San Diego is known for its beaches and sunny weather, but these days a large shadow is being cast over the city by its mayor, Bob Filner. At least 16 women say Filner made inappropriate and unwanted sexual advances toward them over the past few years, plunging his office into crisis just seven months into his term.
The mayor has been out of sight since making a public apology a month ago. He took two weeks off for behavioral therapy -- treatment he said wrapped up a week early.
The City Council is unanimously calling for him to resign. The locks were changed on the mayor's office to protect potential evidence. And this weekend a campaign to recall the mayor begins collecting signatures.
Filner’s office referred questions to his attorney, who didn't return calls.
This is hardly the first political scandal to envelop San Diego. If Filner resigns or is recalled, he'll be the third of the city's last six elected mayors to leave office amid controversy.
In the 1980s, Mayor Roger Hedgecock left over allegations of misusing campaign funds.
And eight years ago, Mayor Dick Murphy stepped aside during a fiscal meltdown surrounding the city's employee pension funds.
During that episode, San Diego earned the nickname "Enron by the Sea," a reference to the Houston energy company that went bankrupt after years of accounting fraud.
UC San Diego political science professor Steve Erie wrote about that scandal in a book called “Paradise Plundered.”
“The problem is that San Diego as an old Navy town developed an authoritarian command-and-control political culture. Father knows best,” Erie said. “Dissent has been a punishable offense in San Diego.”
And as for watchdogs, like media outlets holding elected officials accountable or government institutions?
“San Diego is much better known for its lapdogs than its watchdogs,” Erie said.
Besides, “There's a very low level of political interest, involvement and participation in local governance in San Diego. Much less than the Bay Area and even less so than Los Angeles,” Erie said.
Filner's predecessor in City Hall was Jerry Sanders, a Republican and former city police chief. Sanders inherited the city during its fiscal crisis and helped steady the ship. Today, he heads the regional Chamber of Commerce and said the latest controversy is a tragic setback for the city.
“We worked for seven years – and I'm talking about everybody in the city – Democrats, Republicans, labor, business – to get out from under the cloud of ‘Enron by the Sea,’” Sanders said. “And in just six months we're back under a cloud of ridicule.”
“I was talking with my neighbors and I’m like, ‘San Diego is such a great place to live in, to visit,’ ” said Karlina Olsen at a playground in San Diego’s Balboa Park with her three kids. “It’s really not representative of San Diego. It’s representative of politics.”
Another young parent at the park, John Aldous, said he voted for Filner because he liked his progressive agenda – more money for neighborhoods, better city services for families and kids, and stronger ties with Mexico.
“I suppose I feel some buyer’s remorse,” Aldous said. “Perhaps next time I’ll pay more attention to whispers about people’s past personal foibles.”
Rumors about sexual harassment plagued Filner’s campaign, but it wasn’t until well after the election that women came forward.
Filner is only the second Democrat to win the mayor's office here since the mid-1980s -- and the first liberal ever. In a sign of San Diego's continuing move to the political left, City Council now has a majority of Democrats. Council President Todd Gloria, a third-generation San Diegan and the openly gay son of a hotel maid and a gardener, would take over the mayor's job if Filner resigns.
“He has no moral leadership at this point in time. The council unanimously do not support him any longer,” Gloria said. “The business community, the neighborhoods, want this man to leave. So initiatives that may have great worth or great value cannot be led by him.”
Gloria said he thinks Filner only won because he was the least-bad choice between two political extremes on the left and right.
Mesa College political science professor Carl Luna said that's a reflection of San Diego's political problems: Even as local Democrats have gained power, the party has been slow to generate new leaders, as shown by last year's weak field of mayoral candidates.
“Don't invest in just one candidate like a Bob Filner. Develop your bench. And then in the next two or three election cycles, I think you'll see a more robust Democratic presence,” Luna said.
For too long San Diego has been ruled by an old boys’ club with secret pay-to-play deals benefiting downtown interests, Luna said.
“At the end of the day, San Diego will recover from this one like our other scandals,” he said. “I think this is the growing pains of a city realizing that it is an international, world-class city, and it's no longer just a quiet little Navy retirement town."
There are now local, state and federal investigations into different aspects of Filner's activities. San Diego's city attorney, Jan Goldstein, a longtime Filner critic, said he hopes a deal can be worked out soon for Filner's exit so the city can begin repairing the damage from its latest political drama.