The 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. 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. Such behavior included publicly grouping one woman and separate instances of touching and crude comments toward others.
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 and allegedly privately 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 both 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. 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. 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. Many, but not all, local republicans are asking for mayor Filner’s resignation. Mayor Filner’s fiancee recently broke off her engagement with the mayor because, while he was in her presence, he repeatedly tried to get dates with other women by texting them.
This sex scandal differs fundamentally from those associated with recent scandals that ensnared Bill Clinton, Elliot Spitzer, John Edwards and Mark Sanford. In all of those cases, sexual relations between the male politician and his female partner(s) was consensual. In Filner’s case, there was no immediately obvious 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 by evidence that is beyond a reasonable doubt for criminal guilt. Proving criminal sexual assault in cases like this is usually very difficult because proving the criminal the case amounts to deciding between contradictory victim and defendant statements in view of whatever circumstantial evidence there might be. If a victim alleges Filner is liable for damages and files a civil suit, lower standards of proof would be needed to find him guilty. Different due process standards might also apply in a civil suit.
What the scandal teaches
The standards of evidence needed to find guilt or liability in court do not apply to what is needed to form opinions in politics. In the context of political parties, this is obviously a matter of ethics, not culpability in a court of law. This is a matter of ethics and political opinion. Political opinion ranges from well-informed, logical and very reasonable to remarkably self-serving, ill-informed and/or irrational. To arrive at reasonable opinions, members of the public must rely at least in part on whatever trusted information they have. In mayor Filner’s case, the information the public has access to 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) specific public allegations of several improper contacts or behavior. Whether all, some or none of that is trusted will vary among individuals.
From the Reform Party’s point of view, it is reasonable to believe that party affiliation is playing a role in forming political opinion. It is no surprise that republicans tend to ask for mayor Filner’s resignation. It is less expected that democrats are deadlocked. 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. Unfortunately, it does.
An example of party affiliation controlling opinion was president Clintion’s affair and subsequent impeachment. 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. That was a mistake engendered mostly by party affiliation. A sad reality of two-party politics is that acceptable behavior standards sometimes varies depending on party affiliation. The public interest clearly lost out to political self-interest in this case.
There are other concerns in this. Individuals, democrats, republicans and any others who defend mayor Filner as not having been accorded due process are in essence asking for 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. Our criminal justice system strongly protects defendants, in part by requiring a high standard of proof. Sometimes guilty parties are found innocent and innocents are sometimes found guilty. In Trayvon Martin’s case, many people believe that there was injustice while others believe the opposite. Regardless, the outcome there reflects how we defend individual constitutional rights in criminal contexts. Constitutional safeguards are also present in civil lawsuits.
Mayor Filner does not necessarily get or deserve that degree of protection in the court of public opinion. 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. In Reform Party opinion, 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. If that is true for money in politics, there is no reason to believe it is not true in other political contexts and this is an example. That is another troubling aspect of what two-party politics has devolved into.
In Reform Party opinion, asking for due process before assessing this ethics situation is amazingly tone deaf. It leads to a loss of trust in our political institutions, which is now so high that governing is difficult. Millions of Americans believe little or nothing of what comes from government and most politicians. Loss of trust in government is a major Reform Party concern, which has been raised before.
Public opinion and its perceptions do not constitute a court of law. The standards that Filner’s defenders now demand will require the women behind the charges to face Filner in court and they will no doubt be attacked and branded as liars and worse. Under the circumstances, which including some bizarre statements from mayor Filner, it is not reasonable and it should not be necessary for court cases to play out before calling for his resignation.
The 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 tell the American people that in no uncertain terms. Americans deserve at least that much clarity from these two political institutions. As noted above, this is not a case of consensual sexual contacts. This case goes far beyond that. If any civil or criminal lawsuit is filed, mayor Filner’s due process rights will be protected in court. Asking that kind of deference from the court of public opinion is not just arrogance. In Reform Party opinion, this sordid mess shows disrespect toward all of San Diego’s citizens and 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. Link: http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/05/us/trayvon-martin-shooting-fast-facts.
7. Quote from former senator Chuck Hagel (R-NB), 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/.
8. 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/. The question in Mark Sanford’s case is to what degree did party affiliation and/or ideology trump ethics?