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Walters: Weird politics at play again

  • Former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner takes an oath before pleading guilty Tuesday to charges of false imprisonment. (JOHN GIBBINS / UT-San Diego)

San Diego is a beautiful and prosperous city, but its politics can be downright weird.

Case in point: Former Mayor Bob Filner pleaded guilty Tuesday to crimes arising from multiple complaints of sexual harassment on the same day that mail voting opened to decide who would succeed him.

For decades, a business-oriented power structure largely decided who would fill the city's major offices, but liberals thought they had finally achieved parity when Filner, a liberal firebrand congressman, won the mayoralty last year.

However, Filner was infected with the same scandal virus that had afflicted several of his conservative predecessors. Within months of his inauguration, a bevy of women stepped forward with sordid tales of sexual harassment, eventually forcing Filner to resign.

A special election to fill the office will culminate on Nov. 19, and San Diego's underlying political dynamics again are in play.

Carl DeMaio, a conservative city councilman who lost the 2012 mayoral contest to Filner, was clearly interested in running again, even though he had already segued into a 2014 bid for Congress.

But the power structure opted, instead, for Councilman Kevin Faulconer, a moderate in the ideological mold of most pre-Filner mayors.

The union/liberal opposition immediately splintered.

Many true-believers backed Councilman David Alvarez, but more pragmatic politicians and union leaders settled on Nathan Fletcher, a one-time Republican state legislator who had also run for mayor in 2012, as their best chance to win.

Meanwhile, former City Attorney Mike Aguirre's quixotic candidacy fragmented the left even more.

The factional infighting has been downright nasty.

When Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez endorsed Fletcher, for example, the head of the local American Federation of Teachers organization issued a public condemnation, saying her position “undermines ... the progressive coalition you worked hard to build (and) calls into question your own political judgment and integrity.”

In turn, Gonzalez said the union official, Jim Mahler, was trying “to bully me through insults and downright lies.”

With the Republican/business establishment united behind Faulconer and the Democrat/union opposition fractured, the outcome is very much in doubt. A recent poll shows Fletcher leading Faulconer, but not by much. As with all special elections, voter turnout is a huge unknown factor.

If no candidate gets a majority on Nov. 19, a second election will decide it early next year. At this moment, the most likely outcome is a Fletcher-Faulconer runoff. And whoever becomes the mayor of California's second-largest city will immediately catapult into future contention for major statewide office — if he can avoid the scandal virus that has infected the office.

Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.

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