Editors Note: Former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña has an up close and personal story to tell about her dealings with former Mayor Bob Filner and the Democratic Party establishment. This is a part one of a five part series running this week (which may eventually end up as a book).
PART ONE: Filner Clears the Field
By Lori Saldaña
In December 2010 I termed out of the California Assembly after serving 6 years; 3 terms were then the maximum allowed. In the summer of 2011 I prepared to teach a class in the Women’s Studies Department at San Diego State University on “Sex, Power and Politics,” and, as redistricting was concluded, decided to run for Congress in the 52nd district in California. As I began preparing to teach and run for Congress, I began hearing stories from women who told me they had been harassed by then-US Representative Bob Filner, who appeared to be the only Democratic candidate for Mayor of San Diego.
Filner did a good job of clearing the field. He received support and promises of help from people who coveted his open seat, and saw in his retirement the opportunity for a “domino effect” to lead to additional openings and special elections in the California Senate and Assembly.
These considerations likely came into play later. For, even as the rumors of Filner’s indiscretions began to surface, no one wanted to change the game plan, and look for a new candidate.
The stories I heard that summer came from women in elected and appointed office, candidates for office, and women serving at high levels in their professional communities.
It would take nearly 2 more years, after Filner became mayor of San Diego, before others heard some of these stories of abuse and harassment. However, this is not intended as a comprehensive “tell all” with names, dates and places. It is my story, from a personal perspective, of the impact of Filner’s actions on my own life and career plans.
I will continue to honor the requests of those women who asked for anonymity in 2011. If and when they want to come forward, as I hope they eventually will, I will let them tell their side of this story.
Sometimes people say “politics is show business for ugly people.” And when you cross a powerful person in Hollywood, it is often said “you’ll never work in this town again.”
Similar dynamics were at work in the harassment scenario with Bob Filner. It was the worst kept secret in San Diego political circles for years. Many of the women who have been accosted by Filner, and many more people who knew of his actions, remained silent simply because did not want to lose the support of the Democratic Party and/or the extensive professional community linked to politics: lobbyists, contractors, and public agencies and schools.
Some of the harassment they described to me was physical- unexpected and inappropriate contact that left them shocked and wondering how to respond.
Other behavior was more subtle, but equally disturbing: aggressive and persistent requests for dates, despite being told women were not interested or were unavailable. These requests were presented by Filner to married as well as single women.
Still other actions were simply boorish: intentionally bumping a person’s elbow at a cocktail reception, while trying to spill a drink on their clothing. Or describing women colleagues’ appearance and dress in sexist and insulting terms.
Both of these things happened to me during meetings with Filner, and I chalked the first up to an accident, and the other to too much alcohol. Then, while visiting DC as a congressional candidate, I heard confirmation from others that Filner routinely engaged in these behaviors.
But in the summer of 2011, I wasn’t thinking about any of this. I was prepping for returning to the college classroom for the first time in over 6 years, while also running for Congress. As part of both activities, I called women I wanted to invite to speak to my students, and ask them to support my campaign. But as I listened to these women I grew increasingly upset to hear their Filner stories, and even more concerned when they refused to come forward publicly.
They had many reasons and excuses to stay silent: because they did not work for Rep. Filner, they did not believe these were actionable workplace discrimination or harassment cases. After all, they worked with him, not for him, and their approach was basically: “you know how men are; deal with it.”
Others knew Filner socially, or needed continued access to his office for lobbying and other activities. And while they found his actions “creepy,” they insisted that they did not rise to the level of criminal behavior or a workplace violation.
Still, given his candidacy for local office, I was alarmed to hear these accounts from powerful, professional women who had no reason to fabricate their stories. The similarities in their accounts were striking. But in the end, none of them were willing to step forward and call on Filner to change his pattern of behavior, or reconsider his campaign for Mayor of San Diego.
Since these conversations were private, and part of broader discussions we were having about my candidacy and the upcoming elections, I was not willing to follow up on them directly with the Congressman. And, frankly, I believed a conversation with him would have done more harm than good, based on our past history.
My first meeting with Rep. Filner was in April 1995, while accompanying Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope to the Congressman’s Chula Vista office. I was a Sierra Club volunteer, living part of the time in Mexico. I had developed an interest in crossborder water quality projects, and I was also a member of the local Sierra Club Executive Committee.
Even though it was my first meeting with Filner, he made no effort to be polite. He was irate that the Club disagreed with him on a border sewage treatment project. He complained that he was always good on Sierra Club issues and votes in the House, and couldn’t understand why the organization would publicly disagree with him over this wastewater treatment plant.
This scenario would eventually evolve into protracted legal battles, with the Sierra Club and me as the named plaintiff, successfully suing the United States Environmental Protection Agency over competing project proposals. The complicated battles continued for 15 years.
In a prescient twist, as we left the meeting, Pope asked if I would consider running against the newly elected Rep. Brian Bilbray in 1996. Bilbray had just defeated incumbent Lynn Schenk. I declined, but was flattered he would consider me a viable candidate, and eventually went on to support others who challenged Bilbray over the years.
From 1995 to 2004 I went from serving as Sierra Club volunteer, to serving as a Clinton appointee on border infrastructure development, to eventually serving as a State Assemblywoman. Unfortunately, none of these titles or activities mattered to Filner. He continued to be dismissive and unfriendly towards me.
So, since I had a history of disagreements with the Congressman I encouraged the women with direct experience of his actions to come forward and speak out.
Only one of them was willing to do so.
At this point, you might ask: Why did they remain silent? Why not let others know that Bob was acting in inappropriate ways towards them, and quite likely others?
Looking back, I believe we were all worried about the repercussions that telling these stories would have on our careers and relationships with others in the San Diego political community, not to mention the upcoming Mayoral election. Filner had managed to push all others out of the race. Democrats would be left with no viable candidate, based on polling from earlier that year.
In addition, some of these women needed the Congressman’s support for their projects at their schools and other workplaces. Others wanted his political endorsement, even though they recounted creepy conversations of a sexual “quid pro quo” nature when they had asked for his help.
(I heard from several women who confirmed these propositions, but also insisted they were firmly turned down, and they continued to work with Filner.)
Often, in the end, they just dismissed these conversations as “Bob being Bob.”
As for me: I never expected nor asked for Bob’s endorsement, given our personal disagreements.
He didn’t support me in my first election, when I had run against the odds in 2004, and won an Assembly seat after spending only $75,000 vs. the millions my opponents and their supporters raised and spent. We had prevailed by walking door to door for over a year, without the support of the Democratic insider clique.
I was able to run a successful and truly grassroots campaign that year. When I defeated two other Democrats in the open primary to replace Chris Kehoe, and won by 10% of the vote on election night, it shocked the political community throughout California. Only then did Filner agree to meet with me personally to discuss how he could support my November campaign. (I’ll go into the details of that meeting another time.)
In addition, after 6 years of legislative work supporting marriage equality, environmental protection and gun safety, I didn’t need much help bolstering my progressive credentials. If anything, I was trying to appear more “business friendly” to help connect with the more moderate/conservative contributors and organizations watching the 52nd district- considered one of the most competitive campaigns in the country.
I understood the balancing act that is required politics, even though I often disagreed with it. So in the end, I listened to these women’s professional and personal concerns, and honored their requests that their names not be used.
Instead, after considering my options for action, I followed up- privately- with a person I believed could have a serious conversation with Filner: San Diego County Democratic Party Chairman Jesse Durfee.
Tomorrow: “Bob is a single man. He can date who he wants.”