San Diego’s Rage Against the Mayor

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner has now been accused of sexually harassing at least 13 women, including victims of sexual abuse in the military. Caitlin Dickson on the growing campaign to oust him.

Bill Wechter/Getty

Todd Gloria, a San Diego city councilman, was getting his car washed the recently, at the same place he’s gone every week for years, when he was approached by the typically silent attendant who hands out the tickets. “You’re that councilman, right?” the attendant asked him. “When are we going to get rid of this guy? What do I have to do to help?”

“This guy” is Mayor Bob Filner who, as of Wednesday, has been accused by 13 women of sexual harassment. In addition to former city council members and campaign staffers, the accusers now include at least eight female military veterans—most of them victims of previous sexual assault—who Filner, a former U.S. representative, met while serving as chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Filner, 70, has not responded to the latest charges, but has acknowledged generally inappropriate conduct and intimidation of women, blaming the behavior in part on never having received sexual harassment training. Still, he has deflected calls for his resignation since July, most recently winning a postponement on his deposition in the sexual harassment lawsuit filed by his former press deputy by sending himself to two weeks of intensive sex therapy.

But as the allegations against Filner escalate, the effort to get the sleazy mayor removed from office has grown from two separate, somewhat meager initiatives into a full-blown, all-star-staffed recall election campaign. Though they’re up against tough hurdles—San Diego has never recalled a mayor before—Filner’s critics say with public opinion on their side and a corruption charge still hanging over the executive’s head, they just might be able to pull off the ouster.

At the behest of local land-use consultant Michael Pallamary, who last week combined his recall effort with that of Stampp Corbin, publisher of San Diego’s LGBT Weekly, veteran political consultant John Hoy has rounded up three of the city’s top campaign professionals to help drive the charge. Communications director Rachel Laing, fundraiser Jean Freelove, and treasurer April Boling announced Wednesday that they are joining the effort to take down Filner.

“People almost had started to write off the recall effort as not having any steam,” Laing told The Daily Beast. “They didn’t understand why the petition isn’t circulating. We wanted to make sure people were aware that this was in place.”

Laing admitted that getting the petition signatures required for a recall vote—101,587 in 39 days, or 15 percent of San Diego’s registered voters—is “a logistical hurdle of epic proportion. But it’s possible.”

“It’s a difficult proposition, yet at the same time the anger in San Diego at Bob Filner is at a boiling point,” San Diego City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer told The Daily Beast. “His behavior is reprehensible. He has admitted that he’s intimidated women, that his behavior is wrong, that there is a monster inside of him. He needs to take the monster and go home.”

While Faulconer believes there is enough momentum for a mayoral recall, such an effort is both costly and time-consuming for the city. He argues that the right thing for Filner to do is quit. “This is an awful person that needs to resign from public office and go away,” he said.

Councilman Mark Kersey also points out that, before a recall can even take place the City Council needs to update its local ordinance for recalls because “there is one provision that’s almost certainly unconstitutional.”

San Diego’s Municipal Code explicitly states that only people who voted on whether or not a recall election should take place are allowed to vote on who will replace the ousted official. Ahead of the 2003 recall election for former California Governor Gray Davis, a U.S. District Court judge deemed an almost identical provision in the state election code unconstitutional because it placed a restriction on people’s right to vote.

While Kersey noted that City Attorney Jan Goldsmith has already said he will not enforce that provision, he also pointed out that, as “the prospect that we are going to get sued by someone grows every day,” the city would be wise to update the code to ensure that it doesn’t disenfranchise anyone and adheres to the state constitution. The Council has a special meeting scheduled for the end of August and Kersey predicts that an emergency measure to change the election code will be on the docket at that meeting.

Meanwhile, as Filner’s controversy continues to grow from a local to national news story, Republicans have accused the Democratic party of hypocrisy by not sufficiently condemning the behavior of officials like Filner, a Democrat, and the similarly scandalous Anthony Weiner. In a memo drafted by five different GOP groups to “Republicans Across the Country” this week, party leaders argued that Weiner’s and Filner’s scandals alike prove a double standard by Democrats who are more than eager to turn some Republican politicians’ stances on reproductive rights into a party-wide “war on women,” but neglect to identify the crude behavior of two prominent party members as a Democratic issue.

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The Republicans may have a point, yet as Laing and other Democratic members of the San Diego City Council note, many of Filner’s strongest opponents were once his political allies. Laing herself said she is a Democrat and was a strong supporter of Filner during his run for mayor in 2012. In fact, she was one of the women who worked on his campaign. “He did the same thing with me that he did with everyone else, the whole, ‘Are you married? ‘Got a man?’ kind of thing,” she laughed. “I just gushed about my husband and he never brought it up again.”

But not all of her colleagues say they were so lucky, and Laing says that’s exactly what motivated her to get involved in the recall.

