Who Really Deposed San Diego’s Mayor and Nullified the 2012 Election?

Bob Filner Campaign for Mayor of San Diego - Historic Steetcar

By now, most of the nation is aware of San Diego’s mayoral scandal, which was reported in such national media outlets as CNN, Chris Mathews Hardball, New York Times, etc. and included international legal gadfly Gloria Allred elbowing her way onto center stage. Former 10 term congressman Bob Filner had been Mayor of San Diego only 6 months before it all came to an inglorious and undemocratic end.  The conventional wisdom is that the Mayor was accused by 18 women of sexual harassment leading to his resignation. 


A former Freedom Rider, he was elected in the 2012 presidential election in one of the widest turnouts for a Mayoral election in the City’s history.  It was a referendum for dramatic change, embodied in the policy positions and persona of Bob Filner.  He was elected on a vision of prioritizing planning, neighborhoods, transit, affordable housing, labor, and livable city concepts.  He was quick to deliver action on his promises . . . perhaps too quick.

At times, it seemed he was elected without really trying.  He came into the Mayor’s race with a reputation for being irascible, pugnacious, and sometimes abusive.  He raised a third of what his mayoral rival did.  At age 70 he was in the twilight of his career, and the Mayorship was icing on his career rather than a stepping stone.  He was beholden to few, and in the end, it seemed few were beholden to him.

Empowering Mortals and Angering Gods

In another city the allegations that proved his undoing might have been treated as simply a rehash of already debated campaign accusations. His admitted abrasive, arrogant, even abusive conduct was well known before the election, and was an issue in the election.  It was also known that he sometimes went too far.  For example, in 2007 in a widely publicized incident, he was charged with assault and battery on a United Airlines employee and plea bargained to a lesser charge.  In fact, most of the accusations that proved his undoing related to alleged incidents that predated the election.

It seemed, at least in part, that the voters believed his personality was what gave him the backbone to stand up to the City’s power brokers.  He ran on a platform of empowering neighborhoods and not catering to “downtown insiders.” For the six months of his term, he did not disappoint them, taking on powerful interests and championing San Diego’s non-insider citizens.  In record time, he shifted the power paradigm as no other San Diego Mayor had.  He was an ally of the City’s “blu-collar neighborhoods,” and they stayed loyal to him to the end.  Actions that gave development interests cause for concern included the following:

  •  Mayor Filner intervened at the behest of community groups to stop several well-funded development projects, as was noted in The Voice of San Diego and the the San Diego Union Tribune (news outlets not  sympathetic to the Mayor as is discussed further below).  While the actions appeared entirely consistent with his campaign pledges to empower neighborhoods, developers and Republicans cried fowl and attempted to use these interventions as the basis for corruption investigations, despite the fact that the alleged “payments” were donations by developers to community projects.


  •  Rather than the usual assortment of developer friendly campaign contributors and large firm partners, Mayor Filner made appointments to the Planning Commission (Wagner and Quiroz) and Redevelopment board (Blackson & Baxamusa) who were neighborhood activists, non-profit employees, academics, and progressive urban planners.


  •  Mayor Filner reinstated the Planning Department, which had been subsumed into the development service department and marginalized under the previous mayor.  He then recruited one of the most, if not the most, respected urban planners in the country, Bill Fulton, to run it.  This was another clear indication that community groups and community plans were no longer to be over-run by well funded and well connected developers.

While the list of his accomplishments goes on, it was the foregoing that were most likely his undoing.

The Three Part Perfect Storm

While it is dangerous to get in the way of big money, in San Diego the Mayor

Bob Filner

Bob Filner in 2013 photo by author

walked into a perfect storm.  First, his personality and actions made enemies among even his supporters. Second, key supporters abandoned him.  The third and possibly the most significant element in his down fall, the major media outlets were either controlled or financially beholden to his biggest opponents. As the dust settles, it is becoming increasingly clear that between the first accusation and his resignation reigned an atmosphere in which accusations and hysteria were left unchecked by opposition-influenced news media, supporters were intimidated into abandoning him, and the ends justified the means.

