How Do You Solve a Problem Like Bob Filner?

What the San Diego mayoral scandal says about the challenge of stopping a politician harassing women who don't work for him and don't know where to report him
A protestor took her views to the streets of San Diego this week. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

The Democratic Party of San Diego needs better lawyers. Or rather, it should have used the lawyers it has.

In 2011, at least three women warned the head of the San Diego County Democratic Party of stories in the community about then-Rep. Bob Filner making inappropriate advances toward professional women with whom he'd come in contact through his political position.

Former California State Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, San Diego County Democratic Central Committee member Martha Sullivan, and Escondido City Council member Olga Diaz all brought uncomfortable incidents to the attention of Jess Durfee, who was until the end of 2012 Democratic Party chairman for San Diego, the eighth-largest city in America.

What happened next illustrates the enormous challenge the situation presented to local Democrats, who were looking to Filner as their best shot at retaking the mayor's seat in the heavily Republican community for the first time since 1992. It also reveals the party's short-sighted and ultimately self-destructive failure to do due diligence on the accusations, which were presented to the party secondhand and yet failed to trigger any kind of substantive investigation, or even an intra-party conversation with a lawyer.

San Diego Democrats are now devastated that they put the party's local revival in Filner's hands, tainting it for who knows how long. National Republicans are gleeful at a chance to try to turn the tables on the Democrats' "War on Women" talking point, roping Filner together with deeply unpopular New York mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner and others to try to create a national narrative about Democratic political hypocrisy on women.

As Filner fights a recall effort and rumors swirl that he's working on negotiated exit from office as part of his response to a sexual harassment lawsuit from his former communications director -- along with accusations of inappropriate behavior from 13 other women -- Republicans and Democrats alike are asking themselves how his behavior could have gone unchecked for so long.


Saldaña, a long-time political foe of Filner's in the San Diego area, says she became aware of allegations against him in the summer of 2011, while preparing to teach a course at a local university. As she reached out to high-level women in politics and the non-profit sector to be guest speakers, Filner's name came up.

"I began hearing these consistent stories of inappropriate behavior, where he would segue from, say, a site visit to their school and follow them back into area away from other people on the visit, and start to proposition them and get physical with them and ask them out on dates or even grab them in public, in front of other people," Saldaña said. "As I had these conversations over a period of several days and heard these consistent stories about his behavior, I started connecting the dots and went to the county party chairman and said, 'I think we have a problem here'."

She brought six women's stories to Durfee in the summer of 2011, she said, though she did not have any direct experience of inappropriate conduct herself.

"We're all wondering, 'Why didn't the chairman listen to our concerns?'" Saldaña said. "His defense now is that he spoke to Filner privately and Filner assured him no one had filed a formal complaint .... I mean, he wasn't harassing people in his office the way he's accused of now. He was harassing constituents, or professional women who basically needed to maintain a working relationship with him. So of course they weren't going to file a formal complaint against a seated congressman."

There was, for the women, also the baffling question of whom to report Filner to. The women Saldaña had heard about at the time didn't work for him, or know about each other, or necessarily even think a crime had been committed. "It looks like isolated behavior to them. They have no idea this person is doing these things to other women in other venues. It appears to be an isolated situation so instead of going and reporting it -- and again, who do you report it to?" Saldaña asked. "It's not illegal. It's not a workplace situation. It's just a very awkward and inappropriate, you know, social interaction."

Sullivan also brought women's stories to Durfee -- and got the same response. "I too expressed concerns to Jess based on conversations I had had with other women that Bob could jeopardize the campaign we were all working on so hard," she said. "Jess committed to talking with Bob and he met with Bob and when he reported back to me he said Bob said, 'I'm a single guy. I'm going to play the field and date' -- and this was before his engagement had been announced -- 'and no complaints have ever been filed against me.' And unfortunately we didn't have any kind of formal complaint."

Diaz, for her part, had been asked out by Filner at a Southern San Diego women's event but told The Atlantic the encounter was "not intimidating in any way" -- just "weird." She brought her story to Durfee at the urging of Saldaña, whom she considered a political mentor. "I told him my experiences, but more importantly, [that] I had heard many women confirm that they had similar kind of unsettling experiences," Diaz said. "My conversation with Jess was more of a heads up -- listen, this happened to me, I know it's happened to a lot of other women. I certainly didn't understand the severity of Bob's actions. I had only heard from women that had had the same kind of experience I had, which was more of an awkward encounter -- nothing physical, nothing really ghastly, but clearly inappropriate."

Durfee told Diaz and Saldaña he would take the matter up with Filner, which he did. But he says he felt his hands were tied as long as he did not have any firsthand reports of actionable behavior or formal complaints and Filner denied doing anything untoward. "Lori Saldaña came to me with secondhand reports," Durfee recalled. "I asked Lori Saldaña to have the women contact me. I told her at the time I would treat them anonymously, if that's what they were seeking, but I did need to hear directly from the women and I was not going to act on something that was secondhand information." Saldaña's "long history of basically battling with Bob Filner in political circles" made him "a little skeptical" of the stories she brought to him. "I actually wanted to hear from the women," he says.

The only woman he did hear from directly was Diaz, who recounted how Filner asked her if she was single during the course of an event when Filner was a member of Congress. She said she was married, they discussed to whom, and then he walked away. "What she told me at the time was she did not feel harassed," Durfee said. "She described it as dirty old mannish and we agreed that it fit that category. We also agreed that it was just sort of a disappointing thing for a member of Congress to say to anyone at an official event .... Obviously from putting that in the context that it was in, there wasn't a lot I could do with that, given, you know, Bob at the time was a single man."

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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