A rush to punish

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Former congressman and current San Diego Mayor Bob Filner.

The walls are closing in on San Diego mayor Bob Filner  and unless he’s Houdini the only way he may get out of his current predicament is to use an emergency exit out of City Hall.

The septuagenarian this week was accused of sexual harassment. The accusations were enough for supporters of his 2012 mayoral campaign to publicly demand his resignation. Two of those beseeching voices belonged to attorneys; another a former colleague and councilwoman.  Of the attorneys, one was counsel for the accuser(s).

During a morning press conference arranged by the trio no details of the transgressions were shared. Preemptively the spokespersons said they would not reveal identities or elaborate on the allegations. They also called on the media not to victimize the accusers by hunting them down in search of answers to questions that lingered. In essence, what the made-for-TV media event boiled down to was this: A group of prominent political insiders saying the mayor knows what he did and he needs to quit.

So here’s what the public knew then: People were accusing the mayor of sexual harassment and the triumvirate who had supported his bid for the mayor’s office now wanted him gone.

Within hours of the televised briefing—minutes in some cases— some constituents wanted Filner’s resignation. They said there would be no way he could continue leading the city. Never mind that there was no evidence of wrongdoing. Just the stink of troubling accusations was enough for some observers to want the man gone.

By day’s end the politician famous for a mercurial temper, lack of tact and occasionally abrasive demeanor would issue a statement. Filner wrote, in part:

“I am embarrassed to admit that I have failed to fully respect the women who work for me and with me, and that at times I have intimidated them.”

He went on to declare that he would receive sexual harassment training and he’d work on changing his behavior.

So here, then, was what the public now knew after the initial press conference: People were accusing the mayor of sexual harassment and insiders who had supported his bid for office now wanted him out. The mayor, in turn, admitted he had disrespected women—at times intimidated them— and he was working to change his behavior. He also indicated he would not leave his job.

What the public still did not know: What was the nature of the harassment? Physical—did he chase women around the office with his slacks shuffling around his ankles? Or was the sin verbal?  Did the mayor make unwanted remarks about anatomy and appearance? Was it something along the lines of a dirty old man saying, “Nice aluminum cans. Want me to recycle them for you?”

Some people argue that details don’t matter.  That accusations should stand on their own and a search for specifics is nothing more than salacious trolling to satisfy  prurient curiosity.

But details do make a difference. Especially in matters involving public officials. Should a person who makes rude, ribald double entendres be subject to the same sanctions as someone who is a serial bottom-groping belittler?  Using a pop culture reference: Should Michael Scott from “The Office” be regarded in the same way that Don Draper of “Mad Men” is?

The television references are not meant to diminish the seriousness of the vague accusations aimed at the mayor. Nor are they used to create sympathy for him. Filner’s admission that he did something wrong is troubling. He must be held accountable. But what’s the appropriate penance? Public shaming? Political ostracization? Was the crime idiocy or latent misogyny? Without all of the facts how can the public make an informed decision?

Yet one by one the elected officials who supported Filner in his campaign for mayor are calling for his resignation. Ostensibly they know something the rest of us don’t. As a result their  contention is that the man is damaged and his ability to lead is compromised.

It’s a fair point to consider. But it’s equally fair to recall that others in the political world have been accused of being too damaged to govern—Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsroom, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Clinton come immediately to mind. While some of those mens’ indiscretions happened outside the political realm or on a consensual level, the point remains they continued to lead despite the turmoil. Some might argue successfully so.

Late Friday afternoon another press conference was held and two more former political allies demanded they mayor resign. But neither of them mentioned having seen direct proof. Nevertheless as the sun set on the tumultuous week the gathering vanguard indicated the stories of harassment they heard directly from the victims were troubling and nothing but Filner’s exit would suffice.

Make no mistake: accusations of abuse or harassment are troubling. As is the offense when it actually happens. Troubling, too, is when there is little evidence supporting the accusations, as was the case just a few years ago when a political player  accused  interim-Chula Vista councilman Mitch Thompson of corruption and demanded his immediate resignation. (Public Comment/May 11,2010 CV council meeting)

What’s equally troubling is the almost instant call for Filner’s resignation before all of the facts were made known. The rush to judge, condemn and punish has become almost as instantaneous as publishing a message on Twitter. The vast majority of the public does not know what the mayor did, though we know he did something.

Before his detractors could have the last word Filner called for an independent review into the allegations against him. Pledging to continue his pursuit of attitude adjustment the mayor contends he is innocent of sexually harassing anyone. That may or may not be the case. But unless there is a full public review of the matter, the public won’t know for sure what the mayor did and if Filner should repent and stay on or be run out of town and disappear.