While it would be hard to eliminate Mayor Filner’s own conduct as playing a role in his removal, the scope and gravity of such conduct will remain unknown at least until there is a trial of the two sexual harassment suits, if ever that transpires.   Before any evidentiary process took place, the City’s mayor was deposed in a forced “deal” without a recall election, without scrutiny of the accusations, without a nuanced public discussion, and without a balancing of the equities in nullifying an election.

In November, a special election will be held to replace the Mayor.  Special elections typically see low voter turn out with a high proportion of older and more conservative voters.  The City’s progressives are divided and demoralized.  Therefore, the majority who voted for the Mayor are unlikely to find an adequate remedy in the special election.   It begs the question why such an important referendum on the City’s future was so easily and undemocratically derailed.

The unusual perfect storm started with a press conference on July 10, 2013.  It was not arranged by his usual foe, but by ostensible former supporters:  attorneys Marco Gonzalez and Cory Briggs, locally known for high profile environmental and public interest lawsuits against the City;  and former City Council person, mayoral candidate, and Filner appointee Donna Frye.  They claimed to have knowledge of sexual harassment allegations.  The details of the allegations and the identify of the accusers were not disclosed.  They demanded the Mayor’s resignation before more would be disclosed.  Although, the events that followed provoked many conspiracy theories, nothing has surfaced to implicate these three persons as part of a plot, though they are most responsible for the scandal’s initial momentum.   As former supporters, they signaled the Castle ramparts were breached.  By the end of the drama, it was a medieval palace coup in which everybody was in on it: the inner court, the guards – everyone except the public.   It’s hard to know exactly where the scandal would have ended up had not the Mayor’s allies so quickly turned on him.

San Diego’s Unique Developer – Media Relationship

Now that there was a breach in the Mayor’s own support structure, opponents saw an extraordinary opportunity.  The task was still a monumental one but the enemies of the Mayor had a unique relationship with the local media – on both sides of the political spectrum:

Cabrillo Bridge, Balboa Park

Image from Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), which opposed the plan to modify the Cabrillo Bridge for a parking ramp and garage in Balboa Park

  •  The City’s most well known developer, Doug Manchester, owns the City’s principal newspaper, the Union Tribune (‘UT”).  The  bias of the paper since his purchase is so unprecedented among papers of its size that it has been a topic of national discussion.  In addition to being a staunch Republican who was no fan of the Democratic Mayor’s politics, two of his pet projects had been the target of the Mayor’s opposition:  the City’s proposed Convention Center expansion and the proposed new professional football stadium – both planned near Mr. Manchester’s hotels.  Moreover, the Mayor had intervened in the public funding mechanism for the Convention Center expansion to obtain a more favorable financial arrangement for the City.  The Mayor opposed any public subsidy for the stadium proposal.


  •  The local news media outlets, which can normally be relied on to balance the reporting of the UT were silent on the salient questions in this matter.**  These outlets were the Voice of San Diego, an on-line daily news outlet, and KPBS, the local NPR / PBS affiliate.   A major contributor to both outlets was the City’s wealthiest man whose proposed development the Mayor opposed:  the proposal and funding by Irwin Jacobs to build a parking ramp on to the iconic Cabrillo bridge entrance in the City’s famous Balboa Park.  Ridding the City of  Mayor Filner would also create another chance for his employee and also-ran mayoral candidate, Nathan Fletcher.

Nullifying an Election without an Election

What followed was essentially a “news black out” of investigative reporting,  legal analysis, and political analysis.   There were many facts and issues that merited a closer look.  Nevertheless, the silence was deafening for anything but the steady drum beat of “new accusation[s]” and calls for resignation.  Panel discussions were held which only debated the timing of resignation or recall, and new accusations were reported almost daily without scrutiny or gradation.  In this environment, the following took place with impunity:

  •  News media rarely distinguished between the two sexual harassment allegations (now the subject of lawsuits) and the 16 date requests or allegedly inappropriate touches, which were lumped together as “18 sexual harassment accusations.”  It is surprising how insubstantial many of the accusations appear on their face – most were date requests or incidents that are open to interpretation.  Many of them occurred years ago. A renowned gadfly and publicity hound made one accusation without further questioning.  It is no surprise that only two of the 18 accusations have been filed as lawsuits.  The lawsuits, even to most seasoned attorneys, do not appear to be of the most serious variety of sexual harassment suits.


