COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | GEORGE MITROVICH

Bob Filner and the politics of change

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

— Nicolo Machiavelli, "The Prince" (1532)



Since this column bears my name you may assume what you read in this space is indeed my thinking. Although, given that I am, as the French would say, “a gentleman of a certain generation,” you should allow some opinions previously expressed have been revised.

In defense of changing my mind on certain issues, if not certain people, I turned to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” I prefer not to be thought of as a “little mind,” but when it comes to our town I have consistently been of one mind, including the view that mediocrity in San Diego often takes on the form of excellence. But that view is about to change because Bob Filner is now mayor-elect (he will be sworn in Monday).

In the past I’ve noted the oddity of a town hard against the Mexican border, founded by a Franciscan priest, and yet dominated through its history by WASPs (white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants), one overwhelmingly Republican and conservative. But the election of Filner, the first Democratic mayor in 20 years (and Maureen O’Connor was barely that) means sweeping changes lie ahead for our town, because Filner is not just a Democrat, but a liberal Democrat in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Kennedy brothers, John, Bobby and Ted.

The conservative Republican business establishment took a huge hit Election Day. They lost — the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown San Diego Partnership, San Diego County Taxpayers Association, and the Lincoln Club (although, in fairness, that’s what the Lincoln Club does, supports Republicans).

Among the losers was the U-T San Diego, which not only opposed Filner while editorially backing Carl DeMaio (more than once on its front page), but also lost on other candidates and propositions. To the list of “losers” add Mayor Jerry Sanders and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who endorsed DeMaio (but given that Sanders was named new chamber head at $325,000 annually, his loss was mitigated).

One prominent Republican office holder says this consortium spent “$13 million to beat Filner,” but some reject the figure as too high. But whatever the amount spent, know this: Nov. 6, 2012, the conservative Republican business establishment was dealt the biggest political setback ever.

Now, for the first time as “outsiders” they are scrambling to find a way in, to get close to Filner, to somehow persuade the new mayor that bygones should be bygones and we all need to come together in behalf of the city we profess to love.

The mayor-elect was asked if he should openly confront his losers, but said no. He understands payback is a human instinct, but he sees himself as someone who has succeeded politically by bringing disparate groups and interests together in pursuit of a common goal — as he demonstrated on the school board, as a city councilman, and member of Congress.

Having chaired the citizens committee for a new downtown ballpark and the equally successful effort to change city government from council/manager to strong mayor (the first beneficiary of which was Jerry Sanders, even though he opposed it and contributed $2,000 to defeat the change), I know the public interest is best served by partnerships, not partisanship. Of course the conservative Republican business establishment was happy to work with me, a liberal Kennedy Democrat, because the ballpark and strong mayor causes were critical to their interests — and when money’s involved, politics is secondary to their interests.

But, while the mayor-elect understands the need to come together, and will work diligently to that end, he will remain who he is — liberal and deeply committed to issues of social justice. That’s his political DNA. Which is why, at age 18 and a Cornell University student, he went to Mississippi to join the Freedom Riders in behalf of equality for black Americans and ended up in jail for two months. In that selfless act he wrote his own profiles in courage, as others who went to Mississippi ended up, not in jail, but in a pine box 6 feet below the ground.

On the Saturday before Thanksgiving I was with the mayor-elect at the San Diego Rescue Mission, as they served 1,800 meals to the homeless and hungry. I watched as he walked down the long line of people waiting to be served. I was taken aback by how many recognized him and said they voted for him and watched as he stopped and greeted every person who spoke to him and said he was grateful for their support and he wouldn’t forget them — and he won’t. I’ve been around a while, but this scene was one I had not witnessed since I worked for Bobby Kennedy in the 1968 presidential campaign — a profound and authentic concern for others, because we ain’t talking photo op here.

I’ve known Filner for 34 years. I played a significant role in his first race for the school board, and I know him well enough to know he is a deeply compassionate human being, whose compassion sometimes gets him into trouble because it makes him impatient with others. I am not alone in counseling the mayor-elect in the practice of patience (although I am hardly a role model in that regard), but if the tradeoff is patience or compassion, I’ll take compassion.

Becoming mayor of San Diego will not change Filner; he will continue to evidence empathy for those up against it, and that salient feature of his character needs understanding, especially by the very people who worked so hard to defeat him. But reconciliation can only begin when the anti-Filner faction demonstrates they get the bigger picture — that working together is not a one-way street.

Filner, as our 35th mayor, will be unlike any of the 33 men and two women who preceded him (there were three acting mayors). And the powers granted him under strong mayor government will enable him to actually champion the middle class and those on society’s margins, the ones Jesus called the “least of these my brethren.”

In his 32 years of public service, people have frequently overlooked the mayor-elect’s academic background, not least his opponents, seemingly ignorant of the doctorate he holds in the history of science from Cornell, one of the nation’s most prestigious universities. In short, he is more than the intellectual equal to those who will comprise his administration, the civil servants he will lead, and the people he will govern. It would be a mistake, therefore, to underestimate the depth of his resolve to be, in the most profound sense, an agent of change.

But going forward will not be easy (in this town it never is). Some will push back hard, fearing change, which is why Machiavelli’s wisdom, 480 years on, should be both understood and observed.

But that faction notwithstanding, the rest of us know if Filner succeeds as mayor, all San Diegans shall be beneficiaries of his success.

Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader.

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