Political Watchers Say The Silence Of Insiders Enabled Filner
San Diego’s trade mission to Mexico City this April was billed as a chance to forge stronger cross-border ties, but people on the trip say it was also a chance for Mayor Bob Filner to troll for women.
And troll he did, according to Sharon Cloward.
“Several women told me and others that he had touched them inappropriately and talked to them inappropriately,” she said.
Cloward was on the trip. She’s one of several women to publicly accuse Filner of unwanted sexual advances. Her alleged encounters took place before the Mexico trip. That’s why she said she asked for a room at the Intercontinental Presidente Hotel in Mexico City that was not on the same floor as Filner’s.
Sources, who went on the trip but spoke on the condition of anonymity, said a second woman on the trade mission complained to her boss about Filner and then stayed in her room for the rest of the trip. Another woman reportedly left in the middle of a meal because she could no longer take his alleged crude behavior, and sources said the mayor sent repeated text messages to a third woman asking her out.
Of the 14 women on the mission, sources said Filner sent out sexual signals to at least half. Several said they felt uncomfortable sharing their stories publicly because they believed their business with the city would be jeopardized.
But what about the 50 men on the trip, some of whom represent the who’s who in the San Diego business world? What did they see? What did they hear? What did they know?
“I didn’t know about it,” former Mayor Jerry Sanders said.
He attended the trade mission as head of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. He said he’s ready to stand with the women if they should decide to speak out, but he’s not surprised that others who may have known about Filner’s alleged sexual antics in Mexico City didn’t.
“They’re afraid of what’s going to happen to their business, their employees,” Sanders said. “The power imbalance is so great there. It’s just something you don’t think about until you’re stuck in that situation.”
Power dynamics are why public silence trumped private outrage despite years of whispers that Filner was harassing women.
“Make no mistake about it, Bob Filner — notwithstanding his current situation — has a lot of power in this community,” attorney Bob Ottilie said. “He has the ability to impact a whole lot of people’s interests.”
Many now say Filner abused that power with the help of key players. Union and Democratic Party leaders ignored the alleged harassment for years because they liked Filner’s progressive agenda, so did others who stood to gain.
“Anybody that’s going to be on a trade mission with the mayor presumably perceives themselves as on the inside,” Ottilie said. “They don’t want to do anything at all to harm that position. So you see something wrong and you look the other way because it’s Bob. It’s the mayor. That’s the way people operate that are close to the center of political power. It’s not necessarily a pretty thing to see in politics.”
The same may apply to Filner’s staffers. Former congressional aide Laura Fink documented Filner’s alleged inappropriate touching in an 2005 email to the then congressman and his aide Tony Buckles. He was recently brought in to city hall as Filner’s chief of staff after the sexual harassment scandal broke but Buckles left the post soon after Fink shared her story publicly.
But San Diego Mesa College political science professor Carl Luna said because aides depend on Filner for their own power, morality can take a back seat to self-interest, loyalty and fear.
“If your boss goes down, you go down, so it’s not unsurprising when staff cover up or at least turn a very blind eye to malfeasance by their bosses,” Luna said.
At a staff meeting in June, Filner reportedly asked former communications director Irene McCormack Jackson to offer up an example of his mistreatment of city employees. She reminded him in the presence of other city employees that he had told her she would work better without her underwear. The exchange took place at a staff meeting. McCormack Jackson has since sued the city and Filner alleging sexual harassment.
And McCormack Jackson’s attorney Gloria Allred said there’s reason to believe that Filner lorded his power over others.
“In one occasion, she told him to leave her office immediately, he responded with he was the mayor and he could be whereever he wanted,” Allred said.
Luna said the sexual harassment scandal also reveals that society may not have advanced very far from the Mad Men-era of the 1960s.
“Men today still seem to be in a frat boy culture that says, 'Hey, we can get away with this.’ They have to start changing because women are becoming more powerful, more open to the public and men are going to be held accountable increasingly. Bob Filner’s the poster child for ‘don’t do this anymore, men of America,” Luna said.
Some aides have left Filner. Vince Hall quit as chief of staff after the harassment allegations against the mayor became public. He’s described himself as a lifelong activist for women’s rights and equality.
College administrator Lisa Curtin, another of the nine women who’ve publicly accuse Finer of unwanted advances, said she wishes she hadn’t waited two years before telling her story.
But she believes those who kept silent about Filner’s alleged misconduct enabled him and failed women.
“They’ve seen it. They thought it was funny and they supported keeping it secret. I think it says there’s a lot of work that has to be done,“ she said.
Filner’s spokeswoman Lena Lewis did not respond to a request for comment.