Politics, government and public life for Southern California

San Diego's new mayor Bob Filner fires some parting shots at Congress

Bob Filner

Charles Dharapak

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., during a House Committee on Veterans' Affairs hearing.

Former Democratic Congressman Bob Filner, a member of the House of Representatives for 10 terms, could have run for an eleventh. But when he saw a chance to run for mayor of San Diego, he jumped in the race – and won.

Why leave a comfortable life on Capitol Hill? It's simple, says Filner: "Congress is dysfunctional."

Filner, one of the most liberal Democrats on the Hill, points the finger at both parties. He says Congress began to change in 1994, when Republicans took back the House and Newt Gingrich became speaker.

Shrinking government became the mantra.

"I couldn’t believe the kind of people who had come and taken power," he says. "Many of them had never had any government experience. They had no respect as it were for government per se. I mean, I don’t know why you run for government office with the intent to close up government."

Filner says a second GOP wave swept through the House with the Tea Party victories of 2010, bringing a different generation of Republican true believers to Capitol Hill. He says: "(there was) nothing to compromise with. There wasn’t even anything to talk about."

Filner says half of the Congress didn't believe in science; they thought that "climate change didn’t exist, did not believe in stem cell research, thought that you teach creationism and not evolution."

"If you have a group like that, what do you do?" says Filner. "There’s no reaching across the aisle."

But Filner saves his harshest words for his own party: A President who gives away the store before sitting down to negotiate; Democrats who had run the House for 40 years didn’t understand you can’t legislate as a minority; leadership wasting its time in the weeds on the process of government rather than the politics of trying to win back the House.

"When we were in the minority they would always have motions," he says, for things like defeating the previous question. "Well, who cares about those?" He says nobody knew "what the hell we were talking about and yet we spent all our energy on that."

Filner says one good thing came from Newt Gingrich: He diminished the power of seniority on the Republican side. Not so for Democrats who, he says, still rule from the top down.

"They keep their control by intimidation," says Filner. If you don’t go along with the votes, he says members lose committee assignments or floor time to talk or even their chance of getting bills passed.

And it’s not just the folks at the top. Filner says old timers made it as difficult as possible for the newest Democrats in the House.

"These guys would sort of judge freshmen by the time it took them to figure out where the private dining room was," he says. "It was like a hazing thing. So if you don’t tell somebody that you can eat with your colleagues, what are you going to tell them about how to get floor time or how they get a bill passed?"

Filner started off on the wrong foot on Capitol Hill by organizing a meeting with fellow freshmen who shared his progressive views. House leaders found out and scheduled a counter meeting.

When Filner ran for chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, he says leadership organized the opposition. Unlike other chairs that year who were elected by “unanimous consent,” Filner had to round up votes.

"The leadership does to the Democrats what Republicans do to us in elections," he says. "They divide and conquer."

Those frustrations and the lack of power that came with being a member of the minority party in the House led Filner to skip a run for another term in Congress and instead run for mayor of San Diego, the nation's eighth largest city.

He says he thought if he could "create jobs or end homelessness or solve pension problems without throwing public employees under the bus, it would have an effect on other cities far better than I would have as a member of Congress."

Filner says he is proud of the work he did as top Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Under his leadership, the budget for veterans jumped by 65 percent at a time when every other department was facing cuts.

He admits it was the news about rat-infested dormitories at Walter Reed Hospital that put a public spotlight on the veterans crisis – and made the funding possible. He says he can’t understand why Democrats never figured out how powerful the veterans issue was.

"They just didn’t seem to understand that this was a constituency that was ours if we showed that we cared," he says.

Earlier this month, Filner resigned from Congress and took the oath of office as mayor of San Diego. City Hall’s nice, but Filner says he’ll miss the view from his old office of the U.S. Capitol.

"In the evening when it’s lit up, my heart was like this, it was fluttering," he says. "And I figured I should leave when it stopped fluttering. But it never did."

Filner says the building is just a symbol that you’re part of a national government "that’s one of the most powerful in the world!"

He says serving has been "a real honor." And not bad, he says, for the son of a steelworker.


Speculation on new jobs for former members of Congress


Grant Slater/KPCC

Democratic Representative Howard Berman leaves office next month. He's rumored to be headed back to Sacramento where he once served in the legislature. But Berman won't say what his plans are.

The new year is a time for new beginnings – no more so than for more than a dozen former California members of Congress. Some have new jobs nailed down, but for the rest: let the speculation begin!

Democrat Bob Filner already started his new job. The former Congressman resigned the day he was sworn in as the new mayor of San Diego.

