Handsy Mayor

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner May Be Handsy, but He Won’t Resign

He just likes hugging, OK? Caitlin Dickson on Mayor Bob Filner’s strange sexual-harassment defense.

Bob Filner is not a pervert, he just hugs a lot. Is that so wrong? The San Diego mayor doesn’t seem to think so, and despite calls for his resignation from former colleagues, political supporters, and even his ex-fiancée, Filner made clear Tuesday that he has no intention of giving up his post without a fight.

Explaining his refusal to resign amid a now-swirling scandal, Filner told a local TV station that he believes he deserves a fair investigation into the claims against him and insisted: “I’m a hugger, with both men and women. And if it turns out that … those are taken in an offensive manner, I need to have a greater sense of awareness of what I am doing.”

For the past week, Filner has been weathering accusations of sexual harassment from former City Hall employees who, according to their lawyers, were not just hugged but repeatedly groped and even subjected to a few unwanted wet ones. Filner’s advances were allegedly so common that City Hall workers had become pros at what they dubbed “The Filner Dance,” the swerve used to avoid their boss’s grasp. They reportedly even had nicknames for the mayor’s moves, such as the “the Filner headlock,” which is pretty much exactly how it sounds. Former City Council member Donna Frye, who was the first to come forward with claims of harassment, has called Filner “tragically unsafe for any woman to approach.” On Monday, Frye got more specific at a press conference, reading aloud statements from two unnamed constituents who allege that Filner forcibly tried to kiss them on separate occasions. One of the constituents said the mayor asked an aide to leave the two of them alone in his office, where he asked her if she was single and, despite being told she was engaged, allegedly grabbed her and forced a kiss on her before she could push him away. The other constituent said Filner allegedly propositioned her, tried to kiss her on the street, and then put his hand inside her bra and attempted another kiss.

But it doesn’t stop there. Filner’s former city employees aren’t the only ones calling for the apparently handsy mayor to relinquish his post. Filner’s ex-fiancée, Bronwyn Ingram, also wants to see the man she was with for three years removed from office. Ingram told San Diego’s KPBS that she broke up with Filner when she caught him sexting other women—not behind her back but right in front of her.

“While I had heard rumors that he was engaging in sexual relationships with other women, I was never able to determine their validity,” Ingram said in a statement. “However, as Bob’s behavior continued to become more aggressive, standard decorum seemed to disappear. Bob recently began texting other women sexually explicit messages and setting up dates while in my presence and within my line of vision.”

Filner’s former congressional colleagues and supporters, including Democratic Reps. Susan Davis and Scott Peters, also are urging the mayor to cut his losses. “Despite his inclusive vision for San Diego, Mayor Filner has lost the confidence of San Diegans to lead,” Davis said in a statement Monday. “He has taken advantage of the of the trust the voters placed in him—and lost both the promise and capacity to ignite positive change. His behavior, if not illegal, is reprehensible.” Peters also announced that he’d spoken to Filner directly about the allegations but that he hadn’t heard back after leaving the mayor a voice message asking him to resign.

Perhaps the most curious part of the situation is that after the first allegations surfaced, Filner did not attempt to deny his bad behavior. Last week, he told the San Diego Union Tribune that he is “embarrassed to admit that I have failed to fully respect the women who work for me and with me, and at times I have intimidated.” He even went to so far as to acknowledge “that I need help,” saying: “I have begun to work with professionals in sexual-harassment training provided by the city. Please know that I fully understand that I am the one that can make these changes.”

While the first step to making a change might be acknowledging the problem, the second step—in Filner’s opinion, apparently—is not giving up in the face of adversity. His former colleagues, past political supporters, and even his one-time fiancée all say he should step down but, as Filner made quite clear early Tuesday: hell no, he won’t go.

“As your elected mayor, I fully expect to be accountable to the citizens of San Diego for all of my actions,” Filner said in a statement Tuesday. “But as a citizen of this country, I also expect—and am entitled to—due process, and the opportunity to respond in a fair and impartial venue to specific allegations. I do not believe I am guilty of sexual harassment, and I believe a full presentation of the facts will vindicate me.”

For those just now hearing about Filner for the first time, it might help to have a little background on the 70-year-old Democrat. Politico has been so kind as to put together a list of things everyone should know about the man who, before he was elected mayor of San Diego in 2012, spent 20 years in the U.S. House of Representatives. Most interesting among those fun facts are his brushes with the law. In 1961, back when he was a student at Cornell University, Filner was a Freedom Rider and got himself arrested for integrating a transit terminal in Jackson, Mississipi. He served two months at the Mississippi state penitentiary before his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court. His second arrest came in 1997, during a protest for Filipino World War II veterans, and a decade later he was hit with an assault-and-battery allegation from a Dulles International Airport worker. Also of note is the scandalous $500,000 of campaign funds Filner paid his own wife for political consulting in 2005 and, more recently, his receipt—and subsequent return—of $100,000 from a California developer in exchange for a political favor.

Filner’s history, of course, isn’t all bad. The longtime veterans-affairs advocate earned his Ph.D. in the history of science from Cornell and taught for two decades at San Diego State University before getting into politics with a successful run for a seat on the San Diego school board. His political career, however, has long been characterized, from his early days in the San Diego City Council, to his time in the House, and later as mayor, by a notoriously combative and uncooperative style.

Despite all this, Filner has held tightly to his public office and isn’t ready to let go now. And while he says he’s confident a proper investigation will absolve him, no formal sexual-harassment complaint has been filed against him—though the lawyer representing one of the unnamed accusers has said he plans to file one and possibly even a civil lawsuit against the city. In the meantime, it might be wise for Filner to heed the advice of San Diego’s favorite fictional news anchor and at least try to stay classy.