Filner was pushed. And yes, he jumped
by Norma Damashek / NumbersRunner
Here’s a quick reminder about our former Mayor: there is no dispute that Bob Filner’s interpersonal habits, short fuse, and juvenile impulse control in the presence of women were blatant failings. The problem is, these failings were embedded in a unique individual whose political agenda was like long-awaited manna to the voters who elected him.
Tension, arguments, and righteous proclamations have erupted during these past months among San Diegans (mostly Democrats) genuinely torn between condemning a “progressive” political leader for his personal defects and giving up their hopes for a new, more enlightened social and economic agenda for San Diego — a no-win dilemma.
But there’s much more to the story. Last week, in an effort to shed light on likely suspects in the political defenestration of just-elected and swiftly-deposed Bob Filner, we herded the San Diego “wolfpack” into one side of a large meeting room for some mug shots.
Members of the wolfpack (aka growth machine) are recognizable by their unique coziness with and influence over elected and un-elected city officials and their uncanny ability to access public subsidies for their own (or their clients’) private projects.
As you noticed, the room overflowed with bankers, big business owners, consultants, convention center purveyors, developers, financiers, hoteliers, law firms, lobbyists, newspaper owners, Port of San Diego interests, and the real estate establishment, in addition to sports team owners.
It’s a formidable crew, never loathe to do whatever it takes to retain control over what they consider their turf. For a personalized look at some of the alpha dogs in this pack you might take a look at this informative story recently posted by the Voice of San Diego.
Today we’ll get a look at the insiders from Bob Filner’s office. They’re a clue to the mystery of how Bob Filner was pushed and why I also say he jumped.
While it’s common knowledge that the ex-Mayor’s relentless habit of coming onto women provided his political enemies with enough free ammunition to hound him out of office, there’s an irony here: the story that was assembled to bring Bob Filner down had less weight and substance than the seeds of his real undoing – his underestimation of what it would take to successfully run the city as Mayor in the face of fierce resistance by San Diego’s elite power structure, as well as certain members of his own party.
Here’s how I laid it out many months ago: Even a virtuoso player like Mayor Filner can’t do it on his own. A first-class leader needs first-class backup. Perhaps more than any leader in our city’s history, this Mayor needs a strong, dedicated, high-quality group of advisors and staff members to back up his proposals, shore up his policies, strengthen his outreach, and advance his goals.
Despite his experience as a city councilman, despite multiple terms in the U.S. Congress, despite his lively mind, sharp wit, ethical agenda, boundless energy, and first-class vision, Bob Filner didn’t do sufficient homework on what it takes to run city business while keeping his political adversaries — inside and outside the door of his 11th floor office — at bay.
You’re invited to join me on another mindful walk through the Mayor’s office. This time we’ll do a closer job of noticing.
Everyone noticed that Bob Filner became Mayor of San Diego with the help of Tom Shepard — an unlikely campaign advisor best known for bringing to fruition the campaigns of a great number of (predominantly) Republican candidates, including former Mayor Jerry Sanders.
You might remember that in the Mayoral primary, Shepard was the campaign manager for the unsuccessful Nathan Fletcher. Not one to spend time licking his wounds, Shepard sent people in a tizzy with an announcement sent to Fletcher supporters:
“Yesterday, Bob announced I will be running his Mayoral campaign. Now I’m asking you to take a fresh look at Bob Filner and consider joining me in support of his candidacy. I believe Bob offers the best hope for realizing Nathan’s vision and spirit that inspired us during the primary campaign.”
A curious proposition… ominous, in fact.
Bob Filner obliged by offering Fletcher a “high-profile job” once he took office, an opportunity Fletcher rejected for a vastly more attractive alternative — a $400,000/year position doing odd jobs… this-and-that… at Qualcomm.
