The Next Page: Bob Filner, the Pittsburgh native who's changing San Diego
Squirrel Hill native Bob Filner took to heart his dad's lessons about social justice. Walter G. Meyer profiles San Diego's new mayor and his agenda for change.
June 16, 2013 4:00 AM
Walter G. Meyer
Bob Filner, mayor of San Diego: "He sees his work in San Diego as a chance to set an example for Pittsburgh, the rest of the country and the world."
H. Joseph Filner, 1942.
Walter G. Meyer
Bob Filner with his family taking the oath of office as mayor.
Walter G. Meyer
Bob Filner, Mayor of San Diego.
Walter G. Meyer
Bob Filner, Mayor of San Diego.
Walter G. Meyer
Bob Filner with California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom at a fundraiser at Rich's nightclub in San Diego.
By Walter G. Meyer
When 70-year-old Bob Filner was growing up in Squirrel Hill, he never dreamed that he'd one day be mayor of America's eighth-largest city.
But his upbringing instilled in him values that wouldn't allow him to sit on the sidelines when he saw the chance to lead San Diego in a new direction. Elected last November as the first Democratic mayor in nearly two decades, he's reaching out to the common man and the city's neighbors to the south.
His father, Joe Filner, was a steelworker and union organizer. Although Joe's age and dependents exempted him from the draft, his strong opposition to fascism prompted him to quit the mill and volunteer for World War II. When the liberation of concentration camps prompted the Army to look for men who could speak Yiddish to Jewish prisoners, he transferred to a unit that helped open Dachau and Buchenwald.
What Joe saw profoundly influenced his life and prompted him to detail the horrors in long letters to his toddler son. Bob Filner still treasures those letters. His father's experiences inspired him always to take a stand.
The Filners lived at the foot of Pittsburgh Allderdice High School. "My grandmother owned a bakery in the Hill District on Center Avenue," the mayor recalled. "I can still smell it."
When Bob was 10, his father went into business for himself in New York City. Because all of his relatives were still in Pittsburgh, the family returned to have Bob's bar mitzvah at Congregation Poale Zedeck in Squirrel Hill.
The Filners' visits to Pittsburgh became less frequent over the years as relatives passed away.
"The overwhelming sense I had as a kid was how incredibly dirty the city was, but the remarkable thing after was how it got cleaned up," the mayor said. "I remember days when you couldn't see the sun at noon because of the soot."
His father, who was active in politics, heard about Martin Luther King Jr.'s need for funds to sustain the Montgomery Bus Boycott and immediately set out to raise money for the boycott and what became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Although he was inspired by his father's leadership, Bob was shy as a student.
"I was a very introverted, low-self-esteem, nerdy guy growing up. I went through all of college and never raised my hand," he said.
But when he heard about the beatings sustained by the Freedom Riders in 1961, he dropped out of Cornell University and headed south to join them. His father was proud of him and, according to Bob, told people, "I'm glad he was a Freedom Rider, but did he have to steal my credit card to do it?"
He booked his trip on his dad's plastic. In Mississippi, he was promptly arrested for his activism and served two months in prison, along with future congressman and close friend John Lewis. They have been featured in a book and documentaries about the Rides.
His mother, Sarah, supported his activism. "Whether it was anti-war or civil-rights stuff, whether it was at the Pentagon or in New York or Selma, she'd always show up and find me within five minutes. I don't care if the crowd was 250,000 or 200. She'd have her care package."
She'd say, "'Demonstrate, but you eat first!' Jewish mothers are just incredible."
A sharp-tongued liberal
After receiving a doctorate in the history of science at Cornell, Bob Filner landed a job as a professor at San Diego State University. He might have lived out his life as a relatively sedate academic, but his sense of outrage flared when the San Diego school board wanted to close his son's school. That fight led him to run for the school board in the late 1970s, which led to his election to city council, which led to 10 terms in Congress.
His forceful personality made national news in 2007, when he was accused of assaulting a United Airlines employee at Dulles International Airport. He allegedly tried to force his way into the employees-only area of baggage claim and got into a confrontation with the female baggage clerk. In a plea deal, the charge was reduced to misdemeanor trespassing, and he paid a small fine and wrote the clerk an apology.
But he also drew attention for principled stands. A few years ago, he got 200 people to surround a woman's home to save it from foreclosure. The bank and sheriff backed down, not wanting a confrontation with a congressman. (Critics called the rally a political stunt.) Mr. Filner was disappointed that he didn't get arrested. He believed that that would have helped shed light on unfair foreclosures.
He especially took issue with service personnel being charged illegally high interest rates or having their homes foreclosed on while they were overseas. At a congressional hearing in 2011, he told a JPMorgan Chase executive that the bank should be held responsible for any soldiers who committed suicide because of financial harassment.
