Bob Filner’s political career began in the early 1980s, when he was a member of the San Diego Unified School District’s Board of Education. He served on the San Diego City Council in the late ’80s and early ’90s until running successfully, in 1992, for the U.S. House of Representatives, where he’s served ever since.
Nearly 69 years old now, Filner has decided to give up his seat in Congress and move from Chula Vista to run for mayor of San Diego. He’s the only high-profile Democrat in the race, running against three high-profile Republicans—Carl DeMaio, Bonnie Dumanis and Nathan Fletcher—and 10 other candidates.
We chatted with him for an hour on Aug. 10. Here’s an edited version of that interview:
CityBeat: Talk about your desire to move from Congress to the Mayor’s office.
Filner: You know with all the craziness in Washington now—it’s really dysfunctional. I’m unhappy with the Republicans, and I’m unhappy with the Democrats because we haven’t taken a real leadership role to take these guys on. And when you’re in the minority in the House of Representatives, especially after I had been chairman [of the Veterans Affairs Committee] for four years, it’s even more frustrating.
I looked at the open mayor’s race and how we have, I think, just treaded water as a city for decades, and the attractiveness of being the executive of a major American city—I thought I could do more for San Diego here than [being] one out of the 435 [Congress members] in Washington. And we thought more about: What if we were able to solve, say, the pension, the budget problems in a way that does not just put the blame on public employees? What if we were able to deal with the homeless problem in a really thorough way? What if we had an alternative-energy policy that made sense? What if we had a respectful and also economically beneficial relationship with Mexico? That would have national implications.
You voted no on the debt deal. Explain that vote.
Oh, it was a horrible bill. It did nothing for jobs and very little for the debt reduction that could be done and concentrates on the programs that help the most vulnerable. Why should we be voting to cut the programs that are the safety net for our vulnerable citizens without any help on the revenue side from those who have high incomes or from corporations that have tax dodges or oil and gas companies that don’t need subsidies?
If the president needed your vote, would you have changed it?
I don’t think so. This issue should have been solved a lot earlier and a lot better. I think the president should have been tougher on the negotiations, so—.
You would have allowed the country to go into default?
It’s not me allowing it. I thought that it was a terrible bill, and we could’ve had a better one. So, if it goes down, then you have another one. I mean, you don’t go to default simultaneously [laughs]; you come up with a better bill. Look, you’ve gotta vote your conscience, and the whole process was screwed up. I think the president caved in too quickly. I don’t think all this budget stuff should have been part of the talks, anyway. He could’ve taken executive power and raised the debt limit.
Let’s move to the city. List your top priorities.
We’ve got to get [the pension debt] off the table because it’s preventing us from moving forward as a city. We can’t put it all on the backs of public employees, although everybody has to take something of a hit. I have some ways to bring down that unfunded-liability payment and to make some structural changes in the pension program that will get us out of this mess.
The [comprehensive pension reform] proposition [proposed for the 2012 ballot] is terrible. Aside from being unfair—I mean, I don’t care if it’s public or private, you don’t want people to face insecurity in their old age. A 401(K) is insecure, and they don’t have Social Security as a city employee. That’s just ridiculous. Even in the way the proponents want, it doesn’t save any money, at least for a decade. The transitional costs and the fact that you’re taking money out of the system, you know, you’re not putting money to meet the unfunded liability; you’re making things worse in the short run. How can you say you’re going to solve a problem and have another decade of payments that you can’t make? So, I think it’s the wrong approach.
I think I will have a good approach that spreads the payments [and] does not put everything on the backs of public employees. That’s the horror stories. And the mayor can do something right now. I don’t know why he hasn’t done it now.
I think we need a cap in management pensions—the horror stories you read about are not the average trash collector or police officer or firefighter; they’re the director who got his last three years pumped up by cronyism, and then they get a $200,000 pension. Why haven’t we put a cap on the management pensions?
I would like every employee, private or public, to have a reasonable pension plan. But let’s remember the deal that Pete Wilson swung in the early ’70s was to get out of the Social Security system in exchange for a reasonable retirement. If we go to this 401(K) they don’t have any Social Security. That’s not right.
