A study in sexism in San Diego

August 8, 2013

Alan Peck reports on the growing sexual harassment scandal of San Diego Mayor Bob Filner--and why some on the left despicably refuse to call for his resignation.

A BREATHTAKING case study in sexism, sexual harassment and even assault is unfolding in San Diego, where a growing number of women have come forward to accuse Mayor Bob Filner of repeated sexual harassment--and some in the progressive community are refusing to call for the mayor's resignation.

News of Filner's behavior was made public at a July 11 press conference, when several of his longtime allies, including former San Diego City Council member Donna Frye and lawyers Cory Briggs and Marco Gonzalez, called for his resignation.

Since then, at least 13 women who say they experienced groping, sexist language, unwanted sexual advances and other physical and verbal harassment from Filner have come forward. Here is a sampling of their comments about the mayor:

"I felt rather intimidated in his presence."

"He's held me and held me too tight."

"I'd have to squirm to get away."

"His behavior made me feel ashamed, frightened, and violated."

"I didn't want to make a scene."

"I was left there startled, and fearful."

"I was appalled. I was disgusted...I probably can't tell you how angry I was."

"As a woman, I figured this probably isn't his first time."

"It had been 24 years since I had been physically restrained by a man...and here it was, out of the blue, with a United States Congressman."

"I told them never to leave me alone in a room with Bob Filner again."

Irene McCormack Jackson details sexual harassment by San Diego Mayor Bob Filner
Irene McCormack Jackson details sexual harassment by San Diego Mayor Bob Filner

The women who have come forward to detail Filner's harassment say that they endured uncomfortable and inappropriate flirting. For example, Filner allegedly repeatedly came on to Renee Estill-Sombright, a professional singer who was performing at a fundraiser for refugees in Africa, saying that she "could give him a private song."

Many say they were subjected to disgusting and degrading sexual comments. He reportedly asked Irene McCormack Jackson, his own press secretary, to come to work without her underwear.

Many were also reportedly physically violated. Filner is alleged to have pinned Morgan Rose, a child and family psychologist, to the inside of a booth while repeatedly trying to kiss her, during a meeting where he had invited her to discuss bringing a mental health initiative to the Obamas.

WHEN THE allegations about Filner's behavior first came to light, the mayor, who is the first Democrat to hold the office in two decades, released a bizarre video response in which he apologized for having intimidating women, admitted his behavior was inexcusable, and stated that he "needs help."

While no reasonable person today would deny today that the mayor needs help, he also needs to leave office immediately. Unfortunately, the day after his pseudo-apology, the mayor made it clear that he has no intention of resigning.

At a second press conference on July 15, Frye, Briggs and Gonzalez detailed more of Filner's abhorrent behavior. Among other things, San Diegans learned that women were regularly put in what has become known as the "Filner headlock," where he would wrap his arm around a woman's neck, pull her aside, make sexual comments and forcibly kiss her, sometimes groping her breasts or buttocks. Attempts by women to remove themselves from Filner's presence were described as the "Filner dance."

At first, many liberal supporters rallied behind the mayor, calling for "due process," fearful that, if Filner was forced to resign, the agenda they had entrusted to him would be dashed by a Republican successor. Even some self-identified progressives who have supported and fought for women's rights have defended Filner.

During the July 15 press conference, for example, a small crowd of Filner supporters was on hand, demanding "Give us a name!" "Why didn't they come forward sooner?" and calling for "Due process!"

On the liberal OBRag website, one shameful, dismissive apology piece amounted to asking San Diegans why the women in the mayor's office couldn't just take one for the team in the name of progress. "Are we in for a decade of Republicanism delivered by Democrats in name only?" questioned writer Bob Dorn, while suggesting that the charges against Finer were part of a "set-up."

On July 22, the first woman came forward publicly to accuse Filner. Irene McCormack Jackson filed a lawsuit against the mayor and the city for sexual harassment. Her lawyer stated, "On one occasion, when he tried to kiss her, and she told him to leave her office immediately. The mayor responded that he was the mayor, and he could be wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted."

The following day, Laura Fink, a former campaign manager, came forward to describe an incident where Filner humiliated her and touched her inappropriately in front of supporters. "In the moment, you're kind of in shock...you're kind of in disbelief that it happened," she stated.

