How Did Bob Filner Get Away With Sexually Harassing Women for So Long?

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Aug. 7 2013 5:43 PM

A Man About Town

Bob Filner appears to have been a serial sexual harasser in San Diego. In D.C., he was smart enough to be nothing more than a creep. 

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The nasty side of Filner was easier to spot when he returned home. In 2004, when she was working her way up in California politics, Saldaña had dinner with the congressman. “It was the most awkward dinner I’ve ever had,” she remembers. “I heard him make disparaging remarks about the women he was serving with. ‘She dresses like a hooker’—stuff like that, comments on women’s appearances. ... Which ones? I don’t even want to get into the details and embarrass them.”

So Filner was reckless in front of a Democrat he barely knew. He was, apparently, more careful in D.C., and that separated him from the members who’d brought themselves down during his tenure. Mark Foley fixated on pages who worked on the Hill and lived nearby. Eric Massa “tickled” three staffers, who took their stories to the House ethics committee. Both of those incidents spurred the usual “and when did you know it” questions to party leaders, questions that conservatives want the media to ask Democrats. The D.C. Democrats plead ignorance, and indeed, the harassment and flirtations that people know about all happened somewhere else.

But for a while the same had been true of Massa. After his 2010 ethics complaint emerged, Joshua Green talked to Massa’s former subordinates in the Navy about the “special massages” he’d offer/inflict upon them. He was “notorious” for this, but he didn’t get caught. “Massa’s shipmates didn't turn him in for fear that he would retaliate.”

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Filner’s alleged victims weren’t able to retaliate, either. One was a university administrator with a question about land use near the Naval Training Center. One, Gerry Tindly, was an Army veteran and rape survivor who’d just given a speech about her horror at a “healing and hiring fair.” When Filner came onto her, she wondered what could happen if she exposed him. “What am I gonna say?” she told CNN. “You’re a congressman. What am I gonna say to you? What am I gonna say to this man? Can he destroy my life, can he stop me from moving forward?”

He couldn’t, it turned out, but what made him act that way? For most of his career Filner was married, and his second wife lived in D.C. “He might have been constrained there,” says Saldaña. “When I served on the [California] Assembly ethics committee, I heard a lot of complaints, but I found that if there was a spouse in closer proximity to a member, it reduced the problems like this.”

But in his final term in Congress, before he ran for mayor, Filner got divorced. In 2012, when meeting with gay activists, he half-joked that his lousy adventures with matrimony made him unsympathetic about marriage rights. “As a heterosexual person who’s been married, you can take quite a cynical view of marriage and wonder why would you want to,” Filner said. “The last one took all my money; all my property.”

Filner wasn’t just dropping warning signs. He was buying a 500-foot billboard and scrawling the word “WARNING” across it in day-glo colors. He might have expected that the niceties of politics, the lack of complaints against him, and a focus on women far from the spotlight would protect him. For quite a while, it did. Saldaña ended up endorsing Filner for mayor.

“At that point in time,” says Durfee, “I was thinking, well, just how seriously was she about Bob Filner?”

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