“I didn’t have any political differences with the man at all. Policy-wise, he’s right up my alley,” she said. “But then I heard about the allegations, and I know these women and 100 percent trust their credibility and know they would never make this up.”

“He’s a predator, bottom line. And he can’t be cured in office,” Laing said. “He’s abused his position, he’s abused his power. This is not a partisan issue at all. You just can’t let someone like that be mayor, and we all joined for that reason.”

Councilman Gloria, also a Democrat, said he is shocked by number of people every day who approach him asking how they can find the petition to get Filner out of office. “As an elected official you are sort of used to people not being engaged necessarily or, if they are, not wanting to take action.”

Like his fellow Council members, Gloria would prefer to see Filner resign, noting that in addition to the costs, a recall can come with several potential legal challenges. At the same time, he clarified, “If Bob Filner continues to put himself above the good of the city and doesn’t resign there will be enough San Diegans—myself included—who would get involved in this campaign and make sure that it’s successful.”

“The fact is that San Diegans are appalled by the alleged actions, and I’m not at all surprised that there is growing activism and advocacy for something that has really gone beyond politics at this point,” he said.

Gloria thinks the fact that Hoy and his crew have signed onto the recall effort is significant. “When you match that structure with what is obvious grassroots public support for removing the mayor, I think it’s possible.” He also points out that, while justification alone for recall, the sexual harassment allegations aren’t the only reason many San Diegans want to see Filner fired. Before anyone complained about the alleged groping and creepy come-ons, the FBI had been looking into a $100,000 donation the city received from a local developer in need of the mayor’s approval for revisions to a project. In fact, according to a local poll published this week, 77 percent of San Diegans think the mayor should do everyone a favor and step down, and they are equally as concerned about the sexual harassment claims as they are about the potential corruption charges. Gloria described the city of San Diego’s current situation as a “choose your own adventure,” in which resignation is the preferred road but not the only option. “A felony conviction would also result in his removal, so there is yet another path,” he said.

Filner’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday. In July, Filner told reporters he thought the developer was “offering a voluntary donation,” and insisted he had no idea the contribution was accepted in exchange for the mayor’s potential support for the project.

While the city prepares for the 39-day scramble for signatures that will begin on August 18, Filner is biding his time by spending the next two weeks in treatment. “I think we should change the locks to City Hall while he’s gone,” joked Councilman Kersey. But in all seriousness, the new allegations that Filner took advantage of his former role as chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee to prey on victims of sexual assault only adds fuel to the mounting rage against the mayor. “This news is disturbing,” Rep. Mike Michaud, ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “While I wasn’t aware of these actions, our committee strives at all times to treat veterans, especially those who have suffered military sexual trauma, with respect.”

And a two-week treatment program is unlikely to assuage most of the concerns. Renee Sorrentino, director of clinical services for Massachusetts’s Institute for Sexual Wellness, scoffed at the idea Filner could be cured in such a short period of time. “Those two weeks will be kind of a detox period to find out what is motivating the behavior,” she told The Daily Beast. “It would be quite ludicrous to think that in two weeks you could extinguish the behavior,” and only then can one determine what kind of treatment he really needs.

Sorrentino, who has not been involved in Filner’s case, explained that people who exhibit predatory sexual behavior are usually motivated by one of three conditions: either they suffer from a personality disorder or certain personality traits that drive them to inappropriate sexual behavior to feed their ego; they use sex to self-medicate or manage a dysphoric state such as anxiety or depression; or they are hypersexual and, not unlike alcohol or other substance abuse, their exaggerated sexual interest is interfering in their work and relationships.

Sorrentino also said that predators of all kinds seek a vulnerable victim pool to satisfy their needs—such as women in the workplace. Or victims of sexual assault. “There is a theme with this guy and it is vulnerable individuals,” said Sorrentino, suggesting that the female veterans, in particular, were vulnerable not only because of Filner’s powerful status as an elected official, but because he had positioned himself as their advocate, both as veterans and victims of sexual abuse in the military.

“In general, people who have been abused are less likely to be forthcoming, easier to be manipulated,” Sorrentino said, pointing out the fact that the veterans say they waited at least a year and until several other women had come forward to report their own harassment.

The type of treatment Filner undergoes will depend on exactly what’s motivating him. Regardless of what kind of therapy he receives, Sorrentino argues, it will likely take him a while to integrate it into his daily life. “There are there are these kinds of crash courses, intensive treatment, like the kind Tiger Woods went to and they’re not bad because they do start the treatment process,” she said. “But at the end of the day what’s going to control symptom management is ongoing treatment—usually lifelong.”

Sorrentino also noted that one of the more straightforward interventions that can be done on people who exhibit this kind of behavior is to take them out of any situations where they are at risk of acting that way—removing the triggers. “For this guy it would be to remove him from a position where he has authority and where he is supervising women,” she said. “Maybe he needs a different job.”