San Diego mayor faces sex harassment lawsuit, city faces uncertainty

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner is being sued by his former communications director for sexual harassment. He has resisted calls to resign, saying he will defend himself 'vigorously.'

Sam Hodgson /Reuters
Irene McCormack Jackson, the mayor's former director of communications and plaintiff in a sexual harassment lawsuit against San Diego and its mayor, Bob Filner, speaks during a press conference in San Diego Monday.

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner's former communications director has filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him, creating new problems for a city that has struggled with recent civic scandals.

Though Mayor Filner has acknowledged “personal frailties,” he says the claims are not valid and he intends to fight them in court.

Since President Clinton survived attempts to drive him from office, some politicians have increasingly sought to ride out sex-related scandals. But such scandals often only damage both the politicians embroiled in them and the constituencies they serve, experts say.

“The longer the mayor hangs on, the political problem worsens for him and for the city long-term,” says David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif. “The longer he holds out, the harder it will be to rebuild faith in the most public of offices – that of mayor of a big city.”

Irene McCormack Jackson filed the lawsuit against Filner Monday. She is represented by Gloria Allred, the attorney for several high-profile clients, including Sharon Bialek, who accused then-GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain of sexual harassment, as well as Rachel Uchitel, one of Tiger Woods’s mistresses.

“I am coming forward today to lay the blame at the feet of the person responsible, Mayor Bob Filner,” Ms. McCormack Jackson said after detailing what she described as the mayor's harassment of her. “He is not fit to be mayor of our great city. He is not fit to hold any public office.”

McCormack Jackson said Filner asked her to “work without her panties on,” placed her in a headlock “and moved around as a ragdoll while he whispered sexual comments in my ear,” and said he wanted to have sex with her, among other alleged incidents.

“Women were viewed by Mayor Filner as sexual objects or stupid idiots,” said McCormack Jackson, a former reporter who resigned from her position as communications director in June. “His behavior made me feel ashamed, frightened, and violated.”

Filner responded to McCormack Jackson’s allegations in a statement late Monday.

“I do not believe these claims are valid,” Filner said. “That is why due process is so important. I intend to defend myself vigorously and I know that justice will prevail.” Despite having admitted on the air to Univision that he “brought this on through my own personal frailties,” Filner has resisted calls to resign.

The president of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Authority has said that the scandal has already been a distraction; Filner reportedly had to cancel an Asia trip. But others have survived similar allegations. For example, just before California’s high-profile 2003 California recall election, then-candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger was able to brush away claims from several women that he had groped them.

Mr. Clinton's political survival during the Monica Lewinsky scandal was a game-changer, says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

“When news of the Lewinsky affair broke, many people assumed that [Clinton] would have to quit. But through sheer tenacity or shamelessness – take your pick – he hung on,” he says. “Ever since, his example has been a source of encouragement to public figures facing accusations of sexual misconduct.”

But he suggests Filner is in danger because his situation is different.

“Clinton and Schwarzenegger were able to turn the issue around by blaming political foes for making unfair attacks,” Professor Pitney says. “In this case, the accusations against Filner come from people who were recently political allies.”

Moreover, he adds, “Hillary Clinton and Maria Shriver stood by their men. Filner's fiancée not only dumped him, but joined the ranks of his critics. Clinton and Schwarzenegger could draw on deep reserves of charm and goodwill.”

America's eighth-largest city is no stranger to political problems. In 2004, details emerged of financial dealings going back over 20 years that brought the city to the brink of bankruptcy. Among the criticized moves: selling public land, "corporate welfare" deals with major sports teams, misappropriation of funds, and the underfunding of basic services such as police, fire, and parks. A widening gap in city pension funds helped the city earn national headlines as an "Enron by the sea." The budget woes drew national scrutiny and investigations by the FBI, the US Attorney General's office, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Then, earlier this year, Maureen O’Connor – San Diego’s first woman mayor, who served from 1986 to 1992 – confessed that she had diverted millions of her husband’s money to cover gambling debts.

“Those who live in San Diego are saying thank goodness for Sea World and the world famous zoo, because those are the lenses through which most people see the city,” says Pitney. “They don’t see it as a political town and, in this case, that definitely helps diminish any taint that might emerge from this.”

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