  •  There was no public discussion of the effect a resignation would have in nullifying the 2012 election, or whether the interests of the public in that election should be considered in determining how to process the allegations. The 2012 election was revolutionary for the City in many ways.  It essentially constituted a referendum for dramatic change from the way the City had been run for most of its history.  The City had elected its first democrat in twenty years in a high turn out presidential election.  Moreover, unlike the democratic Mayor of twenty years ago, the new Mayor openly campaigned against the City’s power brokers and allied himself with neighborhood groups, environmentalists, labor, impoverished communities, and the poor.  Additionally,  City Charter amendments (“strong mayor” amendments) provided him with greater power than previous mayors.  News media typically would have provided at least some analysis of the effect of a resignation or removal on the interests of the public in avoiding a nullification of the 2012 election, or what types or gravity of conduct merit such an extreme measure, or what the appropriate process is for doing so.  Nary a word was said by either of these news outlets until after the resignation – and then only in a guest opinion.


  •  More recently, in an out of town newspaper, it was reported that two City Council members allegedly witnessed Filner’s Mayoral runoff election opponent and former City Council member Carl DeMaio masturbate in the Council bathroom during Council public meetings.  DeMaio repeatedly made public pronouncements demanding that Mayor Filner resign.  It is believed that DeMaio may run for the vacant position.  Despite the  similar (or greater) salaciousness and obvious irony, news media refused to report the story and kept it under wraps for 3 years, even while the Filner scandal raged.


  • The principal architects of the resignation deal were City Council members Todd Gloria (Dem.), Kevin Faulconer (Rep.), and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith (Rep.).  These were the three City representatives who attended the two day mediation resulting in the resignation.  Both Council members have since stated their interest in running for the vacant position.  Moreover, Todd Gloria was to be (and now is) interim Mayor upon Mayor Filner’s resignation.  It begs the question whether the Council members’ interests in their own ambitions conflicted with their role in the negotiations – a question ignored by the aforementioned news outlets.


  •  The City Attorney, who had been openly feuding with the Mayor since the beginning of the Mayor’s term, recently appeared to admit in an interview by an NBC Local affiliate (at 2:14 in video) that he and his office had been investigating the Mayor for 6 months prior to the beginning of the scandal.


  •  The recall petition drive, ostensibly in response to the scandal, began as early as January 1, 2013  at the inception of the Mayor’s term, long before the scandal broke.


  •  Adding to the list of dirty tricks and media pile-on, one news outlet even published a photo of the Mayor’s press secretary drinking from a glass with a penis shaped straw.  The photo was accompanied by an article with commentary from a GOP consultant, but identified in neutral terms, opining about that the behavior was inappropriate especially while the Mayor was being accused of sexual harassment.  The article didn’t mention until the fourth paragraph that the photo was taken at her bachelorette party in Las Vegas, or that the Mayor’s political foes set up the photo.  When the circumstances of the photo were discovered, the article was widely criticized.


  •  The City Attorney and City Council set up the forced resignation with a classic coercive bluff.  On July 30, the City Council voted 9-0 to deny the Mayor a legal defense against the harassment lawsuits, apparently with the City Attorney’s advice.  Then three weeks later, the City Council voted to approve the resignation deal, in which the City would defend the Mayor in exchange for his resignation.  The Council accepted the agreement based on the City Attorney’s advice that  “[t]he city is strictly liable for harassment of city employees by their supervisors, and that includes the mayor.” It begged the question why that rationale did not similarly guide the Council when it voted to deprive the Mayor  (i.e., the City) a legal defense.  This tactic went unnoticed in news reports.


