SAN DIEGO — The week began with news that Mayor Bob Filner’s fiancee ended their engagement and, by Friday, San Diego’s first Democratic leader in 20 years was desperately trying to stay in office amid sexual harassment allegations made by public by some of his closest supporters. He apologized, promised to change and begged voters to let him keep his job.
The rapid-fire developments put heavy scrutiny on the personal foibles of Bob Filner, a feisty liberal who was elected in November after 10 terms in Congress marked perhaps most famously by a 2007 run-in with a United Airlines baggage handler at Dulles International Airport that resulted in him pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of trespassing.
Filner has long had a reputation for berating employees and been dogged by rumors of making sexual advances on women, but nothing stuck like a former city councilwoman’s comments this week that she had firsthand accounts from more than one woman who was sexually harassed by the mayor.
Donna Frye, who worked briefly for the mayor as his director of open government, didn’t provide any specifics at an emotional news conference Thursday, like the nature of the alleged abuse, when it occurred and how often. But she demanded Filner resign, saying, “There is no doubt in my mind that these allegations are true.”
Filner, 70, didn’t address specifics of his behavior either in an extraordinary video he released hours later that made clear he knew his career was gravely threatened, saying, “I need help.”
“If my behavior doesn’t change, I cannot succeed in leading our city,” he said.
Filner, who is divorced, said he will personally apologize over the next few days to current and former employees, both men and women.
“It is a good thing that behavior that would have been tolerated in the past is being called out in this generation for what it is: inappropriate and wrong,” he said.
Frye, who said she wouldn’t seek Filner’s job, reaffirmed her demand Friday that Filner resign, according to a tweet by Marco Gonzalez, an environmental attorney who spoke alongside the former councilwoman in urging him to step down.
“Additional information to be provided next week,” Gonzalez wrote.
Frye is highly influential with Filner’s base, and the mayor needs all the friends he can get after alienating many key players during his brief tenure.
“Bob takes on way too many battles at the same time and doesn’t know how fight a one-front war,” said Steve Erie, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego. “He’s fighting a multi-front war — the City Council, the city attorney, developers, hoteliers.”
Filner struck a five-year labor agreement with city unions and opened a city of San Diego office in Tijuana to strengthen ties with the Mexican border city, but his behavior now overshadows those and other accomplishments.
In February, he crashed City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s news conference about tourism marketing revenue, commandeered the podium, and accused the elected official of “unethical and unprofessional conduct” for scrutinizing the mayor’s position through the news media. Last month, he ordered a Goldsmith deputy to leave a closed-door City Council meeting, saying the attorney spoke without being recognized and refused to sit down when told.
His deputy chief of staff recently resigned at a staff meeting over what Filner called disagreements about how he was running the office. When Filner asked if anyone else in the room wanted out, his communications director came forward.
In a rare moment last month, Filner questioned his behavior, saying, “Anybody who’s intelligent would have to undergo some self-examination.” Yet he said during the same regular monthly news conference that the staff defections were normal occurrences under a demanding boss and faulted the news media for its coverage.
“It’s a high-pressure, high-tension situation, and some people can adapt, some people can’t,” he said.
When he was 18, the Pittsburgh native spent two months in a Mississippi jail in 1961 after joining the Freedom Riders in their civil rights campaign against segregation in the South. The history professor went on to serve on the San Diego school board and City Council.
In Congress, he became chair the House Veterans Affairs Committee, launching a profanity-laced tirade against an official in 2007 over a failure to protect veterans’ personal data from computer theft. He was never a major player in Washington and, unlike his current job, labored largely outside the media spotlight.
“In order to become a part of the (House) leadership, you’ve got to get along with people and he’s a hard person to get along with” said Chris Crotty, a Democratic political consultant.
Crotty, who has known Filner more than 20 years, said Filner repeatedly wins elections because he delivers services that matter to constituents, like retirement benefits for a large population of Filipino veterans of World War II in his district.
Whether Filner can survive as mayor is a guessing game that may hinge on whether specifics emerge on the harassment allegations. He canceled a weekend appearance at the city’s gay pride parade, saying he didn’t want to be a distraction.
Crotty thinks Filner’s supporters will accept his apology, barring new disclosures. Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego’s Mesa College, believes there is an 80 percent chance Filner will be forced out.
“Everybody knew he had a tendency to be ... somewhat jerkish and that he was no stranger to female companionship,” Luna said. “It just finally caught up with him.”