Jul 29 2013

Reform Party of California Commentary


Political party self-interest vs. the public interest

The mayor’s scandal and its context

San Diego democratic mayor Bob Filner has been the subject of sexual harassment innuendo that spans a number of years, including specific allegations that arose since he became San Diego’s mayor in December of 2012.[1] A respected former city council member and prominent San Diego citizen, Donna Fry, publicly accused the mayor of behavior that, if true, could amount to criminal assault and liability for civil damages.[2] Such behavior included publicly touching one woman and separate instances in private of touching and crude comments toward others. According to the women involved, none of mayor Filner’s acts were wanted or consented to.

Part of the context is months of behind the scenes activity by some of mayor Filner’s supporters who tried to persuade him to change his behavior, which he publicly[3] and allegedly privately[4] said he would do. The San Diego democratic party apparently was aware of mayor Filner’s history because his vetting as candidate was reported to include inquiry about his past behavior toward women while he was in congress. His reported response was that he had never been sued for sexual harassment and that was the end of the vetting process on that issue. The San Diego democratic party went on to endorse his candidacy for mayor, which he won in 2012.

Mayor Filner has made contradictory and strange public statements. In a taped pubic apology, he said that he had failed to respect and intimidated women he encountered in the course of his official duties. He also said that he would change his behavior.[3] In a later statement he asserted that he did not sexually harass any woman. Mayor Filner refuses to resign, arguing that he is innocent and is entitled to due process. Initially, the democratic party in San Diego was unable to either ask for mayor Filner’s resignation or issue a statement of support, with a split reported to be between younger and older party leaders.[5] After more women the party reconsidered and now asks for his resignation.

This sex scandal differs fundamentally from those associated with recent scandals that ensnared Bill Clinton, Elliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Anthony Weiner and Mark Sanford. In all of those cases, whatever relations there were between the male politician and his female partner(s) was consensual. In Filner’s case, there was no consent by any of the women. A legal finding of criminal guilt or civil liability would come from a “he said, she said” court trial. Until that happens, the law presumes that mayor Filner is innocent until proved otherwise.

What the scandal teaches

There are some lessons to be learned here. The standards of evidence needed to find guilt or liability in court do not necessarily apply to what is needed to form opinions in politics. It is fair to ask what, if anything, can or should a political party in this situation do. To the Reform Party of California (RPCA), this is a matter of ethics in service to the pubic interestnot culpability in a court of law. Obviously, for the democratic party in San Diego, it was about something other than what one would think was common sense ethics. The democrats were desperate to get a democrat in the mayor’s office. Because of that, they endorsed him for mayor despite knowing his unsavory history toward women.

To arrive at reasonable opinions, the public must rely at least in part on whatever information they have. In mayor Filner’s case, the information includes (i) the mayor’s statement that he would change his behavior, (ii) democratic party vetting of the mayor on this issue before endorsing him, (iii) no evidence that the contacts were consensual other than mayor Filner’s assertion of his innocence and (iv) multiple specific public allegations of improper behavior.

From the RPCA’s point of view, it is reasonable to believe that party affiliation is playing a role in forming political opinion about mayor Filner and his fitness to stay in office. It is no surprise that republicans tend to ask for mayor Filner’s resignation. It is less expected that democrats were initially deadlocked but have now reconsidered after the avalanche of public accusations.

The problem is that party affiliation should not play any significant role. It should not have taken this long for the issue to surface like this, which is an embarrassment to the people of San Diego. Under the circumstances here, assessment of whether mayor Filner is fit to serve should not depend on party affiliation. Parties should consider the public good, or in this case at least the safety of women.

In the case of president Clintion’s affair and subsequent impeachment, party affiliation strongly affected partisan opinion. His perceived fitness to serve split mostly along party lines. The extent of a party split in mayor Filner’s case is less clear but there is no reason to believe that it is insignificant. Unless there is other relevant, non-public information, the San Diego democratic party should never have endorsed Filner if they took ethics as something more than simple guilt or innocence in lawsuits. In RPCA opinion, that was a mistake engendered by party self-interest. A sad reality of two-party politics is that acceptable behavior standards often, maybe usually, varies depending on party affiliation. The public interest clearly lost out to political self-interest in this case.

There are other concerns in this. Some democrats, republicans and others defend mayor Filner as not having been accorded due process. In essence, that way of looking at this demands time to let lawsuits play out in court. Those individuals are free to think that way, but they ask for more than should be accorded. Ethics in politics should not simply amount to approval of behavior until the bad actor is proved guilty or liable in court. That attitude makes a mockery of ethics and renders it irrelevant. This attitude evinces complete ignorance of what constitutes acceptable behavior in politics.

Mayor Filner and any other politician in this awful situation does not deserve that degree of protection in the court of public opinion. His due process rights will no doubt be protected in any lawsuit, which is as it should be. That standard relegates the concept of ethics to simply assessing what is legal and whether alleged wrongdoing can be proven in court. That makes ethics irrelevant. This case is an example of a two-party system where legal standards have mostly replaced ethics in politics as the controlling authority. As the Reform Party has pointed out before, at least one politician has argued exactly that in the context of money in politics.[6] If that is true for money in politics, there is no reason to believe it is not true in other political contexts. This is an example that is exactly on point. That is a troubling aspect of what two-party politics has devolved into.

There is another consideration in this sad affair. Asking for due process before assessing this ethics situation is amazingly tone deaf. That kind of talk and action fosters a loss of trust in our political institutions. Millions of Americans believe little or nothing of what comes from government and most politicians. Loss of trust in government is a major RPCA concern, which has been raised before.

Under the circumstances it is not reasonable and it should not be necessary for court cases to play out before calling for mayor Filner’s resignation. The confusion and delay in confronting this problem and failing to condemn mayor Filner reflects poorly on the San Diego democratic party. However, this scandal is just a symptom of an ethics-challenged two-party political system. The two parties cannot even distinguish between ethics and simple reliance on lawsuits.

If reliance on lawsuits is what now constitutes ethical standards, then both parties should simply tell the American people that. Americans deserve at least that much clarity from these two political institutions. As noted above, this is not a case of consensual sexual contacts.[7] This case goes far beyond that. In the RPCA’s opinion, the situation exemplifies a two-party system that is so self-centered that it engenders disrespect toward not just San Diego’s citizens. This is just one example[8] of political self-interest coming before the public interest at large.


1. Links: http://www.kpbs.org/news/2013/jul/10/filner-asked-resign-over-sexual-harassment-claims/ ; http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-filner-defiant-20130715,0,6803173.story.

2. Link: http://www.kpbs.org/news/2013/jul/15/filner-over-line/.

3. Links: http://www.nbcsandiego.com/news/local/Mayor-Bob-Filner-Apologizes-to-San-Diego-215150781.html; http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-filner-apology-20130711,0,2262813.story.

4. Link: http://www.kpbs.org/news/2013/jul/12/roundtable/.

5. Link: http://www.kpbs.org/news/2013/jul/19/roundtable-filners-troubles-mount/.

6. Quote from former Nebraska republican senator Chuck Hagel, now secretary of defense; “There’s no shame anymore. We’ve blown past the ethical standards, we now play on the edge of legal standards.”; http://reformparty.org/reform-party-of-california-essays-politics-and-special-interest-money/.

7. Voters tend to be forgiving of sex scandals arising from consensual sex, even outrageous ones: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/05/07/mark-sanford-colbert-busch-congress-election-south-carolina/2140591/. A question in Mark Sanford’s case is to what degree did party affiliation and/or ideology trump ethics.

8. Link: http://reformpartyca.org/reform-party-of-california-essays-3/.