Bob Filner And The Monster Within
Beyond the recent sexual-harassment allegations, Mayor Bob Filner’s political career is remarkable for the sheer volume of people he managed to offend or alienate along the way – enemies, allies, loyal staff members, the random airport employee who accused him of punching her.
Many people who have known Filner for decades – including a number of his former congressional aides – say they are stunned by the sheer breadth and depravity of the allegations against him.
But what doesn’t surprise them, they say, is a consistent and glaring flaw: Unless you were one of Filner’s constituents and he was hoping for your vote, he was something of a blank slate when it came to the fundamentals of human interaction.
The result: Not nearly enough people were willing to stand by him as criticism and ridicule mounted. He resigned effective the end of this month, blaming a “lynch mob” mentality for demands for his resignation and recall.
“I am responsible for providing the ammunition. I did that," Filner said. "But there are well-organized interests who have run this city for 50 years who pointed the gun, and the media and their political agents pulled the trigger."
Given the scope of the allegations, even the most beloved politician probably couldn’t have survived this scandal. For Filner, many people of like-minded political views were happy to witness his self-immolation. In fact, it was supporters who lit the match.
How did Filner manage to alienate so many people? Over the past few weeks, inewsource interviewed a range of Filner’s associates, including people who served with him or worked with him on the San Diego City Council a quarter-century ago, Congressional staffers and people close to his mayoral campaign. With Filner still in office during these interviews, most would not agree to be quoted by name.
But almost all of them say there is a great irony in Filner: The man who spent his political career professing compassion for the little guy had difficulty mustering the proper concern for how his words and actions might impact the people who surrounded him in everyday life. Simply put, he had difficulty connecting on a basic human level.
At least to some extent, he seems to have been undone by the same impulses that helped advance his political career: a refusal to abide by social niceties and the customary boundaries of human interaction.
A knack for the offensive
Where a simple kind word, or a small gesture of warmth, could make a world of difference in a given situation, Filner seemed to have a knack for saying something needlessly provocative or offensive instead. The same man who so passionately advocated for civil rights and other important causes, several former Congressional staffers said, couldn’t muster even feigned interest in his employees’ personal lives.
“I bet you could ask him my wife’s name, my kids’ names, after working with him for 15 years, and he wouldn’t have a clue,” said one former Congressional staffer of his.
Another former staffer, who worked for Filner for four years in the mid-1990s, recalls once bringing his father to a public event to meet Filner for the first time. Upon finding out that the staffer’s father worked for a local bank, Filner launched into a diatribe about how all the executives who worked for that particular bank were “a bunch of pricks.”
With apparently little or no thought, Filner had managed to eviscerate a complete stranger for utterly no reason. The aide said he resigned shortly afterward.
Thaddeus Hoffmeister, who served as Filner’s legislative director in Washington, D.C. from 2004 to 2007, said that shortly after the birth of his first child, he received a congratulatory card from Filner – with a warning attached. Hoffmeister had better not use the situation as an excuse to slack off, Filner wrote. The way Hoffmeister interpreted the card, Filner was half-kidding but half-serious. What surprised Hoffmeister most was that that his boss actually signed the card. Usually Filner didn’t bother with such pleasantries.
Hoffmeister, now a law professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said he couldn’t recall a single person with whom Filner might grab a beer or play a round of golf. Not that Filner played golf or appeared to have any other hobbies. All Filner did, it seemed, was work, Hoffmeister said. Work was like his oxygen – he couldn’t function without it.
Of Hoffmeister and the four other former Filner congressional staffers interviewed for this story – all of them male – all expressed astonishment at the recent sexual-harassment allegations, saying they never witnessed or heard about Filner sexually harassing women during his tenure in Congress. (Numerous former female staffers either declined to comment or didn’t return phone calls for this story.)
“We had young women up there, we had old women up there, we had middle-aged women up there,” Hoffmeister said. “You never heard about it. You never heard rumors about it.”
Whether Filner’s behavior towards women degenerated over the years is unclear. But his reputation as a bully was legendary and enduring.
As a congressman, he wasn’t shy about using his power to threaten and berate to get what he wanted. And there were plenty of times, his former congressional aides say, where the ends justified the means.
One former staffer, who worked for Filner from 2007 to 2008 in his San Diego office, recounted a case involving a constituent who needed a new wheelchair; his old one was giving him shoulder problems. Despite his doctor’s recommendation, his health insurer refused to give him a new one.
Getting his constituent a new wheelchair became Filner’s personal mission. After the customary channels failed to produce satisfactory results, Filner informed the insurance company’s executives that he would be holding a press conference in front of their building the following day. The end result: The man got his wheelchair.
