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San Diego mayor's saga shows no sign of going away

Efforts to remove Democrat Bob Filner from office in the face of sexual harassment allegations could take months to play out. Meanwhile, he's stubborn and likes to fight, a consultant says.

August 18, 2013|By Tony Perry
  • About 200 people in downtown San Diego on Saturday demonstrated for Mayor Bob Filner to be removed from office.
About 200 people in downtown San Diego on Saturday demonstrated for Mayor… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

SAN DIEGO — At the news conference that launched the sexual harassment drama involving Mayor Bob Filner, a former supporter demanded that he resign, then added that the next chapter was up to Filner.

Five turbulent weeks later, the same is true.

The scandal shows no signs of letting up despite demands by all nine City Council members that Filner step down.

The 70-year-old Democrat has given no indication that he plans to quit — despite an avalanche of negative media coverage, numerous calls by political and business leaders that he resign and accusations by 16 women that he had made unwelcome sexual advances.

"Bob is stubborn, and he likes to fight," said political consultant Chris Crotty, who thinks the issue will drag on for some time.

Just when Filner will return at City Hall is unknown.

When he announced that he was entering a residential treatment facility for two weeks of therapy, he said he would return Aug. 19, ready to be "the best mayor I can be," but aides last week said they were not sure if that was still his plan.

Though Filner could be forced out by recall or a criminal conviction, it is far from certain that either will occur, and each would take months to pursue.

The City Charter contains no provision for impeachment, although City Atty. Jan Goldsmith said that the council could consider invoking an obscure section of the charter calling for removal of anyone found misusing public money. Another option, he said, would be seeking a restraining order barring the mayor from City Hall, another legally untested strategy.

"Everyone wants things resolved in 42 minutes plus a commercial break, but real life doesn't usually comply," said Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego Mesa College.

A recall movement led by a radio talk-show host and a longtime Filner opponent began Sunday to gather signatures to force a public vote, backed by a "Freedom From Filner March." Activists say the anger against Filner is unparalleled in San Diego history.

But most local political consultants say the signature-gathering task is virtually impossible without an army of paid signature-gatherers, which the recall movement lacks.

All six recall movements against San Diego mayors have failed to reach the ballot. In addition, the city's recall laws have legal problems, the city attorney has said, and could be challenged in court, potentially scuttling the recall movement against Filner even if sufficient signatures were gathered.

The sexual harassment lawsuit against Filner by one alleged victim could take a year or more to get to court, according to attorneys familiar with similar lawsuits.

And if the Sheriff's Department, which established a hotline to field allegations against Filner, decides to launch a criminal investigation, Filner could assert his 5th Amendment rights against self-incrimination in the lawsuit, which was filed by Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred on behalf of Filner's former director of communications, Irene McCormack Jackson.

City Hall was beset by rancor even before the July 11 news conference at which former Councilwoman Donna Frye and attorneys Marco Gonzalez and Cory Briggs accused Filner of sexually harassing women.

Filner was elected in November as the city's first Democratic mayor in two decades. His blustery, confrontational style immediately upended the more collegial approach of his predecessor, Jerry Sanders, a Republican and former police chief.

Filner picked political fights with council members, blasted the city's tourism industry and feuded with the city attorney, once barging into a Goldsmith news conference to accuse him of being unprofessional. The Frye-Gonzalez-Briggs news conference was akin to matches thrown onto dry leaves.

"There was already a strange atmosphere" at City Hall, said Dean Nelson, a journalism professor at Point Loma Nazarene University. "It just went up several notches: from bizarre to more bizarre."

News coverage that Filner's attorneys have called "widespread, intensive and, at times, vitriolic" led to their motion to have the sexual harassment lawsuit moved to Imperial County, an area that Filner once represented in Congress and where he still has political supporters.

"He's likely banking on the short attention span of the public and news fatigue," said Mark Larson, a talk-show host on KCBQ-AM (1170). "And it might just work. At the very least, he likely remains right where he is for many months to come."

In San Diego, Filner supporters have kept a low profile. Labor unions, long part of his core constituency, have declined to join the "Bob must go" movement. Whether they will mobilize in opposition to the recall remains to be seen.

Supporters have launched a pro-Filner website but have not publicly identified themselves. A pro-Filner rally was held outside City Hall, and activists said a second rally was planned for Monday to counteract the recall movement.

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