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Supporting A Politician Through Scandal

August 14, 2013 1:30 p.m.


Thomas Reifer, Ph.D, associate professor of Sociology, College of Arts and Sciences, University of San Diego

Brian Adams, professor of Political science, San Diego State University

Related Story: Supporting A Politician Through Scandal


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: More than 70% of San Diegans want Mayor Bob Filner to resign. But that means about 30% haven't made up their minds, or are supporting the mayor. How do people make up their minds about whether to stick with a politician or not? American politics has plenty examples of politicians who survived scandals, the primary example being President Bill Clinton. How much are people willing to overlook their elected officials and why? My guests, Tom Reifer is an associate professor of sociology at the University of San Diego. Welcome to the show.

REIFER: Glad to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And political science professor at San Diego State University, Brian Adams.

ADAMS: Great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now, we're opening the phones for you to tell us if you've decided to support Mayor Filner, and came us how you came to that decision, 1-888-895-5727. Professor Reifer, since the allegations of sexual harassment surfaced against the mayor about a month ago, we have had prominent politicians and business leaders from Washington all the way asking him to resign. But he hasn't, and perhaps he believes he can weather this storm. Does this surprise you?

REIFER: Well, I think Bob Filner has established a new kind of level for unpredictable behavior at this point. So I can no longer be surprised by anything he does. But I would surprised by the statement that was released last night saying we're going to move forward. It kind of seems crazy in a lot of ways. But I think that what's come out about his personal behavior establishes as somebody who, although he's done many important things in public life and progressive causes, we find that his personal behavior seems totally at variance with that. So I think that the predictions about Bob Filner are very hard to come by at this moment.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Professor Adams, there are Filner supporters in San Diego. They want him to stay in office. What are some of the reasons that would motivate this kind of support?

ADAMS: Well, most voters when we're thinking about who to support, they look at three broad factors: Issues the candidate supports, candidate characteristics, and their party affiliation. For most voters, it's a combination of those. And for a lot of voter, they emphasize candidate characteristics. They look at morality, ethical standard, and so forth. And for those voters, they're typically in the 70% who want to see him resign. I think for the few of the 30% who maybe don't want to see him resign, they focus much more on issues. And they're not really focusing much on candidate characteristics. They're simply saying I agree with Bob Filner on the issues, and I don't care about him as a person. But that's very rare, and most of the research that's been done on this has shown that American voters typically put a lot of emphasis on candidate character. And they care deeply, in many cases much more deeply about the candidate's character than about policy issues.

CAVANAUGH: How do voters typically weigh the pros and cons of supporting someone despite unacceptable behavior?

REIFER: Well, I think it's hard to answer that. There are different levels to unacceptable behavior. His behavior involving preying sexually on women, including women who are the most vulnerable, even though he's preying on a lot of powerful women. But an example of the Marine and the nurse who came in to try to get support for her is a particularly egregious example.

CAVANAUGH: I must say, these are alleged -- these are allegations at this point. They haven't been proven.

REIFER: It is true. Although of course the context as you know very well is that Mayor Filner has admitted that there's a monster inside him. So we have an unusual situation where a politician is basically admitting guilt to a substantive extent. On any given accusations or allegation, you could say it's not proven. But it seems pretty hard to imagine at this point that all these women who don't know each other would come forward with a similar story without a major problem going on. On the other hand there's all these issues about how are we going to build a progressive San Diego, and issues of income inequality, issues of gender inequality. So I think the people have very really concerns about the future of the city. And those are the areas that my colleague mentioned. But at the same time, the person for this vision is not somebody who appears to -- from what we know, serially sexually abuse and grope women. And this is only the women who've come forward. We don't know how many women he might have gotten into bed with him through this behavior, including sexual harassment, etc. So it's a complicated situation. He's not just head of an organization. He's head of a city, which is an organization of some form that involves all these constituencies, and John fathom from the foundation for change wrote an interesting article in the Union Tribune about a week ago saying Filner's law should be a noble vision. But Filner is not the person that is capable of being supported even by people who could carry out that noble vision at this point.

CAVANAUGH: Let me go to you. Is there anything that you'd like to add?

