Dec. 31 2002 12:00 AM

The Congress member talks border policy and how 'liberal' became a dirty word


It doesn't take long to realize that D.Z. Akins restaurant and deli is Bob Filner territory. As soon as the Democratic congressman stepped into the place, he was shaking hands and responding to friendly greetings. He didn't have much time—he was on his way from Imperial County, the eastern outpost of his re-jiggered district, to an AmeriCorps event in San Diego—but he nonetheless played along with a short-notice, straight-up interview.

Filner seemed distracted, or maybe just a bit frazzled as he traveled between district destinations, and throughout the interview, he made little eye contact with his interrogator, answering questions while surveying the restaurant. He seemed somewhat adrift, which is perhaps a byproduct of suddenly being a member of a political party that has become largely inconsequential. And that might be why Filner's responses will read like he had small, pinpointed bursts of thought in a broader stream of consciousness that is sometimes difficult to follow.

But pay attention, because this is an intriguing peek into the mind of an entrenched politician who's not campaigning, reading from a script or running down a list of talking points. It's just a guy who seems genuinely flummoxed by the rudderless state of the Democratic Party and who has some strong opinions about—among other things—race in America, which, by the way, were expressed prior the Big Trent Lott Meltdown.

CityBeat: How are things going up on the Hill?

Bob Filner: On the one hand, the Republicans are going to misread the election—especially the congressional Republicans—and just roll over the opposition. [They're going to] roll back environmental protections, roll back collective-bargaining rights, stack the courts so that the right to choose will be undermined, and [they'll] fund the stuff that they're doing in Iraq and [against] terrorism. All the programs that the average American needs, whether it's education, health care, housing-all that is going to be cut tremendously. We never did the budget for this fiscal year; we're going to do it at the beginning of January, and you're going to see right there [cuts to] what I call the “people's programs” [in order to] to fund the war. So I think the Republicans are going to steamroller us. I think they will overreach, but it will not be found out before either the next election or the one after that, so they'll have done tremendous damage before there's a reaction to it.

And I'm equally concerned about my Democrats because we don't have a real response. The Democrats are not prepared to deal with this yet. I think the elevation of Nancy Pelosi to minority leader is going to be very helpful. She's a very articulate and a clear spokesman, but the real problem is we have lost the confidence to be clear about our own ideas, and the American people don't see us as a party that's competent.

I think that's the real difference between Bush and [us]. I mean, it's not that they really agree with him—he's confident. What [Newt] Gingrich and the others did to us over the last decade is take away all of our confidence. Being a liberal has become so negative that we're afraid to talk. I think we need to develop a new language to do that or regain our confidence, but we're always on the defense. I'm very depressed.

I'm going to take an active role in trying to define what the Democrats ought to be doing. I helped Pelosi get into office. I supported all the winners [in the Democratic caucus], which I usually don't, so I'll be able to do some things within the party that I haven't been able to do before.

Because you're on the winning team now with the Democratic Party?

[Former Minority Leader Richard] Gephardt and I got along very well. I mean I really respected him, but I think he made a lot of mistakes in the last year. I was, within the party, the one who criticized him most directly, and of course, that cuts you off from some of the perks as a result.

I had some really high hopes for Gephardt.

He's a man of very big intellect. Also, what I appreciated most about him was his intellectual curiosity. He actually thought about ideas and would read books and have seminars. I think he made a fundamental error after 9/11 of just assuming we have to go with Bush no matter what he does.

But if you're going to act like a Republican, voters might as well vote for the real thing.

That's what I think. He's a very bright person, but he got caught up in what I call a parliamentary box. Everything was within the context of congressional action, as if people knew or cared about what we did every day. When I would get mad, he would say, ‘We'll give you a motion to recommit.' That is, I could express my ideas [on the heels of an unfavorable vote]. Now, who cares about a motion to recommit, right? But he did, and he took it seriously.

This is what Gingrich understood: You had to get out of the terminology and the processes and go right to the people on the issues they cared about. [Gephardt] was here for a rally we did on electricity-he is great. He could be a great Prairie Populist. I think people would have followed him.