"People who are under pressure commit suicide," he was quoted as saying. "I would call it homicide, frankly, because you are putting them under pressure. You are responsible for that." He fought for rules to protect veterans from losing their homes.
Last year, Mr. Filner saw a chance to break the Republican stranglehold on the mayor's office. The general election featured the liberal Mr. Filner and city Councilman Carl DeMaio, who had Tea Party backing. (Former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy was a moderator at one debate, and the two have stayed in touch.) Mr. Filner beat Mr. DeMaio by 5 percentage points.
Politics makes strange bedfellows. The city's LGBT community supported Mr. Filner over Mr. DeMaio, who is gay. On the other hand, some of the city's staunchest conservatives supported Mr. DeMaio because they feared Mr. Filner more than the prospect of a gay mayor.
The new mayor quickly signaled that things would be different. He gave part of his inaugural address in Spanish to welcome the large number of Mexican dignitaries who attended. He thanked the labor unions that worked tirelessly to get him elected (he is, after all, a steelworker's son). He vowed change: "I want my tenure judged not only on what we accomplished, but how we make our decisions to get there."
He's widely viewed as a man of the people. When he appeared at an event to celebrate Cambodian New Year, he was introduced as "San Diego's first Asian mayor." At an event in the gay community days later, he was introduced as "San Diego's first gay mayor."
Building rapport with Mexico
In a city that has seen many mayors and council members indicted or resign in disgrace, Mr. Filner promised transparency. One Saturday a month, he has open office hours, when constituents can talk to him about anything. No special interests are welcome.
In his first six months, he's had loud battles with the Republican city attorney over control of the hotel tax and staff cuts at the latter's office. During a discussion of the hotel tax in city council, Mr. Filner got into a shouting match with the popular council president, a fellow Democrat who cut off the mayor's microphone and told him to sit down. The council president and Mr. Filner also locked horns over whether the mayor or council gets to appoint members to the port commission. The city attorney sided with the Democrat-controlled council on that one.
He also opposed the council and city attorney on the issue of medical marijuana. Against a backdrop of conflicting local, state and federal laws, Mr. Filner wants to halt city police involvement with federal raids on dispensaries. Mr. Filner asked the council to draft a new ordinance clarifying the legality of the clinics, but amid much opposition to having marijuana sold in the city, that hasn't happened.
For the first time in three decades, the council and mayor's office are both controlled by Democrats, but it hasn't exactly been the smooth sailing that many had envisioned. Local newspapers run headlines along the lines of "Why Can't Mayor Filner Just be Nicer?"
"Even the people who like him don't like him," said a San Diego State professor familiar with the mayor's prickly personality. Others say he's a likeable curmudgeon of the sort Ed Asner (another liberal) played so well in the TV show "Lou Grant" and the film "Up."
Mr. Filner has a wicked sense of humor and takes sly digs at his opponents. But he can turn stressful meetings into the equivalent of a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast. He has a reputation for being impatient and abrupt but doesn't apologize for it when he thinks he's in the right, joking that he doesn't mind playing "bad cop" to get things done. Mr. Filner's predecessor, Republican Jerry Sanders, said, "Bob is a passionate individual. I don't agree with him very much, but I love his passion."
When handing over the reins at the inauguration, Mr. Sanders said, "The two high points of a mayor's life are the day he takes office and the day he leaves office. I'm the happier man." But Mr. Filner seems pretty happy, too, as he tackles everything from huge international issues to the elimination of seagull poop on the rocks around La Jolla.
A local newspaper ran the headline "Filner Everywhere," and it seems to be true. A typical day, packed with 22 appointments, had him running from dawn until after dark. He has burned through three schedulers so far. Other top staffers and members of his security detail also have left, not over policy differences but because he wore them out.
Mr. Filner is pushing for much greater cooperation with his neighbors to the south, opening an office in Mexico and announcing his grandiose bid to host the first binational Olympics, with Tijuana, Mexico, in 2024. He says merely attempting the bid is an opportunity to foster cooperation between the two cities and make improvements at one of the world's busiest -- but slowest -- border crossings.
Many politicians have seen Mexico's proximity as a burden. But Mr. Filner, whose congressional district covered all 240 miles of California's border with Mexico, sees opportunity. He has appeared at environmental and trade conferences to emphasize that the cities, which share problems, challenges and families, should share solutions, too.
He says Mexicans would spend more time and money in San Diego if crossing were more convenient, and he cites a study estimating that reducing bottlenecks at the border would add $6 billion annually to the San Diego-area economy.
Mr. Filner's agenda also includes an assault on homelessness and making all city buildings solar-powered. He sees his work in San Diego as a chance to set an example for Pittsburgh, the rest of the country and the world.