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Bob Filner Says San Diego Needs To Make A Clean Sweep At City Hall

KPBS Special Series: The Race For San Diego Mayor

Congressman Bob Filner of the 51st district has a shot at being San Diego’s first elected Democratic mayor in nearly 30 years. Filner draws support from union members, but he’s facing an electorate divided over the benefits city workers receive.

— To help him unwind after a long day, Congressman Bob Filner sometimes sits down at the piano.

"It’s the one thing you can (do) after a long day of work, it doesn’t matter how well you play, and I don’t play very well, but your mind is somewhere else," he said as he played a few notes. "You’re just fooling around with techniques that have nothing to do with political ideas or anything else, so, it’s a great stress remover."

The Race For San Diego Mayor

Meet The Candidates

Filner began taking lessons as a child and picked it up again while he was in high school in New York. The 69-year-old father of two said he’s partial to show tunes from the 1940s and 1950s. He begins to play "If I Loved You" from the musical "Carousel."

"It was a simpler time. It takes me back to my first girlfriend where we went to the carousel," he said.

Times are not as simple for Filner now. He’s served on the San Diego Unified School Board and on the San Diego City Council. He was first elected to Congress in 1992 and has held that seat ever since, representing South San Diego and Imperial County. He’s served as chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and is now the ranking member. But Filner said he’s leaving that behind and running for mayor because he’s ready for a change.

"Washington has become very dysfunctional. You can’t do very much and if you’re a member of the minority party, as I am, it’s almost impossible," he said. "And I look back at my hometown where I lived for 40 years and said, you know I haven’t seen leadership in the city, in the mayor’s office, for three decades."

But after initial excitement that a viable Democrat was getting into the race, some of his supporters began to fret over his seemingly lackluster campaign. Alternative weekly newspaper San Diego City Beat even wrote an editorial urging Filner to pick up the pace. But Filner brushes off those concerns. He said he’s had plenty of experience winning elections.

"We know how to raise the money, we know how to do the campaign, we know how to tactically do this," he said. "So I will have the money for this campaign, we will have the volunteers. We have dozens and dozens and dozens of volunteers now. And we will win this election."

If he does win, Filner has several priorities for the city. He said he’d like to take greater advantage of the Port. He wants San Diego to act as a regional leader and he wants to begin investing in neighborhoods. And Filner said San Diego has to gain back many of the middle class jobs it lost when defense contracting firms scaled back their operations here.

"We have high tech and we have service jobs. We need to provide jobs for skilled working people over the vast range, as it were, of our economy," he said.

Unlike his three Republican challengers, Filner does not support the pension reform initiative on the June ballot. But those hoping he would provide an alternate measure for the ballot are out of luck. Still, he said he has a plan that includes capping pensions.

"I could do the parts of my plan without a referendum," he said. "I could put caps on the first day I’m mayor. I could negotiate a five-year labor agreement. If the council agreed with me, we could issue pension obligation bonds."

Filner said pension obligation bonds would allow the city to pay its pension debt over a longer period of time. He said that would lower the payments and free up money to be put in the city’s General Fund. It’s an idea that would likely gain traction with unions who are fighting to maintain pension benefits. Critics say it’s an example of Filner pandering to the labor organizations whose support he counts on.

"People know I’m an effective leader and nobody controls me. I’m in nobody’s pocket. I’m an independent person and everybody knows that," he said. "Yes I have the support of labor unions and I’m proud of that because those are the working people of our city. But nobody tells me what to do."

Filner said he’d work for all of San Diego, though he wants to see what he calls the downtown power structure broken up. Filner said San Diego has become more ethnically and politically diverse over the years and in fact a majority of voters in the city are registered as Democrats. Filner’s hoping those voters will turn out to the polls in June and push him into November’s general election and beyond.

Full interview below:

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