Filner treated constituents the same way a good business treats customers. The citizen was always right -- and should be lavished with special attention. One staffer said his duties included trailing Filner around at various public events, getting the names, addresses and phone numbers of every single person Filner met. Someone from the office would then send that person a follow-up letter, personally signed by Filner.
“If someone wrote him a letter saying they weren’t getting their Social Security check, he was going to find out why,” Hoffmeister said. “He himself would do it. He would literally go down to the Social Security office.”
An inewsource investigation in October 2011 found Filner, who represented southern San Diego County and Imperial County in congress, sponsored 20 private bills, which are intended to help individuals facing uncommon hardships, since January 2009. That was more than anyone else in the House of Representatives.
The private bills, which are relatively uncommon, were a way for Filner to draw attention to causes that matter to him — such as immigration reform and civil justice — and to positively impact people’s lives.
Fastidious about paper clips
If Filner was obsessed with constituent service, he was equally obsessed with the tiniest minutiae within his congressional office – literally down to the size of the paper clips. If someone used a paper clip that was too small, Filner was known to erupt. There was an elaborate system of color-coded file folders for organizing various memos, correspondences and other documents. There were strict, unbending rules about which staffers could write in which colored ink.
To avoid having Filner “completely lose his mind,” it was necessary “to literally eyeball every piece of paper that got into his hands” to make sure there were no violations of some obscure Filner rule, said the staffer whose father worked for a bank.
It was understood that getting yelled at by Filner was part of the job. No one had any illusions about Filner’s demeanor.
There was always a moment of dread when an employee received a written note saying, “See me.” The “See me” notes were always written in blue -- as a general rule, only Filner was permitted to write in blue ink -- and virtually always signaled Filner’s intent to light into you.
“He was the only guy in the world who would schedule a time to yell at you,” one staffer said.
Hoffmeister recalled one episode in which Filner began yelling at him for an alleged mistake. After allowing Filner to vent for a while, Hoffmeister finally interrupted and explained that he hadn’t actually made a mistake. At that point, Filner “yelled at me for not telling him he was wrong before he went on this long rant,” Hoffmeister said.
Nothing about Filner’s behavior changed during his run for mayor. One staffer close to his campaign said she became fed up with Filner’s “abusive” behavior toward her, which included yelling at her in front of large groups of people. Finally one day, she said, she pulled Filner aside and told him, “The way you’re treating me is demoralizing.”
“Go be f demoralized then,” she said he replied.
Then came Filner’s election, followed by a series of well-publicized blow-ups and feud with other city officials – and, eventually, the parade of women accusing him of unwanted groping, kissing and a variety of other misdeeds.
San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, who has known Filner for decades, said he was stunned by the recent allegations. The two men served together on the city council in the late 1980s and he never witnessed or heard of Filner engaging in any sort of sexual harassment.
He did, however, observe the same traits that have characterized Filner’s entire career. “He just didn’t treat people well,” Roberts said.
The two men were elected to the council the same year and were sworn in together. According to Roberts, during the swearing-in ceremony – normally a festive, non-partisan affair – Filner issued a scathing critique of Mayor Maureen O’Connor, who was sitting in the audience.
“I’ve watched him turn situations around that were friendly and relaxed to where he insults everybody within hearing distance,” Roberts said.
Another person who served with Filner on the council during that term was Wes Pratt, who has since left politics and now works as an executive at Missouri State University. On the council, both were Democrats who found themselves aligned on many political issues and the two men have stayed in touch over the years, although Pratt says he considers Filner more a former colleague than an actual friend.
In early May, Pratt found himself in San Diego and dropped by the mayor’s office for a visit. Filner was happy to see him and the two men talked for awhile in a large conference room. Pratt complimented Filner, not just for winning the mayor’s race but for his long, productive career in public office.
“The long-term commitment you’ve made to public service is commendable,” Pratt told the mayor. “You embody the slogan, ‘Public service is the noblest good.’”
Filner smiled and even seemed to blush a bit as Pratt heaped praise on him.
During his resignation speech, Filner reminded his colleagues on the council and residents of his accomplishments as mayor. He was contrite, apologizing repeatedly to women he offended and to the city. At times close to tears, and in the next moment, defiant. He condemned the forces that sought to remove from office the first Democratic mayor in 50 years.
“People opposed me from the beginning,” he said. “They found the weapons they needed in my own failures as a human being, but they found those weapons and they used them in a bloody and vicious way.”
Pratt said he hadn’t seen the other side of Bob Filner. The allegations shocked and stunned him.
“I had no idea the storm was coming,” he said.
Pratt was back in Missouri in July when his daughter in San Diego texted him a prescient question that even his staunchest allies can’t answer.
“What the hell is wrong with Bob Filner?”