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

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
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. 

San Diego mayor Bob Filner attends the ground breaking ceremony for improvements for the San Diego Trolley system.
San Diego Mayor Bob Filner on July 25, 2013.

Photo by Sam Hodgson/Reuters

Gloria Allred was in San Diego again, introducing citizens, reporters, and gawkers to the 11th woman with a story of sexual harassment from Mayor Bob Filner. The new accuser was a nurse who met with Filner in June to secure help for—wait for it—an Iraq War veteran suffering from brain injuries. Filner, according to the nurse, asked everyone else to leave the room so he could flirt. “I want you to go out to dinner with me,” said Filner, according to Allred. “Will you go to dinner with me if I help your Marine?”

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.

Lori Saldaña was watching Allred’s press conference on her iPhone, streaming the video between meetings. Her disgust was magnified by the predictability of the whole thing. In 2011, while still in the California Assembly, Saldaña told San Diego County Democratic Party Chairman Jess Durfee that Filner had been “harassing women and acting inappropriately.” The stories she heard then sounded like the one she heard now: Filner was picking a moment in a professional meeting when a woman could be “isolated from others in the group” and subjected to his charms.

“Durfee is a gay man, so I don’t know that he understood the power dynamics,” speculates Saldaña. “The dynamics were completely unequal. Filner was propositioning women who needed his help. Of course they weren’t coming forward themselves. But I was told, ‘I heard rumors about you and Bob not getting along,’ which was true. Bob apparently told him there was nothing to it because nobody had ever filed an ethics complaint.”

That was Filner’s defense, according to Durfee. It looked like the public record against her word, and she’d been clashing with Filner on policy for a while, anyway. “When Lori approached me to basically say something negative about Bob Filner,” Durfee says, “I started with a certain amount of skepticism. My response was I’d be happy to talk to any of these individuals.” The only story Durfee could corroborate, of Escondido’s mayor being hit on by Filner, didn’t really rise to the level of sexual harassment. “Had I gone before any group of Democrats and said that this was the case against Filner, I would have been laughed at. That was basically what I had to work with.”

Bob Filner spent 20 years in the House of Representatives. At no time did any colleagues file ethics complaints against him. Some staffers for other members of Congress or campaigns call him “creepy” or say his overestimation of his own wittiness led him to say odd things to women. So Washington isn’t drop-dead shocked at what Filner did. It just doesn’t look like what he did around the Capitol.

Conservatives watching this scandal wonder if Filner’s colleagues are engaged in a cover-up. They remember how Republican Rep. Mark Foley was rushed out of Congress right before the 2006 elections, after former pages came out and said he’d used his status to hit on them. They also point to Hilary Rosen, a Democrat-around-town and CNN contributor who repeated what “former members” told her at dinner last month. “[They] said this guy has kind of been this way all along,” said Rosen, “that everybody thought he was a little creepy.”

But Filner’s ultra-slow-motion downfall—he’s working through nine more days of “therapy” on the city’s dime—tells us just how long you can get away with being a creep in politics. The tolerance for mild creepiness is quite high, because your victims don’t know how much of it they’re expected to put up with. The tolerance is higher if you save the high-level grossness for your district, instead of doing it in full view of the D.C. press corps and your colleagues.

For a while, Filner pulled this off. He wasn’t a terribly popular member of his party; when Democrats won back Congress in 2007, he had to fight Maine Rep. Mike Michaud for the chairmanship of the House veterans affairs committee, and only beat him 24-20 in the steering committee. Nobody brought up any accusations of sexual harassment. The argument was that Filner was abrasive and didn’t play well with Republicans. The first part of that was borne out quickly, after Filner attacked a Dulles baggage handler over lost luggage. The victim actually appeared in an anti-Filner ad last year; Filner won anyway.

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.”

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?”