SAN DIEGO (AP) — The news release intended to project an air of normalcy: “Forward with City Business!” exclaimed the announcement Mayor Bob Filner put out last week with some upbeat photos showing the mayor reviewing plans for a new library, smiling at a gay pride parade and celebrating at an office birthday party.
But “normal” San Diego is not these days — not with talk of unwanted advances, groping and headlocks, and comparisons of Filner to Anthony Weiner, the ex-congressman who is resisting calls to quit New York’s mayoral race after revelations about new salacious online exchanges.
For the last two weeks, Filner, 70, has been mired in his own scandal over far more serious allegations that he sexually harassed women. The lurid claims have become the talk of the town — plunging California’s second-largest city into political turmoil amid demands for its first Democratic leader in decades to resign.
“I can’t go anywhere without it coming up — the laundromat, the grocery store, a friend’s party, a restaurant,” said Todd Gloria, a Democrat who, as City Council president, would become interim mayor if Filner resigns. “It comes up everywhere I go, and no one is supportive of the mayor.”
Filner, like Weiner, shows no sign of quitting, fueling talk of a recall effort less than eight months into his four-year term. His office didn’t respond to an interview request.
The problems for Filner began two weeks ago when a former councilwoman and onetime Filner supporter called for the mayor to step down, saying she had received credible evidence that he had harassed women. Filner issued a video statement, apologizing for intimidating and “failing to fully respect” women. He called his behavior “inappropriate and wrong,” promised to change, and declared, “I need help.”
On Monday, Filner’s former communications director, Irene McCormack Jackson, claimed in a lawsuit that he asked her to work without panties, demanded kisses, told her he wanted to see her naked and dragged her in a headlock while whispering in her ear.
A day later, political consultant Laura Fink said in an interview on San Diego’s KPBS that Filner patted her buttocks at an event in 2005 when she was deputy campaign manager to the former 10-term congressman.
On Wednesday, yet another woman came forward: Morgan Rose, a psychologist for the San Diego Unified School District, told KPBS that then-Congressman Filner repeatedly tried to kiss her during a 2009 meeting to discuss child welfare. Rose said Filner told her, “Your eyes have bewitched me,” moved next to her in a booth, and tried to kiss her on the mouth.
The once-peripatetic mayor known for popping up at community gatherings is rarely seen in public now, and when he is, he is hounded by reporters. Television crews fired questions as he walked to his car Saturday but got no answers before he stepped inside and his driver accelerated through a red light. His appearance at the gay pride parade came after he said he wouldn’t attend because he didn’t want to be a distraction.
Despite his apology, Filner has also insisted he will be cleared of any harassment claims. Regarding McCormack’s lawsuit, Filner said, “I do not believe these claims are valid. That is why due process is so important. I intend to defend myself vigorously and I know that justice will prevail.”
Even if he survives, many question if Filner can deliver on priorities such as installing solar panels on city buildings, hosting a centennial bash for treasured Balboa Park and improving services in pothole-plagued neighborhoods.
Dr. Pradeep Gidwani, a pediatrician who voted for Filner, said the number of detailed claims from former supporters convinced him the mayor should resign. He noted Filner has not addressed specific allegations.
“If you didn’t do it, you say you didn’t do it,” Gidwani said as he purchased coffee beans at a cafe in the hip North Park neighborhood. “I haven’t heard any denials.”
Filner backers sipping coffee a few steps away noted the allegations are unproven, and they welcomed his apology. Across the street, restaurant manager Ethan Ostrander said he’s taking a wait-and-see approach while monitoring developments on his friends’ Facebook postings and well-known blogs.
“I was really excited for a Democratic mayor who was going to get stuff done,” Ostrander said. “I think everybody needs a second chance.”
Filner is the city’s first Democratic mayor in 20 years. Eager to exploit a 12 percentage point edge in voter registration to unseat a well-oiled Republican machine, Democrats last year coalesced around the liberal congressman as Republicans charged he was too ill-tempered to lead the nation’s eighth-largest city.
One television attack ad featured a United Airlines baggage handler saying she feared for her safety during a run-in with Filner at Dulles International Airport in 2007 that resulted in Filner acknowledging misdemeanor trespassing. Joanne Kunkel alleged in a criminal complaint that Filner barged past other customers, screamed at employees, repeatedly pushed her and yelled, “You can’t stop me.”
“Before the scandal, Filner already had a problem in that he tended to antagonize a lot of people, and now a lot of his allies have abandoned him. He’s toxic,” said Brian Adams, a political science professor at San Diego State University.
Six of nine City Council members have urged Filner to resign, including two Democrats. So have two Democrats who represent the city in Congress, Susan Davis and Scott Peters, and state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who, when she was the city’s top labor organizer, helped raise $2 million for Filner’s November victory.
Filner can be forced out by a felony conviction or a recall vote, which would require more than 100,000 signatures. A Facebook page to recall the mayor has nearly 6,000 “likes” and a talk-radio host led a recall rally with dozens of people outside City Hall on Friday, but no one has stepped forward with money to mount a big campaign.
Filner, meanwhile, has agreed not to be alone with women on city business and has delegated broad authority to a new interim chief operating officer, Walt Ekard, a highly regarded former county administrator.
The controversy ranks as one of San Diego’s biggest political scandals, along with the 2005 resignation of Mayor Dick Murphy amid a crisis over city finances, charges against three city councilmen that year for allegedly taking bribes for relaxing rules on strip clubs, and the 1970 indictment — and subsequent acquittal — of Mayor Frank Curran over alleged illegal campaign contributions.
Onetime supporters of Filner said they had heard rumors of bad behavior for years. Jess Durfee, former chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, said he confronted Filner in 2011 after hearing similar concerns.
“This is not a problem,” Durfee recalled Filner telling him. “If you look at my record, I never had a sexual harassment claim in all my years in office.”
McCormack, an ex-journalist who left the Port of San Diego to join Filner’s inner circle, said in her lawsuit that five employees resigned over the mayor’s behavior. At a news conference with her high-profile attorney, Gloria Allred, McCormack said she saw Filner “place his hands where they did not belong on numerous women.”
Logan Jenkins, a columnist at U-T San Diego, the city’s dominant newspaper, said McCormack’s lawsuit “may not be the fatal thrust, but it sure feels as if it slices a major artery.”
He wondered how long Filner could last.
“His will to live to fight for another day in office is astonishing,” Jenkins wrote.