Is your pension plan part of an overall long-term budget plan?
No, it’s specifically pension.
And do you have people helping you with that?
Yeah. I have some national experts that have looked at our pension thing and given me some really good ideas about it. I’ve looked at the way the county has done it, and I’ve looked at the way some other cities have done it. People are facing this problem all over.
Do your plans involve new revenues?
In terms of taxation? Well, I think there’s money around that can be used. I haven’t gotten the exact numbers yet, so I’d rather not say it yet. But, no.
Do you know when you might be releasing those plans?
I hope within a month. Again, no, I won’t involve any new taxes, but I think it’ll get us out of this situation.
Do you have a take on the role of redevelopment in San Diego and whether it should continue?
I think it has to, [but] we have to change the focus. The redevelopment that went on in Downtown was good for our city. But you can’t call Downtown now the blighted area that redevelopment was for. And the perception is, and I think a lot of reality is, that now major developers are getting major projects to the exclusion of things around the city.
I would like a redevelopment agency that looked at the whole city and not just Downtown. Our neighborhoods are being screwed. I’m going to run the whole campaign around neighborhoods—there are different needs in different neighborhoods. And I think Downtown, CCDC has done its job. They’ve turned Downtown around.
Now it’s time to refocus and maybe use those tools redevelopment gives us on other areas. And maybe be more creative because you don’t have that same kind of blight, but you have infrastructure needs.
But take the Barrio Logan redevelopment area, for example. They haven’t really been able to do much because they don’t have the investment that has spurred—.
Well, that’s where the city should be helping. It’s not purely a private situation. CCDC is public/private. You have to leverage your public funds in a better way. You can’t just say by definition a poor area’s not going to have the investment. So, you put in whatever you have to do or you change the laws or the tax credits or whatever, but that’s the kind of institution I need, to say, yeah, Barrio Logan can’t get that investment so we’ve got to do it. We’re all in this thing together in the city.
And you know as well as I know that the full diversity of this city has never been fully tapped. And poor areas simply don’t have those opportunities or the investment to provide that contribution, and we should be doing it as a city. And the mayors have just concentrated on Downtown. It’s time to refocus on neighborhoods.
Let’s move on to drugs.
[Laughs.] CityBeat. Bring out the drugs!
The City Council repealed its medical-marijuana ordinance and now we’re back to square one, which is essentially the wild west, in terms of how we can comply with Prop. 215.
We ought to take that seriously. I don’t know what they’re trying to do on the council. It sounds like they were trying to find a way not to have [medical-marijuana dispensaries]. They put so many restrictions on them. It makes it so difficult, it’s not worth it. I would say take that seriously and do whatever ministerial things you do, but let’s allow that to—.
You’ve got to get it through the City Council, though.
That takes leadership. I don’t see any plan or any leadership to say, “Hey people are suffering. It’s legal to do it. Let’s put any controls and any ministerial things you need to do, but let’s facilitate it.” What they were using is regulations to stop it. I would say, let’s have them viable. So, now I have your endorsement, right?
We’ll see. How would you assess the job that Jerry Sanders has done?
I think he has tried very hard to do the right thing. And he’s come quite a long way on the pension stuff. I would say, in general, the leadership in this city, probably since Pete Wilson, has been very, very weak. I’ll just take one issue that I care about, and that’s a better relationship with Mexico and Tijuana. I’ve gone to the last 10 State of the City addresses; I think I’ve heard Mexico mentioned in one of them.
I happened to have been in Denmark on a congressional thing. We met with the leadership of Maersk shipping. Biggest shipper in the world. Their top people were telling me they were looking for a new West Coast United States center.
They were in San Francisco—it was not adequate; they wanted to move. And they told me where they were looking, and I said, “Why not San Diego?” And they said, “San Diego has a port?” I said, “Damn right it has a port.” They said, “How deep?” They needed 45, and I said we have at least 55 feet. And I said, “Even more important for you, because we have the Navy, it dredges all the time.” Because that’s the biggest problem they have in cities, the environmental cost of the dredging. I said, “Here you would never have problems.”
