Bob Filner: He’ll do for San Diego what he did for the VA

June 3, 2013

By Chris Reed

Sideshow.Bob.FilnerIt 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 …

Filner-at-Newser-0220_2“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.


Write a comment
  1. Steve Mehlman
    Steve Mehlman 3 June, 2013, 08:37

    Can’t have anything good said about a Democrat, eh, Chris? Funny, as soon as I read the LAT article, I knew the jackals would be out in force.

    Reply this comment
  2. Tax Target
    Tax Target 3 June, 2013, 08:41

    No I wouldn’t want Chris to say anything good about someone who is disconnected from the electorate, repub or demo… The fact is that government now has the patina of being elitist, for itself first, and not for the people. Demo – Repub? Nonsense! Its we the people against corrupt crony government that has a sole purpose of maintaining themselves in jobs at the expense of the taxpayer. Filner is one of those!

    Reply this comment
  3. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 3 June, 2013, 08:54

    “Can’t have anything good said about a Democrat, eh, Chris?”

    You have to find one first, Steve-o. Ohh they are out there…..but as a general rule you have to hunt in the Plains, the Upper Midwest. Level-headed, pragmatic sorts. You won’t find many in California however……just about every elected official with a “D” next to his or her name in this state spent time as an “activist” of one kind or another….not the breeding ground for sober good-governance.

    Many TV talking heads of late have taken it as gospel that Ronald Reagan couldn’t get elected in today’s Republican Party. Perhaps……but I guarantee you Harry Truman wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in today’s Democrat party.

    Reply this comment
  4. Queeg
    Queeg 3 June, 2013, 09:13

    Boring…San Diego is a dirty, over hyped, expensive morass of bad politics, lousy roads, tacky retro hotels, poor radio talk shows and over priced/seasoned latin foods….


    Reply this comment
  5. Steve Mehlman
    Steve Mehlman 3 June, 2013, 10:10

    It amazes me how the Regressives have changed our vocabulary so that someone like Mayor Filner, who risked his life fighting for the civil rights of others, can be labeled an “activist” as if that were a derogatory term instead of a badge of honor. If Filner was wrong, does that mean that George Wallace, Bull Connor and the Klan were right?

    How come people who fight for civil rights, for an end to discrimination, for economic equality, etc. are “activists” while Tea Party leaders, fundamentalist “Christians”, etc. aren’t?

    Filner got favorable treatment in the LA Times because he earned it.

    Reply this comment
  6. Ted Lawrence
    Ted Lawrence 3 June, 2013, 10:32

    What you forget is that there are a hierarchy of clients. Although the City Attorney is elected, his job is primarily to provide legal advice to the Mayor and City Council. He is elected instead of appointed because in some instances, his legal advice can provide exemptions from lawsuits in some cases. But the priority is still to represent the Mayor and Council and to talk to the public about the advice he is giving is unprofessional.

    Reply this comment
  7. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 3 June, 2013, 10:38


    Again, Steve-o? That’s strange, coming from someone whose party uses a playbook with “1938” written on it. Every Big Government solution the Dems champion has been around since my mother was in a baby carriage.

    Reply this comment
  8. SkippingDog
    SkippingDog 3 June, 2013, 12:21

    Chris Reed and his overlords at the U-T are still just boiling about the basic fact that the voters of San Diego clearly rejected “Papa” Doug Manchester’s anointed successor to Jerry Sanders. If the measure of any man is the interests and ire of his enemies, Bob Filner is surely a welcome choice to lead San Diego away from the downtown business cronies who’ve held control since WWII.

    As Filner himself noted, when the Republican business interests of San Diego were pushing for a “strong Mayor” form of city government under Jerry Sanders a few years ago, they most certainly never stopped to consider what that would look like under someone they hadn’t picked for the office themselves.

    It’s a good thing.

    Reply this comment
  9. CalWatchdog
    CalWatchdog Author 3 June, 2013, 13:28

    Steve: Former Rep. Bob “B-1” Dornan also marched with MLK back in the 1960s and registered black voters in the South:

    Did you ever support Dornan?

    Because if Filner’s civil rights record makes him always right, as you imply, then doesn’t the same hold for Dornan?

