San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, shown at a debate in 2012, has battled other elected… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
SAN DIEGO — Under a pro-business Republican mayor, it was a no-brainer: allocating millions of dollars each year to buy national advertising for the tourism industry — a major economic driver in this vacation mecca.
Then Bob Filner got elected, and he had questions: Why couldn't Sheraton and Hilton buy their own advertising? And why should the cash-strapped city lavish funds on an industry that pays low wages to bottom-rung employees like maids and bellhops?
The new Democratic mayor also thought the city attorney should provide him with legal guidance on the matter in private, not in front of reporters.
So he crashed Jan Goldsmith's news conference.
"You not only have been unprofessional but unethical," Filner scolded the city attorney, "and I resent it greatly that you're giving your advice to the press."
Goldsmith, a Republican former judge and state legislator, neither backed down nor rose to the verbal combat.
"He's the mayor," Goldsmith said after Filner left. "He's got his own personality, his own character."
Truer words may have never been spoken about Filner, 70, a former history professor at San Diego State, school board member, city councilman and 10-term congressman.
Since taking office in December, Filner has battled other elected officials, irritated the city's business establishment and infuriated the conservative editorial page of the U-T San Diego newspaper, which has called him a bully and compared him to the Joker in the "Batman" movies.
"San Diego has never had a mayor like this, style-wise," said Steve Erie, a political science professor at UC San Diego. "Filner is San Diego's first really strong mayor, using the bully pulpit and aggressive style to advance his populist agenda."
Confrontation has long been a Filner political trademark. At congressional hearings he regularly derided Veterans Affairs officials over poor care, making him a favorite of veterans groups.
But he found himself in trouble after a run-in with a baggage clerk at Dulles International Airport in 2007. He allegedly pushed the woman and was charged with assault. (He pleaded the equivalent of no contest to trespassing; she was featured in a commercial aired by his rival in the mayor's race.)
Days after he disrupted Goldsmith's event in late February, Filner pressed his argument at a City Council meeting.
He accused Goldsmith and others, including the Democratic council president, Todd Gloria, of doing the hoteliers' bidding in exchange for "tens of thousands of dollars" in campaign contributions.
Audience members booed the mayor. Council members appeared taken aback. Scott Sherman, a newly elected Republican, compared Filner to "the arsonist-fireman" who starts a fire so he can put it out and be a hero. Gloria shut off Filner's microphone and asked him to sit down.
The hoteliers "bought the City Council," Filner told reporters as he left. "They have not bought the mayor, as they have in the past."
So how did San Diego, where the three previous mayors were moderate Republicans, come to elect such a liberal firebrand?
To some extent, the answer lies in demographics: Democrats now hold a registration edge over Republicans, who are also outnumbered by "decline to state" voters.
After decades as an officeholder, Filner also had name recognition, and he knew which neighborhoods to mine for votes, which issues to spotlight. His Republican opponent, one-term Councilman Carl DeMaio, was more conservative than the Republicans whom San Diego voters generally favor for mayor; DeMaio also had a reputation for feuding, including with Jerry Sanders, the popular but termed-out incumbent.
By nearly all accounts, San Diego appears to be over the worst of its fiscal crisis after years of belt-tightening, reductions in services and hard bargaining with city employees. But six months into a Filner administration, a new question has emerged: Will the mayor be undone by his confrontational style?
"He's not fighting the man anymore; he is the man,'' Gloria, who has pictures of John and Robert Kennedy and Harry Truman on his office wall, said of Filner. "He's used to being a fighter. That's been his persona for 30 years. But now maybe it's not about fighting, it's about reaching consensus."
Filner honed his approach in the 1960s as a Freedom Rider in the segregated South. He spent two months in a Mississippi jail, refusing to pay bail. He knew the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez and says they taught him that conflict and confrontation are often necessary to accomplish change.
On one of his congressional websites, Filner posted the mug shot from his arrest in Jackson, Miss.
Born in Pittsburgh, Filner was raised in New York City. His father, Joseph, was a labor organizer and World War II combat veteran who owned a scrap metal business.