So I set up a meeting with the Port officials and Maersk—this was maybe 10 or 11 years ago. Unfortunately, I was out of town and I couldn’t be at the meeting. The first question that the Port asked was, “How many linear feet do you need for berthing your ships?” I forget the exact thing, but they said, “Oh, 5,436 feet.” The Port said, “Sorry, we only have 1,400.”
The Maersk people expected the next sentence to be “But, we will find a way to build that.” We’re talking about thousands and thousands of jobs and there was no “but.” So they packed up their briefcases and left.
I said, “This is what a city is supposed to do: Build the infrastructure to create [jobs]. You just blew off the biggest shipper in the world.” The mayor’s not involved, the port director has his own little whatever, even the board is not that involved. So they made this decision that cost us—.
You’re saying that something could have been done.
It’s trivial, technically. We created Mission Bay Park, we created Shelter Island. We created the harbor, you can do it. The Port had a container crane to load containers, which was never used because we don’t have any shipping containers. And so every year I would hold a press conference at the crane and say, “Why isn’t this being used?” They finally figured out a way to deal with me: They sold the crane. So, now we don’t even have a container crane.
In a historical perspective, what made San Diego prosperous and gave the middle class livable wages was our defense industry. When we lost that in the ’90s, there’s never been anything to replace it. I mean, for middle-class jobs. We have the high-tech and the service industry, but nothing big. General Dynamics employed 60,000 people. What can we do to replace that whole thing that allowed people to buy a house and send their kids to college—livable wages for skilled workers.
I think the answer is around our port. For decades, the ideology, literally, of this city was: Commerce is dirty; we’re clean: “We have the Navy, we have the hotels, and that’s a cash cow, and so we don’t need any of your stinking jobs.” I think we need to change that; I think that is the biggest single thing we can do to diversify the city and build the kind of job base that we need. You’re talking about thousands of jobs from a marine industry here.
You know what a longshoreman makes, by the way? About 125-grand a year, 150. We’ve had, for awhile, maybe a dozen longshoremen in the whole city. Because that’s all we need. Can you imagine having 100 of them? Five hundred? A thousand? But you need leadership and you need infrastructure.
And is that consistent with the changing global economy?
Yeah. It’s the single biggest thing we can do right now and to diversify large numbers of jobs of the middle-class kind of wages that we need. We leave seven or eight billion dollars on the table each year, the chamber says, because we have an inefficient border. I think I can do more as mayor to change that than I could as a congressman. Those are the two things we’ve got to start right away, in terms of jobs.
There’s been a whole string of police-misconduct cases recently. What reforms do you think need to be made to the police force? And would you keep the chief?
I haven’t thought that through enough. I’ve always believed that there ought to be institutional ways for citizens to deal with those accusations. Obviously, the chief plays a big role. What I know about Lansdowne now, I would keep him. But I haven’t really looked into it. You’ve got to hold the chief accountable, and there have got to be mechanisms which are transparent that allow us to know what is happening there. And that’s what I would be looking for.
Let’s get to the campaign. Do you feel it’s in your best interest to lay low until the primary gets closer?
No. You think this is intentional?
I’ve heard that it’s sort of a Jerry Brown campaign.
Politics are funny. Whatever you do or not, people ascribe motives for some things that were just inertia or because you were stupid. Look, I started later than other people. They apparently had made decisions long ago. I really did not make a decision until a few weeks before I announced.
Yeah, I think Carl DeMaio started about 10 years ago.
Right. So, we’re laying low because I just hired a campaign manager, Ed Clancy. I hired an all-purpose lady named Maripat Finigan. And we’re hiring other people. But we had this stupid debt stuff in Washington. Look, the rhythm of campaigns is: People aren’t paying attention. We’re all skirmishing; it’s all inside stuff right now, so it wasn’t that important to be out there.
Well, it’s important in the beginning, especially on the Republican side, for fundraising.
In a way, I’ve already won the primary. I mean, there’s no Democrat or Republican primary, but there’s probably going to be a Democrat and a Republican. So, I’ve already won the Democratic one, assuming I have any kind of campaign. So, they’re fighting it out. I can just watch them do it and hope that they all fight very—.
That they bloody each other?
