical marijuana, city pensions, Port Commission appointments, even over whether to allow seals on the beach in La Jolla. Filner unveiled a budget that would cut 13 jobs at the city attorney’s office — more than in any other department — including that of Goldsmith’s top assistant. After several acrimonious meetings, Goldsmith refuses to let any of his staffers meet with the mayor without a witness.

“We can be helpful on some of his ideas,” Goldsmith said. “But we’ve got to have a relationship. Is it going to happen? I don’t know.”

Under Sanders, San Diego was beset by the national recession and a spiraling deficit in its pension and retiree healthcare fund. The payroll was trimmed, employee salaries frozen, neighborhood services reduced.

As a candidate, Filner promised to restore services such as recreation center hours and street repair. Other goals are long shots: a binational bid with Tijuana for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games, and, if San Diego is to help build a new stadium for the NFL Chargers, securing a partial interest in the franchise for the city.

Fulfilling campaign promises is proving difficult. His first budget has only marginal increases in neighborhood services. His critics are watching to see if the labor-friendly mayor will enforce voter-approved mandates to reduce city pensions and outsource city jobs.

After a compromise, Filner signed the tourism marketing allocation, but late last month the controversy reignited after he refused to approve payments because the hoteliers allegedly refused to help pay for the Balboa Park centennial celebration. “I’ve had enough of the whining and complaining from the wealthiest hotels in America,” Filner said last week.

“Bob takes no prisoners, and anyone who thinks he’s going to change is crazy,” said John Kern, a Republican political consultant and a former chief of staff to Mayor Dick Murphy, who served in the early 2000s.

Kern said he disagrees with Filner on nearly every issue but admires him on two points: “When he makes a deal, he sticks to it. And he’ll say to your face what he says behind your back. Those are rare traits in a politician.”

One Saturday each month, Filner meets with residents to discuss their problems. The line outside City Hall forms hours in advance.

People had grievances one recent Saturday involving garbage pickup, city contracts, policing, zoning, barking dogs and a Caltrans plan for a neighborhood-slicing offramp.

A woman had concerns about a private nonprofit group that helps govern Balboa Park. Filner scanned the group’s membership list. “I don’t see African Americans or Latinos on the board,” he said. “We’re going to change that.”

A man thanked Filner for supporting a drive to collect diapers for the children of homeless parents. Filner looked at a list of contributors.

“I see that Wal-Mart, the largest corporation in America, contributed a whole $25,” he said. “Yippee.”

A resident with a Southern accent had a concern about streetlights. Filner asked where he was from. The answer: Tennessee.

Filner nodded, then told the man: “I traveled to Nashville to learn nonviolence when I was a Freedom Rider.”

One recent night, radio station KPRI-FM invited Filner in as a guest disc jockey.

Among his selections was “We Shall Overcome,” by Mahalia Jackson. Filner recalled being arrested in Jackson, Miss., and summoned to meet the police chief; he thought he might be in for a beating, or worse.

“As I was walking to his office, I heard in the back all my fellow Freedom Riders singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and it gave me courage to face that police chief,” he said. “It was the music, it was the music, that gave me the courage to keep going.”

There was also a classic from Frank Sinatra, whose attitude, Filner said, captures his political style: “I do it my way.”