Bob Filner: He’ll do for San Diego what he did for the VA
June 3, 2013
By Chris Reed
It doesn’t take long before the L.A. Times’ profile of new San Diego Mayor Bob Filner in Sunday’s paper makes it clear that we’re in for a piece that poses as a warts-and-all portrait but is more akin to hagiography. I know and like the reporter who wrote the piece, Tony Perry, who is an outstanding war correspondent when he’s not covering San Diego. But I’m surprised that Perry largely buys Filner’s narrative that he’s a well-meaning liberal trying to shake up a backwards city, and that if he’s brusque and a bully, it’s always for the greater good.
This is a good angle with a powerful hook. But the narrative is fundamentally wrong. Under Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders and with an increasingly pragmatic Democratic-majority City Council, San Diego has made great strides since 2005. It’s in much better shape than most big cities in California. Perry doesn’t mention this until late in the story after first giving Filner room to insinuate the city is in the hands of a corrupt elite.
San Diego also has been an innovator in public-employee benefits reform and making government more efficient, with both efforts endorsed by voters. Perry doesn’t mention that Filner has made clear he will sandbag the push for efficiency — i.e., smaller government. Is this what a heroic populist does? Defy the electorate?
Cherry-picking to serve the Noble Filner narrative
But the problems with the profile don’t end with its failure to challenge the false premise of Filner’s narrative. There is lots of cherry-picking of facts to serve the narrative.
Starting with the lede:
“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 problem with this is the policy wasn’t driven by the “pro-business Republican mayor.” It’s been a bipartisan policy embraced by the San Diego City Council, which has a Democratic majority. The story goes on …
“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.'”
Just who was ‘unprofessional’?
The problem with this is that Goldsmith is elected, not a mayoral appointee, and unless the issue is a sensitive legal negotiation over personnel, contracts or real estate, he has an obligation to talk to the media about pressing city issues. He is the attorney for the city of San Diego — not the attorney for the mayor of San Diego. If the article had brought up that point, Goldsmith becomes the good guy — and it’s obvious who’s being “unprofessional.” But no — we’re following Filner’s narrative.
However, here is where the profile goes most off the tracks:
“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.”
So we are reading a long piece about the abrasive liberal who is trying to force constructive (allegedly) change down the throat of a resistent city, and we look back at his actions on behalf of a key constituency during his 20 years in Congress. So isn’t the most important takeaway here that Filner’s badgering of the VA accomplished nothing? That the VA he so challenged and derided is the most criticized federal agency of all? That his management style did nothing to stop a disliked agency from becoming a pariah agency?
If you’re writing a piece about a mayor struggling to get his way with the leadership style he used as a congressman, of course.
And if you’re writing about Filner’s political history, isn’t it worth at least mentioning in passing that perhaps the most memorable fact about Filner’s 20 years in Congress was his channeling of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign finances to his family bank account by using his then-wife as his paid campaign treasurer? Well, no — not if you’re treating Filner’s narrative about his nobility as an accurate framework.
A civil rights hero on another crusade? Or an ineffective bully?
I think the reason Filner gets such favorable treatment is obvious in the final third of the article, which repeatedly notes Filner’s work as a courageous civil-rights activist a half-century ago. The implication is that he’s still a courageous champion of the powerless, no matter what he does.
“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.”
But sometimes a bully is just a bully. And sometimes righteousness spoils into obnoxiousness.
“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.”
That’s amazing. And if you heard the stories about Filner’s abusive behavior toward those he considers the “little people” around him, you’d say it’s wise.
There’s also this detail about Filner that is omitted that undercuts the profile’s main narrative: The top assistant of Goldsmith whom Filner targeted is Deputy City Attorney Andrew Jones, an African-American who had the temerity to disagree with the non-lawyer mayor’s legal analysis in a meeting. How does Jones, a soldier turned lawyer, feel about it, according to a published report?
Filner to black city attorney: Go sit in the back of the room
“’He’s (verbally) attacked me in closed session to the extent that at one point he asked if I would sit in the back of the room,’ said Jones, who is black. ‘I, of course, considered it something similar to asking Rosa Parks to sit in the back of the bus. I was extremely offended by it but in deference to my boss I decided not to make a big deal out of it. But clearly he has a problem with me. I’m not sure why.'”
But as the profile wraps up, it seeks to leave no doubt that that’s not the real Filner. The real Filner? He plays civil rights anthems! Oh, the humanity.
“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.'”
All you can do is groan. How long is Bob Filner going to get away with current behavior because of past performance? Maybe forever.
Or maybe just until someone with a smartphone catches him savaging an underling who gets in his line of fire. Then we’ll finally have our overdue “have you no decency, sir?” minute in San Diego.
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James Fallows of The Atlantic has written a long and entertaining essay about Gov. Jerry Brown that is miles better
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