In San Diego, where the local newspaper last year called Barack Obama the worst president ever and voters stripped new city workers of traditional pensions, the election of a Democrat as mayor promised to be a watershed.
Now, as Mayor Bob Filner faces resigning to end a sexual-harassment lawsuit against the city by a former spokeswoman, the durability of San Diego’s Democratic turn may be tested in one of the last big California cities where Republicans ruled.
Democrats have a 3-to-2 edge in voter registrations in the state’s second-largest city, according to San Diego data. Yet before Filner, whose victory last year was fueled by public-employee unions upset with the pension changes, voters chose Republican mayors in six straight elections over two decades.
“If Bob Filner leaves, there’s nothing to say a Democrat won’t take his place -- in fact that’s very likely,” Carl Luna, who teaches politics at San Diego Mesa College, said by telephone. “Bob Filner’s politics were popular, just not his personality,” he said about the 70-year-old mayor.
The City Council will reportedly consider accepting a proposed settlement of the lawsuit that will force Filner to resign, while providing him with a taxpayer-financed shield against legal claims. City Attorney Jan Goldsmith has said the tentative deal will be laid out in a closed-door meeting today.
San Diego, the nation’s eighth-largest city, is home to naval and Marine Corps bases and defense contractors that provide a quarter of the region’s jobs, according to the nonprofit San Diego Military Advisory Council. While that presence, along with a large retiree population and a close-knit business community, has given the city a Republican tilt, Democrats overcame that traditional balance in 2012, Luna said.
Filner’s win came as a Democratic tide swept through Los Angeles all the way to the Mexican border, encircling Orange County, the region that propelled Ronald Reagan to the governor’s office and later the White House. Yet by last month, even Democratic National Committee leader Debbie Wasserman Schultz was calling for the mayor’s resignation.
A congressman for two decades, Filner claimed city hall in November with 52 percent of the vote. He beat City Councilman Carl DeMaio, a Republican who championed a proposal to cap pension benefits and offer most new workers only 401(k)-style savings plans. Filner, in a televised campaign interview, called the measure a “fraud.” It passed with 66 percent of the vote in June 2012, yet major components don’t kick in until 2018.
Unions rallied behind Filner’s mayoral bid as a result, and partly because they feared DeMaio, said Steve Erie, who teaches politics at the University of California at San Diego. Filner’s win marked the ascendancy of labor over the city’s traditional power centers of the military and downtown business interests, Erie said by telephone.
Labor organizers were able to drive turnout in blue-collar areas south of Interstate 8, the highway traditionally dividing the city’s political and social geography, Erie said. Unions “have the field operation, particularly south of 8,” to help Democrats win in local elections, he said.
The U-T San Diego newspaper under owner Douglas “Papa Doug” Manchester, a hotel developer, has inveighed against the mayor in editorials. In an interview during last year’s campaign, Filner said the newspaper was biased. In July 2012, the newspaper declared Obama the worst president in history.
However, the paper and other local media said nothing last year about the candidate’s behavior toward women while he served in Congress as a representative from the area. Some of the 18 women who have since come forward to accuse Filner of making unwanted advances or other inappropriate behavior have said it occurred during that period of his career.
Filner had resisted pressure to step down after more than a dozen women, including a retired rear admiral, a university dean and a great-grandmother, made accusations that included groping, headlocks and inappropriate comments. He took a two-week hiatus for counseling this month, returning to city hall Aug. 21.
He has apologized for offending women, though he said that his behavior fell short of sexual harassment.
The reluctance of labor leaders to denounce Filner after so many women came forward with their accusations may erode their influence, said Tony Krvaric, chairman of the San Diego County Republican Party. He said the unions are a “powerhouse” in local politics.
Filner’s November win resulted from “a pure Obama wave, low-information voters and brute force by labor unions,” Krvaric said. He may also have benefited from Hispanic voters, who overwhelmingly backed Obama last year, according to exit polls. The city’s Latino population swelled to 29 percent in 2010 from 25 percent in 2000, U.S. Census Bureau figures show.
Should Filner step down, City Council President Todd Gloria, a Democrat, would become acting mayor and a special election would be scheduled within 90 days to pick a permanent replacement. That vote may put a Republican back in the corner office because of a backlash against union leaders and because of the party’s voting strength in nonpresidential elections, Krvaric said.
Richard Barrera, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego County Labor Council, said a Filner resignation wouldn’t necessarily harm the Democrats’ prospects as voters remain frustrated with business-dominated political leadership.
Filner’s election last year shows “that San Diego is changing as a community,” Barrera said. “There are a lot of people in San Diego who believe that the kind of politics we’ve had in the past 20 years have been serving the interests of the downtown business establishment.”
Barrera called the harassment allegations against Filner “incredibly serious,” in a July 18 statement, without demanding the mayor’s resignation.
Representatives of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, the Service Employees International Union and the San Diego Police Officers Association, all of which backed Filner last year, didn’t respond to inquiries seeking comment.
Gloria Allred, a lawyer for Irene McCormack Jackson, the former Filner communications director who has sued the city and the mayor, urged the council to reject any settlement that commits taxpayer dollars to his defense. McCormack Jackson claims that Filner held her in a headlock and suggested that she work without panties.
“His parting gift should be ‘good riddance’ instead of a handout,” Allred said yesterday in a news briefing.
Goldsmith, the city’s lawyer, didn’t say whether the deal requires Filner to resign in briefing reporters about the proposal. The Los Angeles Times and local television stations KNSD and KGTV reported that the settlement will require Filner to step down if it’s approved by the council. Goldsmith’s spokesman, Michael Giorgino, declined to confirm the reports, as did Katie Keach, a spokeswoman for Gloria, the council president.
Filner aides didn’t respond to telephone calls or e-mail messages yesterday. James L. Payne, one of his lawyers, said the mayor and the city reached a “tentative agreement” after three days of mediation before Lawrence Irving, a retired judge. He said he couldn’t make statements about the confidential deal.
Gloria, 35, also opposed the pension changes that voters passed last year, Keach said by telephone. The council president “respects the will of the voters” and hasn’t attempted to water down the measure’s provisions, she said.