What happened to the Democrats on Nov. 5?

We didn't do anything. We didn't have an alternative to Bush on foreign policy. We didn't seem to have a clear sense on domestic policy except that he was wrong. People want their leaders to know what they're doing, and we did not show any evidence that we knew what we were doing. And I don't think people really endorsed the Republican idea; they endorsed the Republican president, who seems to know what he was doing. When they realize the direction is going to be wrong for them, they'll react to it.

How did the Democrats get to the point where they had no vision or direction?

What Gingrich was right about was, our 40 years in power in the congressional arena made us very arrogant. We had all these [committee] chairmen, and everybody could get pork [for their district]. If I was a Democrat, I knew I could go there and I would get my sewage-treatment plant built, and I would get what I wanted. It became a party of personal relationships to get pork. [The system allowed Democratic committee chairmen to accumulate tremendous power.] Gingrich knew that, and he tried to set up a system where that power was not so concentrated with the chairmen. Our congressional party became a party of individual fiefdoms... and if you stayed there long enough, you would get to be up there.

You mentioned Nancy Pelosi. Critics say she's not terribly articulate and that she got to where she is because of her expertise as an insider strategist. She's raised a lot of money for a lot of Democrats, but she hasn't been an innovator when it comes to legislation. Do you think she's the right person for this job?

For one, she knows the political process really well. Now that you mention the legislative agenda, she is not known for that, but she knows how to organize our party to produce it. She will bring in new voices. The old guard relied only on the chairmen. Even after we lost in '94—I couldn't believe it—[the Democrats] still acted as if they had power and they were in charge. I became an expert in electricity because of our crisis here, but I wasn't on that committee, so they wouldn't even let me talk about it. I mean, I'd talk about it but in a forum that they controlled—they wouldn't even invite me.

I think [Pelosi] is going to set up ways to do things from which an agenda can come forward. If she starts falling back into the old ways, then a bunch of us are going to hold her feet to the fire, as Roger Hedgecock would say. [Filner mentions a recent column by Arianna Huffington that criticized Pelosi for already moving toward the center.] It's always a danger for any one of us—we get into an institution and we start doing what everybody else has done. You have to fight it. Some of us are going to try to be Nancy's conscience. There are people in the party who have knowledge and ideas that are not being used because we stifle it through the seniority system and we stifle it through the patronage system that I just mentioned, and it hurts us.

The Republicans are doing exactly what they say. I don't even have a problem with them. I have a problem with us. We're not fighting back. Every time I go home [to the district], people are asking, “Where are the Democrats?” We work our asses off; each one of us works 20 hours a day. So whatever we're doing, we must be doing it wrong because we're working hard but nobody knows it. So you'd think they would say, “Let's work a different way,” but nobody goes to that next step-they blame it on the press or whatever.

How did the word “liberal” become such a nasty word? I don't even call myself liberal anymore; I say I'm a populist or a progressive. A lot of the liberal ideals, I think, would be embraced by middle America if they were better packaged.

I agree. There was a completely disciplined, long-term attack on the underpinnings of liberalism—through talk radio, through Congress with Gingrich, columnists—that somehow “big tax-and-spend,” “big government”... we never thought we had to answer that because we had all the power, and we were going to have it forever. When I first was elected in 1992, everybody just bowed down to the chairmen, and we knew that in 10 years we were going to be the chairmen. [We figured,] Gingrich could say what he wants—we had the power. And I think it was the arrogance of power [that made us think we didn't have to] answer these attacks. And so the public began to accept them—“liberal: tax,” “liberal: spend,” and we believe in big government and that's all evil.

If I asked anybody who said that—and we'd be sitting eating a steak, and [I] said, “How come you eat that steak with such certainty that it's not spoiled?” Because we have a Department of Agriculture that inspects the meat. How do you get on a plane and not worry about it? Because we have national air [transportation regulation].

