"There is only one question before you …. Would it put at risk the liberties of the people to retain the president in office?"
— White House Counsel Charles Ruff at President Clinton’s impeachment trial
In early February 14 years ago, Bill Clinton, surviving Senate proceedings that would have led to his removal, asked the nation to “rededicate ourselves to the work of serving our nation.” At the time, his plea fell on deaf ears — after the Senate’s sparing of Clinton, his presidency was tattered. Since then, the public has forgiven Clinton. His political brand is highly valued, his advice widely respected.
The latest political scandal concerning former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner’s sexual misconduct brings to mind politicians who were given second chances. With the details of Filner's settlement coming shortly, some will again consider whether fallen office-holders should be given another opportunity.
As Charles Ruff asked the Senate to acquit Clinton in 1999, the first president to be impeached since Andrew Johnson in 1868, he posed a utilitarian question: Is the retaining of the president optimal for liberty? The Senate, acquitting Clinton of both charges, said yes (the House disagreed, impeaching him on two counts). In San Diego, both the City Council and the people said no. San Diegans properly understand that allowing Filner to remain in office after at least 18 women accused him of sexual misconduct is hostile to liberty.
Filner, a first-term Democrat, was first accused of inappropriate behavior in early July by several anonymous women. These charges led his fiancée to dump him in a letter made available to the public. Two weeks later, Irene Jackson, the mayor’s former communications director, became the first to publicly accuse him of sexual harassment. Then came a Naval officer, great-grandmother, and school psychologist. The Democratic National Committee recently joined a stream of critics that includes everyone from local politicians to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
For more than six weeks, Filner ignored calls for resignation. "As your mayor,” Filner said in a public statement last week, “I am committed to moving San Diego forward!” But on Wednesday evening, as calls for removal reached an apogee, he was seen loading boxes into a car after reportedly saying farewell to his staff.
A settlement was reached in three days of negotiations and confirmed by a closed City Council session Friday. In exchange for his resignation, the city will pay, according to the Los Angeles Times, “some, if not all, of Filner’s share of any damages awarded in the lawsuit.”
While his resignation comes after weeks of refusal to step down, any legitimate chance of remaining in City Hall ended long ago. Before details of Filner’s settlement emerged, San Diegans were prepared to gather the necessary 102,000 signatures to recall him from office. According to a poll released by 10News/U-T San Diego, local residents overwhelmingly favor his removal. With more than 80% of San Diegans saying the 10-term congressman should resign, efforts to successfully gather the signatures were likely. Nearly three-quarters of survey respondents said they would sign a recall petition, with 20% willing to volunteer with removal efforts.
Filner’s actions bring to mind comparisons of another San Diego politician caught in allegations of sexual misconduct more than two decades ago. Campaigning as a three-term incumbent in 1988, Rep. Jim Bates (D-Calif.) was accused of sexually harassing two of his female staffers. Similar to Filner’s denial, Bates apologized for “flirting and kidding” but later told a reporter that “I’m the one being harassed.” He went on to win reelection in 1988 — the allegations came too late in election season to do significant damage — but was rebuked by voters in 1990, losing to a GOP longshot.
Stories of misconduct in higher office grab the public’s attention and invite immediate scorn. But occasionally, voters are willing to give offenders a second chance. Eliot Spitzer (D-N.Y.) is pulling further ahead in the primary for New York comptroller with a 19% margin. And just days before Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) confirmed new online sexual chats and photos last month, he was the leading candidate in the Democratic primary for New York mayor.
In evaluating whether a politician may be given a second chance, details matter and each case varies. There have been both justifiable and illegitimate comebacks. For now, it seems Filner will not be given that chance.