By Andy Cohen
Last spring, then mayoral candidate Bob Filner promised anyone who would listen that should he be elected Mayor of San Diego after 20 years in Congress, business as usual would no longer be tolerated by his office. The “Downtown Special Interests,” he said, had controlled San Diego for too long, and it was time to put it to an end.
In his mind, the “special interests” controlled the agenda in San Diego. From the big developers to the big hoteliers, the perception has long been that the wealthy and powerful of this city have enjoyed an outsized influence over City Hall. The City Council and the Mayor’s office have often been viewed as nothing more than a rubber stamp for their agenda, which has focused primarily on Downtown for at least the last two decades.
That would change under a Bob Filner administration, he promised. The focus would be placed on what was good for the city as a whole, not just what worked best for private business interests. It was an interesting campaign promise that many believed was nothing more than lip service; the kind of things politicians often say in order to impress the voters. But once in office the power brokers would again undoubtedly resume their place at the top of the hierarchy. That’s the way it’s always been done. No real reason to expect that to change.
Besides, their candidate was a shoo-in to win anyway. This Filner guy didn’t stand a chance. No worries. Doug Manchester—with his newfound media influence—barely broke a sweat. His massive Navy Broadway Complex was sure to be given a full and enthusiastic green light when his guy got elected.
Turns out that Bob Filner doesn’t care much for lip service. And as the folks down at City Hall are beginning to figure out, when he says something, it’s a pretty safe bet he means it. “I’m all about putting power back into communities and away from where it’s been for many, many decades” Filner said at a debate with his general election opponent, Carl DeMaio last August.
Throughout his first four months in the mayor’s office, Filner has stood steadfast on his principles, and he refuses to be pushed around by the usual suspects that are used to getting their way down at City Hall. That includes the City Council.
And if there were any doubts about his intention of following through on that campaign promise to stand up for the “little guy,” let them be gone once and for all. “The people who are resisting change don’t realize that I meant my campaign promises,” Filner said in an interview last week.
It was that showdown on the Tourism and Marketing District funding that demonstrated just how intent he is on changing the culture of San Diego city government. It was a dispute with clearly delineated lines in the sand, with the mayor waging a lonely battle against not only the private hotel interests that control the Tourism Authority these days, but against the City Council as well.
In the end, Filner wound up getting the most important of his list of demands, including strict protections for the city’s general fund, and a commitment of funding for the Balboa Park Centennial celebration. He also secured a commitment from City Council President Todd Gloria to delve further into an expansion of the living wage ordinance in the near future.
Filner wanted greater transparency on the part of the TMD board, and he got it.
Just two days prior to the March 28 special meeting of the City Council, the Council demanded that the Mayor sign the agreement they had crafted back in November, without Filner’s participation or input. There would be no modifications, no negotiations. The resolution to force Filner to sign the existing contract passed via a 7-1 vote. Then, only two days later the two sides met again in a veritable love fest to approve a new compromise document. To this day no one on the City Council has been able to articulate why it was so important to have this fight, particularly given the outcome.
Asked what rationale the Council and the TMD board had for dragging the process out as contentiously as they did, he said they offered none. “They were going to teach me a lesson. They (the TMD board) are used to getting their way, and they were very arrogant. They’re not used to answering questions.”
“They were going to show me my place,” the Mayor said.
It didn’t work, though. If anything, this mayor is even more emboldened to stick to his metaphorical guns. Filner, in fact, has been on the winning side of several conflicts that pit him against the City Council (and in some cases the City Attorney), including legal battles over the Balboa Park renovation plan and the Public Employee Relations Board ruling against Prop B.
Filner’s first four months in office, in fact, have been among the most turbulent in memory. But change doesn’t come easy, or without a fight. And Filner has demonstrated that he has plenty of fight in him, even if it’s not the most desired method of accomplishing a task.
“There’s going to be a new direction in San Diego city government. I’m serious about that,” said Filner. “There are plenty of indications of change already via appointments I’ve made and in the policies I’ve pursued.”
Only time will tell if the change Filner is seeking to bring about is on the right side of history.