Why is Filner still in office?

July 24, 2013

Chuck Stemke reports on a sexual harassment scandal rocking San Diego's mayor.

SAN DIEGO Mayor Bob Filner, recently the great hope for much of the local progressive community, is now known as one of the country's most notorious sexual harassers.

Over the past few weeks, the city has been rocked by revelations of the mayor's appalling behavior toward women who work for him.

Filner's actions came to light at a July 11 press conference at which longtime allies Donna Frye, Cory Briggs and Marco Gonzalez announced their private efforts to get Filner to change his behavior had failed. Frye, a high-profile former city council member, stated that she had "credible evidence brought forward by women directly to me that had gone through it."

"There is no doubt in my mind [about] what I am telling you and standing here talking about today," Frye said. "There is no doubt in my mind that these allegations are true."

Although the victims of Filner's harassment have not come forward, the stories have been widely corroborated, with several key supporters confirming that they had seen or experienced Filner's abuses themselves. Even the mayor's fiancé, Bronwyn Ingram, has reportedly left him over the allegations.

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner
San Diego Mayor Bob Filner (Bob Ross)

Since the press conference, more details have emerged. Reportedly, the 70-year-old mayor routinely clutched women tightly in what became known as the "Filner headlock"--refusing to let them get away as he would sometimes ask them about their relationship status, grope their breasts and buttocks, forcibly kiss them or attempt to unhook their bras. Staffers also have reportedly talked about the "Filner dance," in which the mayor would maneuver to prevent a woman from escaping as he kissed her non-consensually. Those around him say Filner simply cannot be left alone with a woman.

Nevertheless, some progressives have--incredibly--stepped forward to defend Filner, the first Democratic mayor of the city in 20 years. Veteran immigrant rights activist Enrique Morones organized a July 18 rally to show support for the mayor, saying, "Bob Filner deserves due process. And if these allegations are true, they should be handled by the judicial system."

Filner himself said much the same thing in a tearful announcement on the evening of July 11, when the allegations first were reported. Filner added:

As someone who has spent a lifetime fighting for equality for all people, I am embarrassed to admit that I have failed to fully respect the women who work for me and with me, and that at times I have intimidated them...It's a good thing that behavior that would have been tolerated in the past is being called out in this generation for what it is: inappropriate and wrong.

Filner added that he "needs help," and promised to change his ways.

SINCE THE public admission and initial wave of defections from his administration, Filner has dug in his heels and refused to entertain the notion of resigning. At a closed-door meeting of the top committee of the San Diego County Democratic Party on July 17, the body deadlocked in a 24-24 vote on whether to call for Filner's resignation--thus, the committee isn't making a call for his resignation right now.

As of this writing, it's unclear what will happen next. Filner's traditional right-wing opponents have been organizing a recall campaign since nearly the beginning of his tenure, and are capitalizing on his new weakness. Filner was narrowly elected in November 2012, edging out anti-union Republican Carl DeMaio as part of what many liberals consider a sea change in local politics.

Supporters often point to Filner's heroic past as a Freedom Rider, his decades as a liberal congressman, and his current-day support for low-wage hotel workers and other progressive causes. Many see the sexual harassment accusations as either a conspiracy or something that can only benefit the right.

But those who say that anti-sexists need to "look at the big picture," and "think about what's best for San Diego as a whole" should have those two arguments turned back on them.

What kind of message does it send if Filner is allowed to continue on as mayor? What does it say about those who purport to stand for women's rights, if they are wiling to allow these crimes to go unpunished when perpetrated by one of "our own"? Such questions test the resolve and principles of progressives--a real "which side are you on" moment--and not everyone is passing the test.

It's not enough to call for "due process" and insist that the victims come forward to level charges against Filner. For one thing, the courts are notoriously unreliable when it comes to victims of sexual harassment winning justice. Additionally, coming forward means having one's life put under the public microscope and, often enough, being blamed for the actions of the harasser.

Standing against sexism, harassment, assault and rape requires liberals and progressives in San Diego to join the call for Filner to resign immediately. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of principles out of a misguided hope that this corrupt politician will one day deliver for the working-class and oppressed people of San Diego.

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