A third woman came forward a day later. Before making his move, the mayor told Morgan Rose, "Your eyes have bewitched me." According to Rose, Filner then made a remark to the effect of, "You'll have to excuse me for what's about to happen. It's your fault."

Then, on July 25, four more women courageously followed the first three: Sharon Bernie-Cloward, president of the San Diego Port Tenants Association; Veronica "Ronne" Froman, a retired rear admiral for the Navy; Patti Roscoe, a prominent businessperson; and Joyce Gattas, a dean at San Diego State University.

Later, Lisa Curtin, a director at San Diego City College, came forward to describe how Filner had tried to coerce her to reciprocate his advances by threatening to use his political influence to harm the community college district. "He made us feel like if we did report something like that there could be repercussions."

At a press conference on August 6, nurse Michelle Tyler, the caregiver to a wounded Iraq veteran named Katherine Ragazzino, became the 11th woman to publicly come forward to accuse Filner of harassment. She also stated that Filner had tried to leverage his political power against her, telling her that he would consider helping her with resolving a problem between Ragazzino and the Veteran's Administration--but only if Tyler would go to dinner and be seen in public with him.

As this article went to press, Eldonna Fernandez and Gerri Tindley, members of the National Women's Veterans Association of America (NWVAA), told CNN that Filner had groped and hit on them--as well as many other NWVAA members.

Fernandez says that she believes Filner explicitly was targeting women at NWVAA events--many of whom experienced sexual assault while in the military. "We're all victims of military sexual assault," she told CNN. "It appears to me that he was targeting the organization and hitting on the women of this organization because they were easy prey."

AS MORE and more of these brave women have come forward, support for the mayor has begun to slowly evaporate. The voices calling for "due process" have largely fallen silent. The Democratic National Committee has directed Filner to resign, and mobilization for a recall election has begun.

Even The Daily Show has joined the call for Filner's removal. As guest host John Oliver recently remarked, "Eeewww...that is gross. And, sexual assault...This man is revolting. He should probably be arrested. He is, at the very least, unfit for public office."

It appears now that only establishment union leadership is unwilling to demand the mayor's immediate resignation. The San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, with affiliate organizations representing 200,000 workers, has issued only a vague statement calling the allegations "serious." The head of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council, with affiliates representing 30,000 workers, is standing by calls for "due process" for Filner. Business Manager Tom Lemmon told the San Diego Union Tribune, "It's an awkward situation, but we have a lot invested in him."

The women who have come forward in protest of sexual harassment by a person in their workplace might take issue with the description of their standing up and speaking out as "an awkward situation" from a union organizer!

Workers in San Diego should demand that their union leaders side with the women who have come forward in calling for the mayor's resignation, no matter the apparent short-term political cost. We cannot afford to abandon anti-sexist principles in the hopes that Filner will "deliver" for labor.

Despite the now nearly unanimous demand that he step down immediately, the mayor seems intent on retaining his post. He is currently going through a two-week "therapy" program to rehabilitate himself, after which he intends to return to office. Incredibly, Filner's lawyers have argued that the city should pay for his defense, because he didn't receive sexual harassment training.

Whether Filner resigns before a recall, or the voters are forced to take action, it is without question the case that this man is being held to account solely because the women he abused were willing to come forward, despite the hostile, victim-blaming climate they found themselves in, even in some cases from the "progressive" community.

It's likely that Filner, a career politician who spent 19 years in Congress, has preyed on many more than just the women who have so far come forward. In every interview, Filner's accusers have expressed this understanding in explaining why it was important for them to speak out, to create a safe space for others to do the same.

"We're here to support all the women who've come forward," Veronic Foman stated last month. "I want to say to all of the women out there...We want all those women to come forward."

As Laura Fink said, "There's a strength in working to make sure that this doesn't happen again, and that if it does...women feel empowered to come forward and talk about it."

It is the duty of every individual and organization that claims to be for women and all vulnerable people to actively resist victim-blaming and sexual harassment. Filner's accusers have found the courage to come forward. The job of progressives is to have the courage of our convictions to defend their voices--and to stand with them when they fight back.

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