Lessons from ex-San Diego Mayor Filner’s sex harassment scandal

<i>This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.</i>

“Not one allegation has even been independently verified or proven in court. But the hysteria that has been created is the hysteria of a lynch mob.” — San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, announcing his resignation on Aug. 23, 2013

“Guilty, sir….Guilty, sir….Also guilty, sir.” — Former Mayor Filner, in San Diego County Superior Court, pleading guilty to one felony false imprisonment charge and two misdemeanor battery charges on Oct. 15, 2013

So much for that lynch mob.

The fall of Bob Filner, former Mississippi freedom rider and 10-term congressman, was never a story about partisan warfare of the sort we saw in Washington, D.C., in 1998 when political enemies of President Bill Clinton tried in vain to use the pretext of sexual misbehavior to bring him down.

Nor has this ever been a story about consensual flirting of the sort that took place between, say, former congressman and failed Democratic New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner and his various sexting buddies.

It has always and ever been a story about the crime of unwanted sexual touching.


By my count, 19 women came forward in a matter of weeks to accuse Filner of all kinds of disgusting acts. Some said he put them in headlocks, forcing them to execute a maneuver his staff dubbed the “Filner dance” to get away. Some said he slobbered on as he tried for kisses. Others said he cornered and fondled them in various ways.

Whether you are the mayor of a major American city or some no-name pervert on the street, that nonsense is against the law.

In her announcement about Filner’s plea deal, California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris referred to the victims only as Jane Doe 1, 2 and 3, and did not elaborate on the details of his crimes. It is not clear whether the victims were among the women who had already identified themselves.

According to the U-T San Diego, the charges arose from these incidents:

“On March 6, he used force to overcome the resistance of a woman at a fundraiser, violating her liberty. This incident resulted in the felony charge.

“On April 6, he kissed a woman on the lips at one of his ‘Meet the Mayor’ events for the public, resulting in one battery charge.

“On May 25, he went to a Fiesta Island rally and cleanup and when a woman posed with him for a photo, he touched her rear end, resulting in the second battery charge.”

San Diego’s Republican establishment has undoubtedly enjoyed watching the downfall of the city’s first Democratic mayor in two decades, but it was a Democrat and Filner ally who set the scandal in motion. Former San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye stepped forward June 11 to reveal the mayor’s despicable behavior toward women. She pleaded with him to step down. He refused.

But a little over a month and a half later, on Aug. 30, after having spent only 270 days in office, Filner was gone. He will spend three months under house arrest, three years on probation, will give up a portion of his San Diego city pension, seek counseling and will never run for public office again.

So what are the lessons here?

For starters, this self-inflicted scandal won’t be over for Filner for a long, long time. He is scheduled to return to court for his formal sentencing Dec. 9. He is still a defendant in a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by attorney Gloria Allred on behalf of his former press secretary Irene McCormack Jackson.

Second, touchy-feeling pols are now on notice: It doesn’t matter how refreshing voters find your politics. If you have a pattern of compulsively pawing women, not even your friends will protect you.

Women are still afraid of powerful officials, but they aren’t nearly as afraid to come forward as they used to be, especially when they know others have been subjected to the same treatment, or that a tenacious attorney like Allred is on their side.

Third, it behooves every reporter and interested citizen to ask every potential elected official whether he or she has ever been accused of sexual harassment or discrimination, or trained to recognize it and prevent it. Get ‘em on the record.

(It may not have made a difference for Mayor Headlock, since he remained in denial about the severity of his behavior until the bitter end. I wish I’d thought to raise the issue with tea party darling Herman Cain, whose long-shot 2012 presidential candidacy eventually collapsed under the weight of sexual harassment claims stemming from his stint in the late 1990s as head of the National Restaurant Assn. His evasions and denials might not have lasted so long if the question had simply been asked early on.)

Earlier this month, the Voice of San Diego website and its media partner, the TV station NBC7, smartly posed those questions to the three men who are running in a special election to replace Filner. All of them said they had undergone harassment training and had never been accused of sexually harassing anyone.

Good for them. But even better for the scandal-weary citizens San Diego.

[For the record, 10:06 a.m., Oct. 16: An earlier version of this post misidentified the former press secretary for Filner. She is Irene McCormack Jackson, not Johnson.]


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