ADAMS: Yeah, you mentioned Bill Clinton before. And of course for a lot of voters, it's a very big distinction between something like having an extra marital affair versus something along these lines which, if they're accurate, he could be criminally liable for those. So there isn't a set standard that voters use. And for each voters it's different. For some voters, a simple allegation of sexual harassment would be enough for them to stop supporting a politician. For other voters, they need more compelling evidence.

CAVANAUGH: Let me take a phone call. Jack is on the line, from San Diego. Welcome to the program.

JACK: Great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, what was your comment?

JACK: Well, I think Mayor Bob Filner should stay.

CAVANAUGH: And why have you made that decision?

JACK: Four reasons. One, civil rights record. Two, environmental record. Three, work already done to add the Tijuana/San Diego Olympics. Four, already more likely to help the poor.

CAVANAUGH: And do the allegations against his personal behavior, do may make an impact on you at all?

JACK: They do. If this stuff is really true -- I mean, I don't think it's -- I think some of this could be fabricated. But it's pretty overwhelming. He looks pretty bad. But I've -- not as bad as him, but I've been guilty of that myself, and felt bad about it.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Jack, thank you for the call, and for that spontaneous admission. But that goes along to what you were saying, Brian, people who make decisions based on issues, and personal behavior is an also-ramp.

ADAMS: There's an important factor to take into account. Even if you agree with the issue stands that Bob Filner takes, there's this question about whether he will actually be effective in accomplishing what he wants to accomplish. And there's a lot of arguments you can make, even if the sexual harassment itself isn't that important to you, that he is in a position now where he's unable to lead the city simply because of the allegations and the scandal surrounding him and that he'll be ineffective at accomplishing any of its policy objectives.

CAVANAUGH: I mentioned president Clinton in my opening, and Brian mentioned him as well. I think probably the preeminent politician who survived in a very real sense this scandal involving Monica Lewinsky. The American people were not eager to see Clinton step down. And my question to you is why as a sociologist, why are so many willing to overlook what I think we could agree on as an incredible lapse of moral judgment by the president?

REIFER: Well, I think that there's differences in the situation. The most elementary difference in the situation is that what Bob Filner is alleged to have done, and it appears to be true what everything we know, is basically sexually abused and sexually harassed women in a variety of places in a nonconsensual way. Now, to have sex with an intern at the White House involves your own moral and ethical judgment, and is problematic from a variety of management points. Obviously is in a very powerful position taking an advantage of an intern. But the relationship was at least nominally consensual. The other thing that was very obvious, the campaign against him was purely for the most part a partisan political issue. So we have had presidents that have launched secret wars like Nixon in Cambodia, which was actually part of the impeachment but then came off the ticket and other things, and nothing has happened to them. I mean the latest George Bush is an example of that. So I think the combination of the difference between what Clinton did and the partisan political nature of it made it very different. And in fact, that's a -- which president faced impeachment? The one who launched us into a secret war or the one who had sex with an intern? The student said, I don't know, probably the latter.

And the caller, Jack, didn't say that the issue of sexual harassment wasn't important to him. He was very, very deeply concerned about that. But he is right, I don't think about Filner should stay in, but he is right about the importance of these issues. That's what makes the situation very specific and complex is that these issues are important issues. This isn't purely a partisan political thing of people attacking Filner. But we have a lot of very unlikely alliances here. I consider myself a progressive and supported Filner on the issues, but his personal behavior is hoe reprehensible and takes advantage so much of the weak that I just think there's no way that one can support him at this point. And if progressives can't come up with another candidate for San Diego City mayor, then we have to do some deep, deep thinking in the progressive community. Because this is also an issue of workers' rights. If he sexually harassed workers, as it appears he did, that's not just a women's issue, that's an issue of women's rights.

CAVANAUGH: Let me take a couple of calls here. Jason is calling us from San Diego. Welcome to the program.

JASON: Thank you. First, I wanted to say that I feel the mayor should resign now because as the point has already been made, I think he's going to be ineffective as a mayor. That said, I do want to emphasize I am a strong supporter of progressive candidates, and I strongly supported the mayor himself. He made his first public statement, and at that point I felt he would be ineffective.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, well, thank you for that. And I want to actually ask you, Brian, about -- you made that statement too. You thought that at this point, the mayor would be ineffective in office. I wonder what barriers you see to his being able to govern if he does come back and say he wants to continue and move forward as he said in his statement as mayor.

