Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

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

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

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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.