For Filner’s victims, painful echoes in today’s sexual harassment cases
Watching TV news last week, Irene McCormack was shaken by a painful realization. She’d been here before.
“To quote a famous sports figure,” she said, “it was déjà vu all over again.”
On the screen, a nervous woman accused a powerful man — Roy Moore, an Alabama candidate for the U.S. Senate — of sexual assault. At the woman’s side was Gloria Allred, a lawyer who had represented many victims of sexual misconduct.
For instance, McCormack, who in 2013 spoke up about Bob Filner, San Diego’s then-mayor. She, too, had faced a battery of reporters and photographers. She was tempted to run away, but Allred pulled her forward.
“We are going to get through this,” Allred whispered. “Don’t worry.”
A former Union-Tribune reporter, McCormack had endured a barrage of lewd, sexual comments from the mayor during her brief tenure as his communications director. While she was the first to publicly confront Filner, more than 20 women followed her with similar tales.
Filner resigned on Aug. 30, 2013, and later pleaded guilty to felony false imprisonment and two misdemeanor counts of battery.
If his accusers had been vindicated, they had also paid a price.
The stress “significantly impacted my mental health,” McCormack said.
Counseling and long walks — the Spruce Street suspension bridge was a popular destination — helped. She worked through some issues, rebuilt her career and now sleeps soundly.
“In the long run,” she said, “going through that trauma and understanding why it affected me so much really made me a stronger person.”
From the medieval droit du seigneur to the Hollywood casting couch, sexual harassment has a long, tawdry history. But the cascade of recent allegations in entertainment (Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey), politics (Moore, Sen. Al Franken), media (two NPR executives) and other areas hint that Americans may have had enough.
On social media, countless women greet the latest revelations with #MeToo. Daily, it seems, sexual predators who once had free rein are being reined in.
“I see progress,” said Donna Frye, a former San Diego City Council member who worked to oust Filner. “I see progress in the fact that women are stepping up, speaking out and people are believing them.
“That was not necessarily the experience we had with Filner.”
McCormack said that many of the lessons she learned in 2013 are still true, including this: Backup is crucial.
“What I’ve seen over the last four years,” she said, “it takes great numbers of women before constituents — or the community they live in or the political arena they are in — finally start to believe that something really happened, that what they are saying is true.”
A solo accuser, especially if younger and less prominent than the accused, is often dismissed.
“When it’s your word against a very powerful person’s word,” McCormack said, “who’s going to believe the word of the 16-year-old girl?”
Laura Fink, a local political consultant, credited McCormack’s example for inspiring her to discuss her own experience of sexual humiliation. The same with Stacy McKenzie, a city parks manager who suffered the “Filner headlock,” the mayor grabbing her from behind and caressing her.
“For me, it wasn’t the fact that I was touched that was so upsetting,” McKenzie said. “It was more that I felt he had control over my job, and he wanted to take me into his office and take me to lunch and do this and that.
“I’ve had my city job for 37 years, had it since I was 17. I’m a single parent with kids. I was more terrified if I turned him down, he would keep pursuing me.”
The women also benefited from a social media campaign. Years before #MeToo, Sara Kent created #IStandWithIrene. Kent also patrolled the internet, rebutting arguments that the accusations were untrue or politically motivated.
Kent, who works with Marco Gonzalez, one of the lawyers who took aim at Filner, said online messages “embolden other people to support women, and men as well.”
“We have to be advocates in the social media world because it does make a difference.”
Calling out an abuser also helps, Fink was often told. Strangers approached her because they felt a kinship and a need to unburden themselves.
“Everybody would come up to you and tell you what had happened to them,” Fink said. “I had a private sort of #MeToo experience.”
Like the Roy Moore case, which had divided the Republican Party, the Filner episode was complicated by politics. In Congress and as a mayoral candidate, Filner had a reputation as a progressive Democrat, a staunch advocate of women’s rights.
Frye, a political ally, endorsed Filner and campaigned for him. After his election in November 2012, she became the mayor’s director of open government.
Then she heard rumors. The mayor, who was single but engaged, reportedly brought women into his office at night. Cornered women at official events. Made crass comments about women’s bodies in public. Insisted that subordinates date him. Urged McCormack to come to work without panties.
Frye left the mayor’s office in April 2013. When McCormack resigned two months later, Frye called her.
“I advised her to get an attorney,” Frye said. “Then we tried to work out something with Bob.”
Frye, Gonzalez and another activist lawyer, Cory Briggs, met privately with Filner, telling him to change his behavior.
The talk seemed to do no good. More women came to Frye, Gonzalez and Briggs, telling tales of outrageous mayoral behavior.
At a subsequent news conference, the trio accused Filner of sexual misconduct, but named no names. The pressure built on Frye’s foremost source, McCormack.
“We both knew it was just a matter of time,” Frye said. “She would have to go public unless Bob did something.”
He didn’t. McCormack did.
“And that changed my life forever,” she said.
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