  •  By the time of the resignation, the developer-influenced media apparently felt so confident in its command of the events, that it abandoned deference to the voters’ policy referendum in the 2012 election.  The day of the Mayor’s resignation, the San Diego Union Tribune published an editorial which argued that with the Mayor out of the way, the new leadership should double-down on the projects the Mayor opposed, e.g., the Balboa Park bypass bridge and parking garage, the Convention Center expansion (the Mayor initially opposed the deal but, after getting concessions favorable to the City, supported it), a new football stadium (the paper’s owner owns several hotels near the proposed site of both the Convention Center and the stadium), etc.


  • As if on cue, interim Mayor’s Gloria’s first official act was to rescind a stop-work order issued by Mayor Filner against a controversial Jack in the Box project involving an expansion and drive-thru feature contrary to the neighborhood’s community plan and ordinance.


We have come to expect, in varying degrees, news media to check bare allegations, to provide balanced perspective and analysis, and to consider different points of views and angles.  This did not happen in the Mayor Filner matter except in some of the smaller alternative publications.  Was it simply incompetence?  The pedigree of the offending news outlets suggest otherwise.

The net result of the ordeal was that the public referendum on the direction of the City embodied by the 2012 election was overturned without a vote of the public, in a deal made behind closed doors, with no public scrutiny or informed debate, and with no likely remedy in the special election.

– – – – – – –

** San Diego Reader and San Diego Free Press (and its sister paper the OB Rag) proved the exception, but unfortunately were drowned out by the mainstream news outlets

Profile photo of Bill Adams About Bill Adams

Bill Adams is the founder and chief editor of UrbDeZine. He is also a partner in the San Diego law firm of Norton, Moore, & Adams, LLP. He has been involved with land use and urban renewal for nearly 25 years, both as a professional and as a personal passion. He currently sits on the Boards of San Diego Historic Streetcars, The San Diego Architectural Foundation, The Food and Beverage Association of San Diego County, and The Gaslamp Quarter Association Land Use Planning Committee.

Norton, Moore, & Adams, LLP is a boutique land use firm which handles a wide range of land and building related matters, from permitting to litigation, including:

- Discretionary use applications and appeals, including alcoholic beverage sales, entertainment, industrial, social services, educational, hospitality, etc.
- Zoning variances
- Municipal code and regulatory amendments
- Litigation, including eminent domain, access and easements, CEQA, environmental, and preservation
Professional website: www.nmalawfirm.com


  1. Bill,
    Thanks for the insightful article spelling out the demise of Bob Filner’s Mayorship and the coup to take the city back from the electorate’s choice. Your article confirms the machinations behind the removal and it’s too bad Bob’s weakness for hitting on women (not sexual harassment) was the perfect Achilles heel available for his detractors to take him down and usurp the election. Let’s hope we can get a new scandal proof person to win the election. My choice is for SOHO’s Executive Director Bruce coons, so let the next chapter begin!

    • The entire Filner saga was a disaster from day one…meaning long before Election Day. I would have never voted for Tea Party darling and abrasive phony Carl Demaio, but why didn’t anyone open their mouthes about the Filner accusations before Election Day?
      Perhaps we could have been spared this entire fiasco had Fletcher’s campaign not been derailed by Republican DA Bonnie Dumanis’ insistence on remaining in the race, throwing Fletcher into 3rd place instead of Demaio.
      Any suggestion that Preservationist Tyrant Bruce Coons run for Mayor would simply bring another uncompromising, inexperienced, and one track minded abrasive personality to City Hall…just what we don’t need at this point. Bruce Coons and his socially challenged wife Alana went above and beyond any reasonable argument against the Jacobs’ the questionable design aspects of the Plaza de Panama Plan, and spread outright lies worthy of a Goebbels propaganda campaign to smear the plan as an affront to not only their egos but their personal crusade to preserve everything and anything ‘Historical’ regardless of modern realities and pragmatic needs.
      I have personal communications form both Bruce and his wife that show them to be immature, vindictive, and willing to say anything to get what they want to get across. Sounds like the perfect qualifications for Mayor of San Diego given the Filner black eye on our community.
      I suggest this reading on the nature of historic preservation in Manhattan, before tilting after any local aging and decrepit San Diego Windmills.

