Nov. 10 2010 10:53 AM

The next two years look grim to outgoing House veterans committee leader Bob Filner

On election night at Golden Hall, Rep. Bob Filner’s victory lap was more like running the gauntlet.
Photo by Kelly Davis
The campaign trail was hard on Congressmember Bob Filner, and the road ahead doesn't seem any less rocky. Throughout the election cycle, the Democrat was stalked by television crews, as well as notorious South Bay private investigator Derrick Roach and his telephoto lens. While the Democratic incumbent representing District 51 emerged with a healthy 19-point win over Republican Nick Popaditch, election night turned ugly as Filner was mobbed by his opponent's Tea Party supporters. The fracas resulted in his community representative allegedly taking a punch to the face and a white supremacist bragging about terrorizing Filner and calling for "total war" against the federal government.

Filner isn't too worried about insurrection, but total war is one way to describe what Filner expects will go down when Republicans control the House of Representatives in a little more than a month.

"It's not going to be an easy time," Filner told a group of veterans and Latino and Native American advocates at a breakfast on Friday, Nov. 5. "But I don't think, frankly, it's going to be an easy time for the nation. We have to go through two years of pretty rough stuff. Very little will get done."

Little, except maybe cuts-the House may shrink the budget, and the Democrat-controlled Senate won't have the 60 votes to add appropriations back in. Even as Filner detailed what he thinks must be done-to help homeless veterans, prevent veteran suicides, improve services to female veterans and better prepare returning veterans for the job market- the fact of the matter is, he's expecting to have to fight to maintain the status quo.

While San Diego constituents will likely gain a committee chairmanship, with Rep. Darrell Issa ascending from ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee, the region will also lose a chairmanship. Filner will no longer serve as head of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, a role he's played since 2007.

It was precisely because Filner is not a veteran that outgoing Sen. Alan Cranston, a California Democrat, suggested the anti-war-activist-turnedpolitician put in for the Veterans' Affairs committee during his first term in 1993. Throughout 14 years, Filner was able to climb to seniority as other Democrats departed for more prominent committees.

"The veterans' committee is not one where people raise a lot of money," Filner tells City- Beat. "It's not a ‘juice' committee, as they call, say, Ways and Means or Health or Banking…. Everybody ahead of me went to those other committees. They didn't see [veterans] as important enough."

Filner says the committee was relatively nonpartisan until 2005, when Republican leadership stripped Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, of his chairmanship after he voted against his party's budget resolution because it cut funding for veterans' programs. Smith was replaced by Rep. Steve Buyer, whom Filner opposed for the next two years.

"I was a thorn in their side when they decided to cut the VA budget," Filner says. "I kept embarrassing them and embarrassing them and embarrassing them, and Buyer would take steps not to deal with the issue but to deal with the embarrassment."

The budget was ultimately preserved and when Democrats took over in 2006, Filner's work earned him the chairmanship.

Hours after the breakfast on Nov. 5, Filner met with retired soldiers at the Veterans Museum & Memorial Center's Veteran of the Year Luncheon. During a break, he could be heard complaining into his mobile phone that he had only five colleagues left of his 18- Democrat majority on the committee.

Filner's chairmanship has certainly earned him a place in veteran history-or at least in the history book of Will Hays, a retired Navy captain who serves as both the chairman of the museum and the Veteran of the Year committee.

"I briefed Congressman Filner before he ever went to Congress about veterans' needs, and I was very happy to see him become chair of the veterans committee," Hays says, recounting how as then-chairman of the United Veterans Council, he spent several hours with Filner at what is now Veterans Village of San Diego. "I think the biggest thing was getting the VA budget to be a twoyear budget so they can handle the expense more like a business."

Filner also presided over VA budget expansions each year, Hays points out. For 2010, the Department of Veterans Affairs' budget increased by roughly 16 percent to $109.6 billion, which led to declare President Barack Obama's pledge to fully fund the VA a "promise kept."

While Hays would like the committee to focus on women's health, brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, Filner says debate most likely will center on privatization and cutting health benefits.

"I'll fight it, whatever they try to do, but the danger is funding, and they'll try to deal with that by privatizing," Filner says.

According to Voice of America, Florida Republican Reps. Cliff sterns and Jeff Miller are the top contenders for the chairmanship. Filner's almost certain Miller will be chosen, and he says that, in the past, they "worked well together." Meanwhile, Filner will serve as the ranking Democrat, with control over a portion of the committee's staff.

But Filner's time in Congress may be limited. He hasn't decided whether to support Rep. Nancy Pelosi in her bid to continue leading House Democrats, and he foresees a Congress of open hostility, with "arrogant" Republicans who will refuse to even shake hands with Democrats. Filner says he is weighing a run for mayor of San Diego in 2012.

"It depends on what's going on in Congress; it depends on what effect you have. It's a question of what could you do as mayor? What's the financial situation of the city? Do you want to inherit that mess?

"Certainly, I'm the most qualified… and there's no question I would win if I run."

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