What the underlying attack in all this was that the money that was spent [was spent] not on their things, like inspecting their steaks and flying their airplanes, but on people who needed help to have the equal opportunity that America's supposed to be about. That's what they're attacking—money for education and for health care. Because they have kids in college, and they have health insurance, and they've got jobs, and they've got good housing and safe neighborhoods. What they were saying is, “Don't give the taxes to those folks.” They were really never attacking government; they were attacking government for helping people get the quality opportunities that we're supposed to be about.

Nobody has said this in as clear a way as I'm about to tell you. In the last Congress, the Republicans had 223 [members] and we had 212. Out of the 223, 219 were white. They had one African American-they don't have any now. They had one Mexican American and two Cuban Americans. That's all-and about 20 or 30 women. You look over there, and this is the line I use: “It's all white males. Excuse my racism, but I can't tell them apart; they all look alike to me.” You look at our side, and we're not perfect, but we've got 35 blacks, 25 Latinos, five Asians, 70 women-we look like America. We're colorful.

They represent the white suburbs; we represent the urban, ethnically diverse population. Our people need government intervention. If you're born black, you don't have the same opportunities—it's just a fact, and we think government can be used to change that. Every question comes down to... the white suburbs are voting against the cities and [against] the urban minorities to realize the American dream. They don't want their taxes to be used for those people.

It's not that these [suburban] people are evil. They just have a short-run view that if they keep their taxes... they're safer. In the long run, if you don't have an educated population, and if you don't have a healthy population, you're going to suffer—you're going to get robbed, your wife is going to get raped. In the long run, they should be helping everybody, but politics is all short-run. They see it as, “Colored folks are coming to our community,” and they're scared. They're scared.

What effect will the Homeland Security Act have?

Bush did not support this for a long time. It was a Democratic idea. On its surface, it's a ridiculous bill. It does not get to the problem that led to 9/11, that our intelligence agencies did not talk to one another. I mean, the guys who were casing us in San Diego were on a CIA watch list, but the FBI and the INS didn't know it. So it seems to me the first thing you do is you form some coordinating way for those agencies to talk. But he left those two agencies [CIA and FBI] alone, and all of a sudden we have all these other agencies thrown together.

The Transportation Department was created-I don't know, 20 years ago, maybe 30 years ago—it still has not worked itself out in terms of turf. Can you imagine how long it's going to take the Coast Guard and Customs and the INS and FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] to work out the turf. This ain't gonna help us in homeland security because they're going to work on turf for years and years and years, in my opinion.

For example, right here at home, I'm dealing with a lot of issues that require decisions by the INS. Bureaucrats don't like to make decisions—they always pass the buck. There's nobody now in INS, for example, where the buck stops. There's no director of INS because that was abolished. Who's going to answer my questions? It takes them a year and a half now. It's the most dysfunctional agency.

We at the border are going to suffer for a long time because there will be no decisions—I'm talking about the little ones that affect our daily lives. The INS just recently decided that [Mexican] children who were going to the zoo or to the Christmas parade in Calexico or to health appointments at an orthopedic clinic could not get the one-day [immigration] waivers that they had been getting for decades. Kids go to the zoo—are they terrorists? Now they can't do it. They have to have all the regular visas. A normal visa for the average Mexican is almost impossible to get because they can't show proof that they're not going to leave their country—you have to own property and.... I'm trying to change that.

I'm going to have to try to do it by law, but now it'll take forever. I need a decision. All the laws have administrative waivers, [but] nobody's willing to do the waiver. And I've talked to the top guy that exists now, and he's waiting for somebody up above, but they won't be there for years. We—with Customs and INS playing such an important part in our lives—we're going to have some problems. It'll take years to work these things out, and day-to-day life is going to be really difficult, whether it's trucks crossing at Otay Mesa or kids trying to get across.

This department is Bush's vision of how departments are to work, and his vision says no unions—he busted the union—[and] no [possibility of] Freedom of Information Act [requests by the public or the press].