Palm Springs Republican Mary Bono Mack is still on the clock until Congress officially adjourns. Rumors abound that she’ll join her husband Connie Mack, who lost his bid for Senate from Florida, on cable TV. The pair has shown up nearly half a dozen times on CNN in recent weeks.

Some political watchers think longtime Sherman Oaks Democrat Howard Berman is the perfect man to return to state politics, perhaps becoming the Assembly’s new speaker. Berman, who served 30 years in Congress and another decade in Sacramento, was amused.


City employees line up for their annual picture with Mayor and Santa

City Hall Christmas Tree

Alice Walton/KPCC

It's an annual tradition at City Hall for the mayor to take pictures with city workers against the backdrop of the Christmas tree.

In the spirit of the holidays, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spent a recent morning at City Hall standing in front of a Christmas tree to take pictures with city employees and their families.

Hundreds of workers lined up near the rotunda to snap a photo with the mayor and Santa Claus. One person waiting was Isabelle Sanchez of the City Clerk’s Elections Division. This was her first time meeting the mayor.

“I'm very excited. I just saw him right now because I passed by and it's nerve-racking but I'm looking forward to it,” Sanchez said. 

Another woman in line was Jameea Jones. She took off work and brought her three children to the event. Though her daughters were more excited about seeing Santa, Jones felt it was important for them to see the outgoing mayor.

“I think when they see his face they'll get it because they've seen his face on TV before so, I want to see the reaction,” she said. 


Congresswoman Judy Chu wants tougher hazing language

Mercer 561

Kitty Felde/KPCC

Congresswoman Judy Chu hopes to include stronger language against military hazing in the defense appropriation bill.

Washington hasn't steered clear of the fiscal cliff, but the House of Representatives this week did approve a $633-billion defense bill. The bill contains language designed to address hazing in the military. But one Southland lawmaker says it doesn’t go far enough.

Democratic Congresswoman Judy Chu of El Monte knows the effect of military hazing: her nephew committed suicide in Afghanistan after hazing from his Marine mates.

Chu pushed for strong language in the defense authorization bill, but it got diluted as the compromise bill came back from the Senate. Chu says she’s disappointed that the military is required to make a one-time only report to Congress, with no permanent database of hazing incidents, and no independent study from the Government Accountability Office. She calls the GAO study "essential, because I think that there has to be a voice outside of the military that can look at hazing as a crime and determine its consequences and determine why there’s nothing being done about it."

Chu wants data broken out along race and gender to determine whether women and minorities are prime targets for military hazing.

The Senate also approved the Defense bill late Friday afternoon. 



NRA bashing from California's Congressional Democrats

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said Friday that the NRA's proposal "is really nothing more than a distraction."

After the National Rifle Association called Friday for armed police officers at every local school, California members of Congress were swift to react to the proposal.

Democratic U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein didn’t dismiss the NRA proposal out of hand. "If school districts want to hire armed security guards," she said, "I support that. It’s a decision each school district should make." Feinstein added that one-in-three public schools in America already have armed security on staff.

Feinstein again called for a renewal of her assault weapons ban. "The NRA’s blanket call to arm our schools is really nothing more than a distraction," she said. "It’s a delay tactic."

Democrats on the House side were equally critical. Grace Napolitano of Norwalk said it was "just like the NRA. Sell more guns. Arm everybody." West L.A.'s Henry Waxman sait it was "very cynical for the NRA to blame everybody but themselves for the gun disasters, the killing that we’ve been seeing in recent years." And Janice Hahn of Carson said the NRA’s solution "is so out of touch with reality and so out of touch with what the American people want right now."

Hahn supports the assault weapons ban, but wants to do something about the guns already out there. She sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi asking that $200 million in any fiscal cliff deal be set aside to buy back assault weapons: "I want to get the ones that are already out there and get them off the streets."

Waxman also supports Feinstein’s assault weapons ban, and a ban on magazine clips for those weapons. He also suggests a look at our culture’s “glorification of violence” and an examination of our mental health system.

Mental health is the top issue for Congresswoman Napolitano. She says families need education to help identify those with mental health problems and the resources to treat them. She says families should be able "to have the funding to pay for the expensive psychiatric treatment for those who need it."

Most Republican House members have been silent on the issue, but Congressman Buck McKeon of Santa Clarita issued a statement saying there should be a “thorough dissection of our country’s mental health and family services.” He also suggests looking at “problematic” enforcement issues with current gun laws.

And a spokesman for Irvine’s John Campbell says the Congressman doesn’t support a “single solution approach to solving what is clearly a multi-faceted problem,” but does believe we should have a national debate about the root causes of the violence at Newtown.