It was hard to have to notice that once Filner became Mayor, Tom Shepard and associates stayed on as friendly advisors — a function they had performed for previous Mayor Sanders. In Filner’s defense, his options were limited. Given the city’s longstanding political history as a conservative business, developer, and tourism town there was a paucity of expert, experienced, and trustworthy advisors and staff readily available to work alongside a new Mayor like Filner.
The leadership of the local Democratic Party bears considerable responsibility for a chronic failure to focus on training, nurturing, and supporting strong new leadership within the party and to develop a smart and forward-looking political and economic agenda for our city and region.
On top of that, Filner was repeatedly undermined by fellow Democrats who identified more closely with the empty mumblings of the con-man Nathan Fletcher than the old-time liberal convictions of the pugnacious Bob Filner. Democratic Party leader Jess Durphy went AWOL much of the time. His replacement Francine Busby seemed to be permanently sitting on the fence. Political powerhouse Lorena Gonzalez predictably chose self-interest over principles. And Democratic city council president Todd Gloria — who could have offered the new Democratic Mayor useful know-how, cooperation, and moral support — chose to publicly screw Filner at every turn (a princeling honing his skills at regicide).
It was and remains an unsavory portrait of the Democratic Party with dismal prospects for the city’s Democrats.
I noticed, and maybe you did too, that Bob Filner compounded his difficult predicament by making some peculiar… no, bad… no, deadly choices in setting up his office. Maybe he was just heeding an ancient military lesson about keeping your friends close but your enemies closer. If so, Filner misjudged the cunning of his enemies as well as the loyalty of his “friends” — fatal mistakes, as it turned out.
His choices were poor, even for his campaign staff. The crew he brought with him was frustratingly ignorant of city matters. But Filner was a quick learner with a gift for winging it. He succeeded in flying solo through much of his campaign. Once he became Mayor that technique would no longer work.
The first nail in his coffin was his choice for Chief of Staff. Vince Hall may have been a known entity to Filner in a sea of unfriendly faces and may have had his strengths, but he was the wrong person for this demanding and complex job. His volatile temper, inconsistency, cluelessness about municipal processes, and rigid administrative style thwarted the creation of a cohesive, purposeful, and well-functioning office.
It’s true that stability and smooth functioning take time to achieve (think back to the rapid staff turnover, internal juggling, and development scandals of the early Sanders administration). But Filner’s Chief of Staff repeatedly turned his back on experienced and knowledgeable true allies. He seemed indifferent to the complicated staffing needs of the office and the intricacies of city politics. He turned a blind eye to subversive rumblings and monkey wrenches. He iced-out knowledgeable supporters, shut his door to staff complaints, and stiffed news reporters. Was it hubris? insecurity? being in over his head? His departure came too late.
Another nail in the coffin was former councilmember Donna Frye, a shoo-in for the position of Director of Open Government. Her first-hand experience with city governance, policies, and San Diego politics were invaluable resources, but she was continually blocked by the Chief of Staff and excluded from the Mayor’s inner circle of advisors. For reasons of her own she chose to remain quiescent rather than fight for the internal changes she believed were necessary and for her place in the sun. On the heels of an altercation with Vince Hall she abruptly walked out. She had come into Filner’s office as an asset and departed three months later as a liability, bitter that her dedication and efforts toward increasing transparency in city government were thwarted by an obstructive Chief of Staff and squandered by the Mayor.
This valuable ally was soon to be transformed into a potent opponent. Working in sync with her longtime friend and legal advisor Marco Gonzalez and their mutual associate attorney Cory Briggs, she called for Filner’s resignation. The anti-Filner forces were already gathering momentum to bring the Mayor down and the action of this trio became the bugle call to all Filner-detractors, antagonists, and opponents that the time was ripe to redouble their efforts to run Filner out of town. (For a long and detailed account of the Frye/ Gonzalez/ Briggs action I recommend this interview by Citybeat’s David Rolland.) As reported, the action of this trio was based on allegations of harassment by a set of women, one of whom was the Mayor’s Director of Communications, Irene McCormack.