ADAMS: All the research on urban politics in the United States has shown that in order to be an effective mayor, you need a coalition. Mayors themselves don't have enough resources to really accomplish anything. They need to bring in the resources from other government actors, from the nonprofit sector, from the private sector, they need to bring those resources together. And Mayor Filner, even before this scandal was having some difficulty keeping allies and working with people. And after the scandal was broken, he's lost so many allies, it's going to be so difficult for him to assemble any type of coalition to accomplish anything. As a brief example, think about the Balboa Park centennial, which he mentioned in his statement yesterday. In order to put that on, you've got to form a very broad coalition of different groups that are participating, that have resources that you can bring to bear. And I just don't see how Bob Filner is in a position now where he could bring together a coalition. He's just too toxic politically. People don't want to be seen with him, they don't want to be working with him. And even if he has the best intentions and has good staff in the office, he doesn't control enough relevant political resources to do things on his own.

CAVANAUGH: Roberto from Clairemont, welcome to the show.

ROBERTO: Thank you very much. Tom and Brian was just talking about that it's obvious and it has to be true that because of the allegations that have been made, mayor Filner must resign and he's probably guilty. Last time I checked, I hadn't read anywhere where there were any criminal complaints that had been filed in any law enforcement agencies. There have been no criminal complaints. These are just allegations. Everybody deserves to have a fair trial and to hear the complaints aired with a jury or before the public. But not in the forum that we're having here --

CAVANAUGH: Well, let me ask you a question though, if I may, if indeed there's a difference between a due process for an individual before anybody would be able to charge or convict Bob Filner, private citizen, but do you think that the level of allegations being made already even without a court proceeding undermines the effectiveness of mayor Bob Filner to run San Diego?

ROBERTO: Well, it only undermines that effectiveness by the people that want him to resign and the people that have been working against him since he first came in like the U-T and the other news stations KUSI, for example. The only true objective coverage that has been had is by your station, television and radio. At least you people have some balance. There has been no balance here. All there has been is a constant attack ever since he was elected mayor.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. I'm going to have to end it there. Thank you so much for the call. We have to move forward because time is getting short. Tom?

REIFER: I just want to clarify something. I have close friends who were major supporters of Bob Filner. And they feel very, very torn. But it's not a situation where one person has come forward, it's a situation where over a dozen, many high-level women who have nothing to gain by coming forward, who supported the progressive agenda, and the mayor himself has said there's a monster inside of him and has said he needs therapy! Of course everyone has the right to due process. But we're in a situation where it's not like one person has accused somebody and somebody has denied it. So I think we have to make a distinction between there are a lot of forces who were never in favor of Bob Filner and want him out. And you have a very unusual situation where progressives like me are now allied with forces that I disagree with on almost every other issue because I think that if the progressive coalition is going to go forward it can't do it with this person. Not simply because they're going to be ineffective but because his personal behavior is so unacceptable and so atrocious.

CAVANAUGH: Tom, I'm running up against the clock. But I want you both to weigh in on this. What about forgiveness? Mayor Filner said he was going to seek therapy, he said he wanted to return a better person and a better mayor. It sounded like a plea for a second chance. Brian, if you could keep your answer short, do you think that the idea of forgiveness might resonate with voters?

ADAMS: It might. But it's up to voters to decide. Ultimately, this gets back to the last point. The decision about whether mayor Filner should stay in office is up to the voters. It's not up to a court of law. It's not up to whether a judge or jury finds him guilty. It's about whether voters want him as mayor F. They want to forgive him, that's their right, and he should stay in office.

CAVANAUGH: And Tom, what about this aspect of forgiveness?

REIFER: Well, talked about Filner's need for forgiveness, and the idea of seeking forgiveness in this article I had in the Union Tribune. And there's actually a great book on forgiveness by Charles Griswold. But that doesn't happen unless the person who has done the harm fully acknowledges the harm and realizes the enormous harm they've done. And two weeks in therapy is wholly inadequate for that.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. I have to end it there. Thank you so much. It's been a really good discussion.

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