An interview with Congressmember Bob Filner
By Manny Lopez | Downtown News
Editor’s Note: This interview ran in the August print issue of San Diego Downtown News [Vol. 13, Issue 8].
A veteran politician with 25 election victories to his credit, Democratic Rep. Bob Filner is leaving Congress and gambling that San Diego voters will elect him over Republican City Councilmember Carl DeMaio in November, to succeed termed-out Mayor Jerry Sanders.
At nearly 70, the self-described pragmatist and former college professor whose congressional district includes Imperial County and the southernmost section of San Diego County, said that he feels voters will respond to more than just his length of time in public office.
“The people are going to be looking to the mayor for leadership, and leadership in part means being there personally – being there on the front lines of the issues,” Filner said. “That’s what people expect of me and that’s what I’m going to do.”
In a race anticipated to draw heavy national attention, Filner estimates that each side will spend a minimum of $2 million to fund their campaign.
The Congressmember acknowledged that his opponent will most likely enjoy a larger war chest going into the general election, but added that support from around the country will likely go to him.
While Filner admitted that running a successful campaign requires having enough money to respond to whatever the other side has to say, he holds on to the belief that politics are still “people-to-people.”
“Meeting voters in their homes, planning groups, PTA and churches is really important,” Filner said. “I like to do that. I think it still plays a major role in winning elections and that’s what I’m strongest at.”
Having lost to DeMaio by less than a one-percent margin in the June primary, Filner said he is confident that his experience at running an efficient campaign and his ability to reach out to Democrats and Republicans alike will translate into a victory in November.
The following is from a recent interview with Congressmember Bob Filner done by myself over the phone.
Manny Lopez: As the most experienced candidate, do you feel you have an advantage over your competition?
Bob Filner: I think I’m probably the most well qualified person who’s ever run for mayor in San Diego. In 1979 I was elected to the San Diego Board of Education and served as its president. I’ve been elected twice to the San Diego City Council, where I [also] served as the Deputy Mayor. I’ve been elected 10 times to the United States Congress and have been the Chairman of the House Veterans committee. I know where the Federal money is and I think that’s what San Diego needs in these very complicated times.
ML: Could your relationships in Washington be a help to you as mayor?
BF: I think what San Diego hasn’t had, certainly in the mayors of recent times, is the kind of contacts and experience I have at not only the city, state and national level, but also the international level. I know presidents of different countries that could help with trade for San Diego. I know the cabinet members of the [current] administration and the chairmen of all of the different committees in the Congress. Even the President is a friend of mine.
ML: How do you feel about the margins during the primary between DeMaio and yourself?
BF: We both basically tied for first. He spent four to five times as much as I did and I got the same number of votes, so it shows that I was much more efficient about spending money. I think the people who voted for our two opponents are more likely to come to me, so I’m pretty confident about a victory in the fall.
ML: What was it like being the only Democrat running in the primary?
BF: It certainly made it easier to campaign. Democrats didn’t have to be divided and the Republican candidates were fighting against one another. It was a pretty nice position to have. But now the general [election] is one-on-one and you’ve got to make your case to both Democrats and Republicans.
ML: What issues do you feel will be most pressing for the incoming mayor?
BF: Chief and foremost is jobs, jobs, jobs. Because of the kind of potential we have, San Diego can do things and we don’t need to wait for federal or state assistance. We can expand our port creating thousands of jobs for middle class working people. We can become the alternative energy capital of the world by requiring our public buildings to be solar powered and expand all the small businesses involved with that.
Of course public safety has to be foremost. We have fallen in our number of police officers and firefighters and we’ve got to strengthen that. Our neighborhoods have been neglected at the expense of special interests Downtown. We’ve got to make up for that. Those are the key kinds of issues and making sure that people feel like they’re part of their government. Neighborhood groups and all of the others we have setup must be part of the process.
ML: Do you have a plan for affordable housing in San Diego?
BF: Affordable housing has been an issue that San Diego has been dealing with for decades. We haven’t quite figured out how to do it yet. What the City can do is make sure that there is planning for denser housing on transportation corridors. People have to go through years to get permits. They shouldn’t have to that. It not only increases the cost, [it] keeps people very pessimistic about ever getting anything done. A commitment from the mayor on affordable housing, especially at a time when you need to stimulate the economy with building, I think is a key subject. It’s not even a question of money, always. It’s the leadership to put things in motion and get the innovation of the private sector working.
ML: Coming into the primaries, there was a lot of concern about public education. As a former board member, what role would you hope to play in bettering San Diego Schools?
BF: I was a history professor for 20 years before I got into politics. I’m the only candidate who has put his children through the San Diego public school system. I have grandchildren in the public school system and my daughter-in-law is a teacher in the public school system. I have a strong connection and I think that what the city can do is put its resources — both public and private — into helping the kids before and after school, [by] not only keeping them busy, but learning. The kids get into trouble before and after school. The city can take some responsibility. We shouldn’t give all of the responsibility to the school system. I think the city can do so much more than what it’s doing now.
ML: Being the Congressmember from the 51st Congressional District, you’ve got most of the California border, with Mexico. How does that prepare you to be mayor of a border town?
BF: I’m the only candidate that has an appreciation of the border as a cultural and economic asset to the City. Most people see the border as just a problem with immigrants and drugs. But to live in a bi-national culture is so educational and so culturally enlarging and the business opportunities between our countries [are] so important that we should be celebrating the border as a place of both economic and cultural awareness and benefit. My experience would bring our city to a whole new relationship with Mexico and Tijuana. And show how a better relationship between the two countries and the two cities actually strengthens us both.
ML: How has the campaign changed since you first threw your hat in the ring?
BF: First of all, we had to get through the primaries. The fact that I was the only Democrat made it a little bit easier than the other candidates. A clear choice between two people changes all the dynamics in the general. People get confused when there are four candidates, but now that there are only two, you have to be much clearer and sharper.
ML: How would you respond to the statement that a victory for either candidate is a triumph for special interests?
BF: I think DeMaio would represent a victory for corporate interests, versus my victory would indicate a victory for the interests of working people.
ML: Can you look into your crystal ball and tell us if the Chargers are going to get a new stadium?
BF: I hope so, but it would require that the Chargers and the National Football League look at a city differently. Not just as a place to extort money from, but as a place to work with. If they work with us rather than try to take money from us, I think we’ll be able to keep the Chargers here.
ML: What does your crystal ball tell you about expanding the Convention Center?
BF: I think there are ways to expand the Convention Center without doing either environmental damage or damage to the taxpayers. Maybe combining the Chargers stadium with some expansion of the Convention Center is the way to do both and I’m looking at those kinds of ideas.
A native New Yorker, Manny Lopez is a freelance journalist and photographer who started his writing career in La Jolla. He now covers San Diego and Southwest-Riverside counties penning news, features and business profiles. Manny can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: Next month (September) stay tuned for an interview with candidate Carl DeMaio.