The appointment of Irene McCormack provided an especially long nail in the Filner coffin. McCormack(-Jackson) let it be known that she took a significant salary cut when she left her good job at the Port District to go to work for the new Mayor. Discerning people will notice that she was actually facing termination at the Port and was rescued and hand-delivered to the Mayor’s office (by Port Commissioner Bob Nelson, perhaps, or?). Soon she became the Mayor’s personal handler and companion at his afternoon and evening appearances at community events and meetings.
The fact that McCormack took frequent detailed notes about her personal interactions with Mayor Filner was revealed at a press conference when she and her attorney Gloria Allred publicly accused the Mayor of sexual harassment. During the many months that McCormack chronicled her case against the Mayor she had refrained from sharing her discomfort and distress with fellow staffers, although she must have discussed details with other women associates and helped them relive and publicly report their stories from times past.
The question of how many dollars it will take to erase the memories of some uncomfortable encounters is a tantalizing one, indeed. The city will eventually cough up some generous settlements..
Then there’s Allen Jones. From the beginning, people noticed that, given his long professional career in private real estate and land development, the appointment of Allen Jones as Deputy Chief of Staff seemed inconsonant with Filner’s preference for development policies that benefit the public over private interests. Jones, like Chief of Staff Hall, had worked for Filner in the old days.
Before long, Jones had backed the Mayor into a swamp of legal disputes involving Sunroad Enterprises’ high-profile development project in Kearny Mesa, ironically the same one that had given Jerry Sanders severe heartburn a few years ago. Could it be that Jones’s binding ties were not to the Mayor but to the people who dealt in oversized buildings, upzoned land uses, and creative deviations from city code?
From day one, his peremptory attitude alienated ought-to-be Filner supporters. He was a thorn in the side of Earth Day’s founder and promoter Carolyn Chase. And he shut the door on the legal perspectives of public interest attorney Cory Briggs, who subsequently joined up with Donna Frye and Marco Gonzalez to force the Mayor’s resignation — he with accusations of development-related corruption and “caving-in” and they with assertions of female harassment.
Lee Burdick also played a complex role in the Bob Filner saga. Hired as Director of Special Projects and Legal Affairs, her position in the Mayor’s office was ill-defined and second tier. She had a talent for keeping her head down and, like Donna Frye, was not included in Filner’s inner circle, despite her informal title as the Mayor’s in-house attorney. Burdick (once partner in an influential San Diego law firm whose clients included the CEO of Sunroad Enterprises) had joined Hall and Jones in rebuffing legal recommendations and advice from Cory Briggs, particularly concerning the Sunroad project. He was disappointed. He felt betrayed. These unsatisfactory encounters with the Filner administration were the final straw. He hardened his heart and finalized his decision to join forces with Gonzalez and Frye to let it all hit the fan.
At some point — noticing the handwriting on the wall — Vince Hall gathered his marbles and left the game, shooting off some disloyal and self-serving parting words on his way out. Lee Burdick stepped into the position she had been hankering after and assumed the role of Chief of Staff to a beleaguered Mayor and a much-reduced office.
The nail driven by City Attorney Jan Goldsmith was a doozy. I’ve noticed all along (haven’t you?) that the City Attorney overplayed his hand from the day Filner took office. The (quasi-legal) strategy emanating from his office to obstruct, thwart, demean, limit, and ultimately oust the Mayor from office was as vigorous and relentless as Todd Gloria’s or Kevin Faulconer’s, but less visible to the naked eye. Goldsmith’s efforts to organize a recall-Filner campaign… his deference to the sheriff’s intimidation of the Mayor’s staff (who knocked at their doors in the dead of night to question them about what went on in their workplace)… his role in the bugging of the Mayor’s office… his schemes to lock the Mayor out of City Hall… his unwholesome coupling with Lee Burdick… should make us all tremble for our own safety.