    Dornan, of course, favored helping blacks, Latinos and others by getting government off their backs through tax cuts and slashing government agencies. So that now must be Steve Mehlman’s position too, yes?

    To paraphrase you, “If [Dornan] was wrong, does that mean that George Wallace, Bull Connor and the Klan were right?”

    — John Seiler

    Reply this comment
  10. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 3 June, 2013, 14:51

    Stevo…..your stick is old……fade to grey. Most of us eartheee types don’t like lib history lessons or progressive fantasies…..your call outs will only enrage the doomers…..spare us!

    Reply this comment
  11. Steve Mehlman
    Steve Mehlman 4 June, 2013, 10:15

    Did I ever say that “Filner’s civil rights record makes him always right”? John, quit putting words in my mouth. What I did say was that the Right has turned the word “activist” into something pejorative when it should be a badge of honor.

    But thanks for the history lesson. Should we call Bob Dornan an “activist” also?

    Don’t know what Dornan’s views were back in the Sixties. He may have believed in slashing government agencies back then, although I don’t think he would have wanted the Justice Department to butt out of his efforts to register voters. But it is more likely that the only governments he wanted off of people’s backs were the governments in places like Mississippi and Alabama that were denying people their civil rights and that he saw the federal government as an ally, not an enemy.

    He may well have changed his ideology over time, just as Reagan did. But my point is that his service in the civil rights movement–just like Filner’s–deserves praise, not ridicule.

    Reply this comment
  12. Brian Brady
    Brian Brady 4 June, 2013, 12:16

    “What I did say was that the Right has turned the word “activist” into something pejorative when it should be a badge of honor.”

    Who in the heck is saying that the term is pejorative? Activists however, do not good executives make. I found myself agreeing with Filner’s criticism of the Tourism Marketing deal but he sold out when his response to crony capitalism was…more crony capitalism.

    I generally disagree with Filner politically but he brings an abrasive and confrontational, DC-centric skill set to a position which mostly rewards consensus and coalition building. He has little or no respect for people with whom he disagrees. He hates to be questioned, bullies when critiqued, and gets very little done because of his demeanor.

    He’d be a great radio talk show host

    Reply this comment
  13. Chris Reed
    Chris Reed 4 June, 2013, 13:42

    Steve, your whole shtick is so tired. Every post of yours amounts to “I disagree with this, so the person who wrote it is a reprobate” and/or “Why don’t you write about my favorite topics from my POV instead?” You never actually engage in discussion.

    For the record, you will look far and wide in my columns and blogs and you will never see me praising the Republican Party in a partisan hack style. I’m a libertarian who likes the pro-free market part of the GOP platform and not much else. I’ve been published twice by, for example. I’ve voted for the GOP presidential nominee twice in the past 24 years.

    Yes, I do occasionally praise Dems. See Saturday’s post. But why do I criticize them so much more than GOPers? Because they have power.

    Reply this comment
  14. SkippingDog
    SkippingDog 4 June, 2013, 20:12

    I agree Chris, you are clearly a Libertarian partisan hack. Sad to see the U-T go the way of the old OC Register, but I guess that’s why Papa Doug brought you aboard in the first place.

    Reply this comment
  15. Steve Mehlman
    Steve Mehlman 4 June, 2013, 21:17

    “Who in the heck is saying that the term is pejorative?”

    Brian, I guess you never went to a McCain or Romney campaign rally. The stuff said about President Obama’s background as an “activist” and “community organizer” made it sound as if he were one step above a felon.

    Reply this comment
  16. Steve Mehlman
    Steve Mehlman 4 June, 2013, 21:30


    With all the garbage and personal insults spewed on this web site every day about government, Democrats and progressives, accusing me of not engaging in a reasonable discussion is kind of a joke.

    There are damn few of us with the guts to take the abuse day after day and try to express a point-of-view that is contrary to the majority belief here that government is the root of all evil.

    I congratulate you on not being a partisan hack (neither am I) and having a contrary view to the neo-cons on the recent wars. My criticism of your piece stemmed from my frustration that the column seemed to turn Filner’s courageous efforts in the civil rights movement into a negative. And I also knew it would bring forth the usual venom that any Democrat gets on this blog.

    I did not mean to make it personal; I apologize if you took it that way.

    Reply this comment

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