Longtime Filner staffers had to know, so why was behavior allowed to continue?
By Andy Cohen
LA Times columnist George Skelton recently wrote about the similarities between sports and politics, about how the most successful players in both professions possess similar qualities, similar competitiveness. “Arrogance and egos afflict both, for example,” he wrote, “although politicians tend to be more charming.”
Sports terms are often used to describe successes or failures in politics (and just about every other facet of life for that matter). A well delivered speech can be a “home run,” a last ditch, desperate attempt at compromise on a piece of legislation in an effort to garner enough votes to push a bill over the “finish line” is sometimes referred to as a “Hail Mary.” Campaigns are “horse races.”
We often think of our elected officials as solitary pieces of a larger puzzle, but they’re not. Like a head coach, each pol is the head of a team within the league (Assembly, Senate, City Council, etc.). And like any head coach, be it football, basketball, baseball, or any other team sport, the guy in charge is only as good as the assistants around him or her. Each member of the U.S. Congress or Senate has a team of people working behind the scenes. Every campaign has an army of people working toward one goal: To win the election for their candidate.
In a way, politics should be viewed as a team sport, and every politician is only as good and as competent as the staff he hires to work for him.
As more and more details of the Bob Filner sexual harassment scandal come out, I am reminded of Marty Schottenheimer’s first couple of years with the Chargers as head coach. Stick with me, here. It’ll all make sense. I promise.
Marty had a long history of success as a head coach in The League, first with the Cleveland Browns, twice bringing his team to the brink of a Super Bowl berth, and then with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he amassed a pile of regular season wins and was a perennial playoff participant.
Marty also had his down years, which led to his dismissal in K.C. and at his next stop in Washington (although that also had a lot to do with a new, egomaniacal owner). I asked Jimmy Raye, at the time the Chargers Director of College Scouting and previously a part of Schottenheimer’s staff in Kansas City, what the difference between the successful years and the dismal years were. It’s the coaches he has around him, he said.
Marty Schottenheimer was a notorious micromanager, but when he had really good coaches—particularly offensive and defensive coordinators—who weren’t afraid to stand up to him and tell him to butt out and let them do their jobs, the Chiefs won….and won a LOT.
We saw that manifest itself here in San Diego. After two rough years, Wade Phillips came aboard as defensive coordinator, and along with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron the Chargers rose to elite status in The League. But after a 14-2 season that saw the departure of both Cameron and Phillips for head coaching positions elsewhere, Marty the Micromanager was about to make his return, so the team decided to part ways. (We can argue about the semantics, and whether or not it was the right decision all day long and never come to an agreement. I’m just saying that this was the decision process in a very small nutshell.)
Which brings me around to Bob Filner. This is a guy who has been in politics in San Diego for 30 years. He often likes to boast that he’s never lost an election. But now we have these sexual harassment allegations that are pretty damn serious and threaten to not only end his career, but tarnish his long history of accomplishments, locally and in a 20 year career in Congress.
Eight women have now come forward to accuse him of, in some cases, grossly inappropriate behavior toward them, with most incidents having taken place a number of years ago. The fact that Bob Filner can be difficult, cantankerous, intimidating when he wants his way (which is nearly always), abrasive, and occasionally abusive to his staff doesn’t really come as much of a surprise. After all, San Diego’s known him for THIRTY YEARS.
But we didn’t know about the sexual harassment accusations, and we should have. Long ago. Those around him should have put a stop to it long ago. Instead, they’ve acted as enablers, sweeping it under the rug even if privately they were disgusted by his actions.
As with Marty Schottenheimer, Bob Filner is only as good as his assistants, and that means strong staffers who are confident, competent, and willing to stand up to the boss and speak truth to power. Judging merely by what we now know, it doesn’t appear that anyone has ever stood up to Bob in any meaningful way to tell him to knock it off, that his behavior was unacceptable and inappropriate. Until now.
Where were his longtime and most trusted advisers all this time? Where were Vince Hall, Allen Jones, and Tony Buckles, all of whom had worked for Filner for years? What did they ever say to their boss regarding his behavior? Women who had dealt with Filner would often refer to him as “creepy.” His staffers had to know.
Laura Fink, accuser number two, sent an email letter to Filner and his then Chief of Staff Tony Buckles complaining about an incident at a campaign event. But in an interview with KPBS she said that Filner offered only a “mumbled” apology. This was in 2005. The message was clearly not received, and one wonders if Buckles even bothered to pull Filner aside and discussed it with him, or did he merely say “go apologize and be done with it?”
This past June Jones and Hall both stepped down in solidarity with Irene McCormack, Filner’s former communications director and the first woman to go public, with Hall citing his work as a “lifelong activist for women’s rights and equality.” The timing of Jones’ departure was at least a little dubious given the weight of the latest Sunroad scandal on him personally. So why did it take them so long to take a stand?
It is apparent that Filner truly did not know how offensive his behavior and treatment of some women was. He did not understand the seriousness of his actions. He should have known, but he had been doing it for 30 years and apparently no one ever stood up to him and said “NO.” Continuously getting away with it sent a signal that it was okay.
“People don’t change unless there’s tension,” Filner once told VOSD’s Liam Dillon. So where was the tension to get him to change his own ways?
Filner’s actions and behavior is a personal failing, and it’s something he is going to have to fix and atone for. But that it was allowed to continue for so many years is a failure of the people around him; people who could have put a stop to it a long, long time ago.