Editors Note: Former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña has an up close and personal story to tell about her dealings with former Mayor Bob Filner and the Democratic party establishment. This is part two of a five part series running this week at the OB Rag and San Diego Free Press. Part one covers her early encounters with Filner.
PART TWO: Party Politics
By Lori Saldaña
I first contacted Jess Durfee [County Democratic Party leader] in August 2011. I recounted the Filner actions and allegations, and urged him to meet with Filner to determine if these were accurate accounts, and, if so, to take action to ensure the behavior would stop.
I reported Bob Filner’s bad behavior to the San Diego County Democratic Party Chairman for pretty simple reasons: I believe women deserve to be treated with respect. I also feared he would ultimately be “outed” with disastrous impacts on others.
I also expressed concern over what this would mean for Democrats and the Mayor’s campaign if these stories became public.
Finally, I believe the candidates who ask Democrats (or anyone) to support them in elected office should be held accountable for basic standards of decent, ethical behavior, both in their personal and public lives.
Durfee seemed surprised by the allegations, but also reluctant to offer an opinion. He often kept his thoughts to himself, but I believed I had delivered important information that required he take action. I suggested he sit down with Filner and include other elected officials in the conversation, who Bob knew and trusted, so the meeting would have more impact.
I called Durfee a few weeks later, in September, to see if he had contacted Filner. I left a message, and Durfee eventually called me to report he had talked with Filner. He didn’t mention if anyone else participated. He told me Bob had assured him these allegations were baseless, and would not influence his campaign.
Then he reminded me, in a condescending tone, “Bob is a single man. He can date who he wants.”
I was stunned. Date? The behavior I had described to Durfee- in detail- was not “dating.” It was harassment, on the verge of assault. If any of these women had wanted to sabotage Filner’s plans, they would be able to do so — easily.
I pointed this out to Durfee, but he remained unmoved by my concerns. I learned later he also heard from another elected official who confirmed these stories after a strange encounter with the Congressman at a reception.
Apparently, Durfee discounted this report as well, and ignored two elected Democratic officials who came forward to voice concerns over Filner’s attitude towards women.
Despite dismissing our accounts, Durfee shared these stories with others within Party leadership. Not surprisingly, they were met with a combination of disbelief, dismissal, and, ultimately, with anger directed at me. In a strange but not unexpected twist, I was the one who was being “thrown off the island” by Democratic Party staffers, candidates, and insiders who needed to protect their careers, and/or wanted to be candidates some day, and/or would need both the institutional support and the funding that running for office requires.
Bottom line: no one wanted me to rain on the Party’s parade, and disrupt what seemed to be the best opportunity they had in 20 years to elect a Democrat as Mayor of San Diego. Also, there were many people waiting in the wings for the open seats that would follow. That meant more jobs for campaign staff, consultants, pollsters and eventually in legislative offices.
At this point, I had begun teaching the course at SDSU on “Sex, Power and Politics,” in the Women’s Studies Department. Some of my guest speakers included women who had reported Filner’s behavior, and discussed these harassment problems in general, but without specific details.
I began to see similarities between my reports about Filner, and the situation with military sexual assault. When a woman has a direct, tough conversation with someone in authority, and reports something unpleasant and/or out of the ordinary to the status quo, she needs the trust of the person hearing this report.
Clearly, I didn’t have that with Durfee.
If a person doesn’t agree with her perspective, or sees it as threatening to their position and worldview, it may become easier to attack her credibility and label her “strident,” “unpleasant,” “bossy” or worse, than deal directly with the issues she is bringing up.
“In retrospect, this was one of the dynamics at play with the Chair of the Democratic Party. I was telling him about something he didn’t want to hear, and may well have already been aware of. And as he discussed it with others, I became perceived as more of a threat than Filner’s actions.
“His response and interactions with others became a personal smear campaign, to discredit me while not challenging my progressive political efforts, so as not to alienate the Party’s progressive base. And it was effective.”
We all knew from experience that speaking publicly about this behavior could be damaging to women’s reputations and careers. I was teaching my students about the perils women face when reporting sexual harassment in the military, and how women often would wind up losing their careers if they spoke up, while the men they accused were unaffected.
It began to appear the same dynamic was at play in my campaign. Durfee and others made it clear: even though I had brought up these issues, they would continue to support Filner. He would have their full support in the primary so he could progress into the general election in November 2012.
I would not.
Tomorrow: A bizarre game of endorsement roulette.
Lori Saldaña was on the founding Board of Directors for San Diego Earth Day and organized the first “Earth Fair” in Balboa Park in 1990. She served in California State Assembly from the 76th Assembly district from 2004 to 2010.