June 19 2013 11:04 AM

Be careful what you wish for, professor says

Filner has opened up the Plaza de Panama.
Photo by John R. Lamb

"There is no strong performance without a little fanaticism in the performer."

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Plop Bob Filner into the midst of urban-planning wonks and practitioners and it's easy to see the former professor bask in the cerebral soup.

Filner spent more than an hour Saturday among such a crowd at the center of an arched, amphitheater-style classroom at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in East Village.

East Village and its dearth of park space, in fact, was the smoldering topic of the day, with pleas for the mayor to find red-tape scissors for a years-long effort to get an urban-park project known as East Village Green off the drawing board.

Pitches were also made for a Downtown-to-Uptown shuttle service that would cost patrons $1 and an idea to beautify the Sixth Avenue bridge over Interstate 5 south of Elm Street into Downtown—possibly with a garden-like stretch amid rows of palm trees.

But what struck Spin most during these presentations was Filner's laser-beam focus. And then the epiphany: This is what fuels San Diego's 70-year-old mayor. Good ideas backed by popular support are the nitro for Filner.

Spin brings up the age thing merely as a chronological benchmark. Spin knows a lot of active 70-year-olds. Many, however, would be hard-pressed to keep up with Filner's pace.

Spin asked a member of Filner's security detail Saturday—he started the conversation by noting "another long day ahead"—if the mayor mainlines 5-Hour Energy while en route in the Mayormobile, and the security guy smiled and shook his head.

"No, it's events like these that keep him going," he said. "The exchange of ideas seems to be what keeps him alert. You saw him. He's in his element!" 

That was not the case for Filner's predecessor—unless by "exchange of ideas," you mean a billionaire like Irwin Jacobs tells Jerry Sanders his ideas and the former mayor runs with them to the edge of the earth. Where Sanders preferred intimate two-or-fewer conclaves with media types typically limited to a single topic, Filner holds forth in a monthly "Pen & Paper" session that's basically a media free-for-all.

A Sanders press event was highly choreographed, down to a word-for-word reading from the daily mayoral memo. Filner's, on the other hand, can be frantically cobbled-together gatherings highlighted frequently by his habit of going off-script into off-the-cuff remarks that frequently frame his detractors as punch lines.

And, apparently, it's this shift in style that has Filner haters so tied up in knots.

Even City Attorney Jan Goldsmith—at least publicly the Lex Luthor to Filner's self-imagined Superman role—has acknowledged his fondness for the guy. At a recent Catfish Club luncheon, Goldsmith told the small crowd, "I have to tell you, I do like him personally. … And his policies, he's had some really good stuff that he's done." But then to make sure no one confused him with the president of the Filner Fan Club, the city attorney hissed, "It's the way he's done it."

And that's why Spin believes San Diego now has its first real, honest-to-goodness strong mayor. Hey, voters, it's what you wanted, so enjoy the ride!

"It's definitely a case of ‘Be careful what you wish for,'" said Carl Luna, a Mesa College political-science professor who's observed his share of mayors. "You wanted a strong mayor, and you've got a guy who wants to use the powers until people tell him, ‘No.' That's what a strong mayor does."

At Saturday's first of what will be several neighborhood-planning jam sessions with Filner, the mayor said as much to the packed classroom. When told by a planner for Civic San Diego, the nonprofit charged with wrapping up redevelopment Downtown, that state officials were holding up approval of a long-term agreement to make East Village Green a reality at no cost to the city, Filner flexed. "We're just going to liberate it," he said about the proposed park property. "When I hear basically bureaucratic stuff about why we can't do it, it just doesn't make any sense to me. I'm going to say, ‘We'll do it.' What are they going to do, sue us?" 

When someone in the audience noted that such a legal battle between the state and a charter city over construction of a park would make national news, the mayor exclaimed, "Now you're talking!" 

Besides, Filner said, "this all gets to be about politics. I mean, I know the governor, the lieutenant governor, the [Assembly] speaker, the [Senate president] pro tem. We'll figure it out."

This, of course, has many in the mainstream media pulling out their neatly coiffed hair by the roots. "I think there's a default setting across the media, not just the U-T but the media in general, that Bob Filner is just a different sort of guy," Luna said, "and we don't know if we like it. It's a personal thing more than a practical thing."

Sanders, by contrast, "was a nice guy and all that," Luna added, "and where does he go when he leaves office? Straight to head of the Chamber of Commerce. So, tell me that did not demonstrate the interests that he was pursuing during his time in office." 

Having served in Congress for two decades, Filner "came from playing Broadway back to local dinner theater, so maybe he should rein in a little bit of the expectations," Luna said. But then again, the shingle does say "Strong Mayor." 

"He just assumes that's the way he's supposed to act," Luna said. "I think Sanders was more constrained—and he didn't rock the status quo."

So, in six months, Filner got pretty much what he wanted from the tourism folks, has Balboa Park's Plaza de Panama nearly ready for pedestrians, is reinvigorating the city's planning function and closed a five-year labor deal. Why still all the hate?

"It was all me," Filner told Spin, using the labor deal as the example. Republicans "didn't want me to have the victory. But it's a done deal, and I move on."

Got a tip? Send it to johnl@sdcitybeat.com or follow John R. Lamb on Twitter @johnrlamb.


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