I mean, my assumption was that they would try to get either Dumanis or Fletcher out, and, at the beginning, I thought Fletcher was not going to run, and then he posted this incredible—I mean, that was an incredible fundraising month that he had.
And Bonnie’s was not very good.
It’s easier to get Bonnie out now. The establishment, I think, when they look at it, will have to probably get one of them out.
It seems that opponents are homing in on your personality as a way to campaign against you.
If they have nothing else, yeah. I’m going to run on my ideas. I’m going to try to inspire this city to move more directly into the 21st century. I have good ideas on jobs and pensions. I have the experience. I’m the only one who’s been at the local level and national level. So, if they can’t get me on that, and I don’t even know what the personality thing—usually it’s that I’m hard to work with or something? I was the only Democrat on the school board, and I was elected president. There were two Democrats, I think, on the City Council. I was elected by my peers as deputy mayor. I was elected chair of the Veterans Committee in the Congress.
I mean, yeah, I’m very passionate. I care about these ideas. I’m willing to stand up and fight for them. I’ve been arrested fighting for these ideas. So, yeah, I plead guilty to [being] controversial. That comes out of the passion.
So, they can say all that they want, but in the campaign, when people see us together campaigning, I will have the best ideas, put in the most articulate way and the most passionate way, and let them deal with it.
How would you characterize the San Diego electorate ideologically right now?
We’re going to find out. I’m going to run a campaign that’s going to ask a lot of the people here. I’m going to try to make it very elevated about real ideas, the direction of the city. What can a city do? What are our responsibilities for each other? How do we relate to another foreign country? I mean, these are big issues. Is our educational system what we want as a city? We’ll see if people are ready to handle that.
I’m just wondering if a progressive can win in San Diego.
Well, one, I think San Diego’s ready for it. Two, because I have a history here, people look at me differently than a new person who was progressive. I was just walking across the street here, and five people said, “Hi, mayor.” And I don’t even live here, you know?
Where are you living these days?
Downtown. Where was I? Oh—the city has changed. I was shocked to look at the registration numbers, by the way, when I was thinking about whether to run. I said, It must be 50-50 in registration. It’s 41-27, I think.
Yeah, there’s a lot of decline-to-state, though, and I have a feeling those decline-to-states lean conservative.
But the registration is heavily Democratic. That’s a real change. But, also, my history gives me—I don’t think I can be put in that, quote, progressive, or, I’ll say tax-and-spend liberal. For the four years I was chairman of the Veterans Committee, and in my history before that—there’s hardly a veteran in the city that doesn’t know what I had done. I can’t believe the people I meet: “Oh, I’m a Republican, but I’m going to vote for you because I want to thank you for what you’ve done for our veterans.”
And I think I have a whole potential base there that just doesn’t exist for other progressives. And I think, by the way, the Democrats have paid not enough attention to veterans as a party, because the default for veterans is Republican. Well, what did they ever do? When I speak to veterans, most of whom are Vietnam vets—I was against the Vietnam War—so they’re standing there, “What is this liberal [doing here]”—and I’m saying, “I didn’t spit on anybody when they came home. But we, as a country, did not pay you enough honor and attention. Just because we were against it doesn’t mean we should have been against you.”
I was never against them, but, as a movement, we didn’t pay any attention to them. And we should have, and we’re paying a big price now. And I have a whole program, which I have put some of in effect already, that’s going to change that. I think people recognize some real contributions, and that, I think, is going to help electorally, also.
Do you think Donna Frye will get in the race?
If she did, do you think you could beat her in the primary?
Oh, I think I could beat her, but it would obviously make it very difficult. We have been allies ever since she entered politics, and we have been friends and worked together.
Lastly, what is your opinion of Juan Vargas running to be your successor?
It wasn’t my first choice, obviously, but I couldn’t let that influence my decision. After I convinced myself [to run for mayor], am I going to say, “Juan’s going to take my place, so I don’t do this”? This is an unsafe thing I’m doing. I have a safe seat. He wouldn’t have run, and I probably would have been reelected, right? And now, we don’t know. I think I will be elected, but it’s not a slam-dunk here. So, I had to say, voters will make that decision, not me.
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