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Bob Filner: The poster child for why we need negative campaign ads

August 23, 2013|By Jon Healey
  • San Diego Mayor Bob Filner speaks at a news conference in July announcing his intention to seek professional help for sexual harassment issues. Filner has agreed to resign in the wake of allegations that he made unwanted sexual advances toward several women.
San Diego Mayor Bob Filner speaks at a news conference in July announcing… (Bill Wechter / Getty Images )

As disgraced soon-to-be-ex-San Diego Mayor Bob Filner prepares for life away from elected office, one question leaps out: How did city voters get blindsided?

After all, Filner had run for election a million times before (OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration; the actual number is closer to 14), winning seats on the local school board, the City Council and the U.S. House of Representatives, where he represented the region for 10 years. Several of those contests were bitter, including the race for mayor last November.

If he is, in fact, the serial sexual harasser portrayed by the 18 women who've leveled accusations against him in recent months, it's hard to imagine that this personality trait emerged the day he was sworn in at City Hall. Yet this aspect of Filner appears not to have been highlighted by any of his political opponents over the years, at least not in a way that registered.

Instead, they went after him for having a combative personality -- a critique that Filner spun as a virtue. It fit into his image as someone who fought for his constituents, just as he had battled Jim Crow policies in the South as a Freedom Rider in the early 1960s.

Liam Dillon of the Voice of San Diego website reported in July that Filner had long been dogged by reports that he was tough on his aides, and "rumors about Filner's poor treatment of women floated continuously" in his last campaign. But according to Dillon, only one of Filner's rivals turned those rumors into a campaign ad.

That was Republican mayoral candidate Carl DiMaio, who made a pair of videos featuring or referring to a female baggage attendant whom Filner angrily confronted at Dulles International Airport in 2007. The then-congressman was charged with assault but eventually was declared guilty of misdemeanor trespassing through a process known as an Alford plea.

Notably, the ad was about Filner's temperament, not his headlocks or wandering hands.

My usual complaint about campaigns is that they ignore crucial policy debates in favor of cheap shots and personal attacks. Filner, however, exemplifies the other side of the coin. A candidate's personality matters as well as the positions he or she takes on the issues. And it's a shame that Filner's opponents didn't pay more attention to how he treated women.

Because many of Filner's accusers are people who've been his political supporters and allies, it's safe to assume they wouldn't have been eager to broadcast their complaints while campaigning to elect right-leaning San Diego's first Democratic mayor in 20 years. Yet the sheer number of accusations suggests that plenty of people knew about this particular skeleton in Filner's closet. It's a secret that shouldn't have been possible to keep.

Granted, negative ads can backfire if voters think they're petty or unbelievable. And the reductive and hyperbolic nature of so many 30-second ads can drain credibility even from the ones firmly grounded in an ugly truth. It's conceivable that Filner could have convinced voters that he was just a demanding, hard-charging boss, not a predatory jerk.

Unfortunately for San Diego voters, Filner never had to rebut allegations about sexual harassment during the campaign because they weren't raised. Whatever his rivals paid their campaign consultants for opposition research, they should demand a refund.

Here's one of the videos DiMaio put out about Filner's baggage malfunction:


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