[Filner then described the so-called Total Information Awareness (TIA) project, headed by John Poindexter, the former National Security Advisor in the Reagan Administration who was deemed guilty of breaking federal law in the Iran-Contra scheme, in which the U.S. sold weapons to Iran and diverted the proceeds to the Contras in the Nicaraguan civil war. TIA is a massive computerized system that will track individuals through Internet usage, credit card purchases, phone records and a list of other transactions in the name of fighting the war on terrorism.]

That's what they're doing now, and that is scary. That is scary. You add this with this Patriot Act, which has loosened all the restrictions on phone taps [and] set up secret courts for terrorist trials. I mean, this is a scary kind of thing that's going on. This new sort of police state... really scares me.

If you were in charge of the border, what would border policy look like?

I'd do two major things right away. The border is completely misunderstood by the rest of the country, by the way. We have a bi-national culture [along the border] that only 12 congressmen represent and 423 don't. [Those who don't] look at the border and all they see is narcotics and illegals. And we see families going back and forth, and people have jobs on either side, U.S. citizens live there because it's cheaper and come across-education, culture, shopping. This whole county's retail market [partially] subsists on Mexican, legal shoppers. So, what does that mean at the border? It means you gotta have an efficient crossing.

An efficient crossing to our bureaucracies has meant they think that America, after Sept. 11, will see terrorists coming across, so they have slowed everything down, on purpose. People have made studies-something like 90 to 95 percent of the people who cross the borders... are the frequent crosser; that is, someone who's going either once a week, once a day, five times a day. So I say, if you're worried about security, give them background checks, but then give them a smart card so they can cross. I mean, we know how to do a smart card, right? And then devote your energies to the 5 or 10 percent that is not frequent. I think then you'd have the ability to have both an efficient crossing and your security.

More important, we have no mechanisms for cross-border communications on the issues that affect us—and this is going to be my top priority over the next 10 years in Congress, and I'm going to do it first informally and then try to get it into law. When [Mexico does] something, when they build a power plant on their side of the border, or we build a power plant, or they put a sewage system in, or we do—it affects us. But we don't know what each other is doing officially, and all we can do is react to what they do. And yet, we live in the same air basin, the same watershed, so we affect one another. And yet there are no mechanisms to talk about it. There are some, but they're not very effective right now.

I'm going to start, using Baja and California as the base, to do a regular [gathering] of elected officials at the federal, state, county, local level. We'll meet on a regular basis—[including] the Baja governor, the mayor of Tijuana, the mayor of Mexicali and their counterparts—and [we'll] start talking about what's going on.

One more thing: My aim is to have [as free] a border in the south as we have in the north. What do we see in the north? When you cross to Canada and back, what do you have? It's a formal thing, but it's relaxed. Why is it relaxed? Because you have two countries basically of equal economic status and you're not worried that people are sneaking in. And of course you've got the race issue—we look like each other.

I'm going to be developing with my [colleagues] a foreign policy toward Mexico that allows them to achieve economic development that would make the differences [between the U.S. and Mexico] less and less. If people are developing an economy in their own country, they don't leave their country. Nobody wants to leave; they leave because they want a future. So I think if we let them have a future, illegal immigration will stop, basically. I'm working for a foreign policy that would begin to build Mexico's housing and roads and schools and clinics, and that kind of activity pays the wages that [are indicative of a] first-world country. But we're not doing that.

What's keeping us from helping Mexico to do that?

People who [shape] foreign policy look at what's good for American businesses, as opposed to what's good for that country. You make the world safe for American investment-that's our policy. And Clinton has been going around the country, by the way, with a speech lately—I've heard it a couple times—[that says] the real answer to terrorism is fighting hunger and poverty in the world. So you want a policy that, in his words, “increases friends and reduces terrorists.” We're the most powerful country in the history of the world—we should be helping these people.

You know what I would have done after Sept. 11? I would have dropped food and medicine and building materials and books and—I think we would have changed the history of the world if we would have responded to the terror by saying, we're gonna get rid of the roots of terror by helping you develop your nation. Imagine if someone had the guts to do that. Wouldn't that have been incredible? I mean the whole world would have changed, in my opinion.


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