What’s this about unwholesome coupling? Let’s take a peek through the keyhole at a startling and hushed-up set of events:
- The Mayor’s office was bugged. Someone spent time listening in on staff conversations in the Mayor’s conference room and office of the Chief of Staff. For how long is anyone’s guess.
- Lee Burdick found out about being bugged when the Mayor was away in therapy. She went for a chat with the City Attorney. Seems like Goldsmith already knew about the bugging. The Chief of Police was called in but he didn’t follow up. Lee Burdick also decided not to follow up. Is anyone curious about who was responsible for bugging the Mayor’s office? or why no one wanted to find out? Shhh, it’s still a secret.
- Burdick and Goldsmith changed the locks to the Mayor’s office. To keep out the cleanup crew? the mysterious bugger? the Mayor?
- Burdick met with the City Attorney to discuss how to really keep the Mayor out. They agreed that a temporary restraining order could legally bar Filner’s reentry into his office. If they did it right, he could be kept out of the entire building.
- Burdick solicited signatures from the remaining Mayor’s staff claiming that the Mayor’s office had become a hostile work environment for each of them. Filner got wind of the plan it. He blew up and it fizzled.
- Attorney Gloria Allred put an ageing city volunteer in front of TV cameras to tell the world that the Mayor’s presence in the City Hall lobby created a hostile work environment for her and that the Mayor should be prohibited from returning to City Hall. Coordination? or just a coincidence.
- Bob Filner scheduled negotiating sessions with the City Attorney (briefly including Gloria Allred) and opted to save himself from a financial wipe-out from the litigation being heaped upon him. He submitted his resignation as the eight-month-old Mayor of the City of San Diego.
Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction.
Many questions remain:
- Was there a wizard behind the curtains, coordinating the multi-pronged assault on Mayor Bob Filner?
- Was Lorena Gonzalez an early instigator of the Marco Gonzalez /Donna Frye/ Cory Briggs trio that sparked the brutal siege to bring down the Mayor? Was her friend Nathan Fletcher the intended heir of her largesse?
- Was Bob Filner’s fall facilitated by sabotage from within by some of his staff, consultants, and advisors?
- Were there other options for the politically experienced and public-minded Frye/ Gonzalez/ Briggs trio to expose the mayor’s purported failures and transgressions?
- Shouldn’t there have been a public process through regularly-scheduled elections to judge the Mayor rather than a public execution via public relations firms, press conferences, and the news media?
- Might the trio have dissociated themselves from the Mayor’s perceived “corruption” and made sure the public knew that, in their eyes, Filner was not a true Progressive or even a good Democrat?
- Might they have advised the San Diego public to politely but firmly turn down the Mayor’s annoying advances, should he ask them for kiss or a date?
- Might they have warned the public to be watchful, to protest, to oppose his initiatives on Sunroad, to sue him if necessary, and then refrain from electing him to a second term?
- Isn’t this what we have done in the past when dealing with elected officials we disagreed with or even detested?
- What did these politically sophisticated activists assume was going to happen if/after Bob Filner resigned? Who did they think would be a suitable replacement? Did they tally the costs? Did they even care?
- To give them the benefit of the doubt, is it conceivable that this savvy trio acted on their emotions and impulses and simply forgot to think about the consequences of their actions?
It’s time to wrap up this tale. One day there’ll be an intrepid investigative reporter who’ll spill the rest of the beans. As for now Filner is out. The interim Mayor, with the help of the City Attorney and other good-old-boys, is doing his darndest to wipe away the last trace of Bob Filner and return San Diego to the days of yesteryear. So hold onto your hats. We’re going to spin the wheel and pick a new Mayor. Soon we might find out what real rape and pillage is like.
Shut your eyes, Nancy Drew. You’re in an x-rated city.
Norma Damashek is a long-time civic activist. She has spearheaded community-based coalitions and served on city and regional-government task forces and as past president of San Diego’s League of Women Voters. Her focus is on promoting decision-making that serves the public good.