  2. Dear Bill-I could not agree with you more on the thrust of what you have said here, that there was much more to the removal of Bob Filner from the office of Mayor of San Diego than the mainstream media revealed. An article that I wrote a month ago in the San Diego Free Press demonstrates that! (see below). Thank you for the research and explication of what is a much more complex attack on former Mayor Bob Filner, and the progressive agenda he stood for, was elected upon, and was well under way in carrying out, before the choice was made to remove him by means of his sexual proclivities; these were well known before the election to friend and foe alike. For example, Lori Saldana and Olga Diaz, both respected elected office holders, revealed as much to Jess Durfee, then head of the San Diego Democratic Central Committee. He indicated that he spoke to Bob Filner about these accusations, but went along with Bob’s retort that no one had yet convicted him in court of such stuff. Filner went on to become the Democratic Party’s champion in the election, because his name recognition and past electoral success meant he stood to have good chances of winning the Mayoral election.

    Progressive Agenda Risks Being Reversed.

    August 3, 2013 at 4:03am

    I am as disgusted by Bob Filner’s long history of maltreatment of women as many others are. It is a condition that should never have gotten this far without being reined in and thoroughly dealt with. At least one of the women is suing him for how he treated her, so it will come before a court in the near future. That friend and foe alike have known that Filner had been a womanizer for some time makes it sad that he was encouraged to be the only candidate from the left in the recent Mayoral election. With a long history of championing liberal causes, a long series of electoral victories behind him, and a strong following from a variety of progressive, veterans, and minority interests, he was clearly perceived as a candidate capable of winning . Therefore, others were caused to defer to him. The progressive cause, under the banner of Bob Filner went on to win against Carl DiMaio,who championed Conservative causes, in the general election. Unfortunately, the Mayor’s self-destructive behavior is not all there is to the serious matter of which administration governs San Diego and how it is governed. There are powers that be that have contested every thing that this Mayor has done since Day One of his administration. You may remember the razzing that Filner got for trying to effect a new labor agreement with the Municipal Unions of San Diego. He, actually, performed well in bringing into being a new, five year agreement with all of the city’s unions. He took on one of the biggest contributors to the Democratic Party when he sided with those who opposed the $40 Million Jacobs Plan for renovating Balboa Park and removing cars from the Plaza de Panama. His achieving that purpose for less than $1 million dollars was impressive. Then there was the 40 year deal that the large hotel owners had worked out with the city, including the previous City Council and former Mayor Jerry Sanders. Filner refused to sign on to this extraordinary, 40 year deal until a revised two year agreement was worked out with the Tourist Authority by Council Member Alvarez. Then, and only then, did he consent to what is not to be called a tax, but rather a fee to be charged to every hotel guest in the city. Since a tax would have to come up for voter approval, it became a so-called fee. Bumper stickers saying “Recall Filner” started to appear throughout the city soon afterward, however no real push was given to the recall effort at that time, with the fear that it might, instead, deepen his support and he might win. Again and again, people like City Attorney Jan Goldsmith and City Council President Todd Gloria have spoken in favor of developer interests which were being thwarted by Flner in favor of the public’s interest. If you look at who will benefit from Bob Filner’s indefensible, behavior toward women, it is the same set of downtown interests that have been pretty much in control of this city for some time. They will choose a candidate to back in the upcoming campaign for Mayor. That person will receive sufficient money, publicity, and campaign organization to be first past the post in the recall effort currently underway. The general public has been sufficiently primed by the current sex scandal that current Mayor Filner won’t stand a chance of surviving, while their candidate will have a good chance of winning. If that is the result, then the progressive agenda he campaigned on, and the followup actions he has succeeded in accomplishing in his first eight months in office, may indeed be reversed.

  3. Bill:
    Great article! How many clerks helped you with the research?
    Seriously, excellent detailed time-line and it is wonderful to finally see someone besides myself draw attention to the “coincedence” of Mr. Jacobs being a prime supporter of BOTH VoSD and KPBS. Editorial independence my ass!
    And John Falchi ( how *are* you, my friend?!) hit the nail: he never shoulda run.

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