San Diego Mayor Apologizes for Sexual Harassment, Still Headlining Benefit for Sexual Assault Victims


The National Military Women Veterans Association of America is in a bit of a pickle right now. You see, the organization planned a gala event for the end of August to celebrate the lifetime achievement of San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, with proceeds of the event to benefit victims of sexual assault in the military. As a ten-term congressman, Filner had a record of commitment to veterans and, from 2007 to 2011, he served as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. That’s all great. The problem, however, is that right now Filner is embroiled in a bit of a sexual harassment scandalwhich makes the timing of the event and the award, well, kind of embarrassing.

Filner is known to have a colorful personality, even for politics. He has a PhD in the history of science and taught in San Diego State University’s history department for two decades before going to Congress. As a student at Cornell, he was a Freedom Fighter protesting segregation in the South and was arrested in Mississippi. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction, but he did spend two months in a state penitentiary. A less noble run-in with the law occurred in 2007, when he was charged with assaulting an airline worker at Dulles International Airport. He was not convicted of assault but did pay a fine.

Filner also has seen his fair share of scandals. In 2005, it was revealed that Filner had paid his then-wife more than $500,000 in campaign funds for “political consulting” over the course of a decade. As mayor, Filner seems to have accepted $100,000 from a developer in exchange for a veto override. After a voicemail to a councilperson revealed the direct connection between the money and the override, Filner’s office returned the money.

The mayor’s office also has been rife with conflict. Filner has had many public fights with city attorney Jan Goldsmith. In February, he crashed Goldsmith’s press conference and publicly accused her of “unethical and unprofessional conduct.” And at a staff meeting in June, his chief of staff and communications director quit on the spot over disagreements about how the office was run.

Very few details of the most recent scandal have been revealed. Filner was accused of sexually harassing women, but it is unclear how many women are involved, what specific behavior they cited, or when the incidents occurred. What is clear is that Filner at least believes he is guilty. Though he did not explain exactly what he was apologizing for, Filner did apologize to the public and say that he was planning to personally apologize to current and former staff members. In his apology, he said, “If my behavior doesn’t change, I cannot succeed in leading our city. You have every right to be disappointed in me. I only ask that you give me an opportunity to prove I am capable of change, so that the vision I have for our city’s future can be realized.”

He went on to say, “It’s a good thing that behavior that would have been tolerated in the past is being called out in this generation for what it is: inappropriate and wrong.”

Filner says he’s getting professional help.

Without details of what happened, it is hard to know how to react to Filner’s apology. Is he accepting responsibility for a couple of admittedly wrong turns of phrase, or is he finally acknowledging a career spent harassing women? (Filner is 70 years old, and his reference to behavior that would have been tolerated in the past suggests the latter.) Either way, the accusation and admission make him an odd choice for a celebration that benefits victims of sexual assault.

The National Military Women Veterans Association of America clearly realizes this. The organization announced that it would no longer be presenting Filner with an award at the event. Instead, he would just speak about the topic. A representative from the organization told KGTV, “We do not tolerate sexual discrimination at any level within our society. He is now keynote speaker on these injustices.”

I’m sure that Filner’s office will work with the group to choose his words carefully and the event can benefit both of them; he gets another chance to apologize and the group gets a lot of publicity for a benefit that would otherwise go mostly unnoticed. That said, having Filner speak so soon after the allegations came to light—and likely before he’s gotten any significant professional help—seems ironic at best.

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Follow Martha Kempner on twitter: @MarthaKempner