Bob Filner: Valley now facing future with a very different congressman

October 06, 2001|By SAM SCOTT, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — Last week Imperial County residents woke up facing a future with a different congressman — a very different congressman.

As a result of redistricting, the Imperial Valley's representative is changing from Duncan Hunter to Bob Filner — men on opposite sides of Congress' political spectrum.

"Going from Duncan Hunter to Bob Filner, it's like day and night," said Amy Isaacs, national director of Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal activist group.

Like many activist groups, the organization scores politicians on their voting records. In 2000, it gave Filner a score of 95 of 100. Hunter got a 10.


The Christian Coalition, a conservative activist group, gave Hunter 87 and Filner zero.

It's a pattern that holds across the board. Groups that applaud one often take a dim view of the other.

The differences extend to the way they decorate their congressional offices. Hunter has mounted trophy animals in his office. Filner has pictures of Martin Luther King, Hubert Humphrey and John and Robert Kennedy.

Hunter is affable, personally liked by others with disparate viewpoints. Filner is someone who doesn't mince words, sometimes offending even those politically similar to him.

They are different men, but Filner thinks the differences won't matter to the people of Imperial County. On issues such as abortion and military spending, the two are miles apart, but on local matters, Filner said, the differences are smaller. Hunter co-sponsored a Filner bill to cap energy rates, for example. Both oppose expanding the corridor for Mexican trucks.

"People want their political representative to be straightforward and honest," Filner said. "That's what they're going to find from me."

Filner finds himself in what was Hunter territory for 20-plus years thanks to the California Assembly. Every 10 years it redraws political boundaries to reflect population shifts and political power plays. This year it radically changed Filner's area. His district covering south San Diego, National City and Chula Vista has been expanded into a region spanning almost the entire border with Mexico in California.

Technically, the new lines don't come in to play until next year's election, but in practical terms, Filner has already begun to think of himself as representing the area, getting ready to study the issues of the Imperial Valley and El Centro.

His support for reopening the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railway is stronger now that his district will include more of the track.

Hunter has long opposed the train, which dips into Mexico, saying it creates an opening for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.

Filner sees it as an economic force, calling it the "jobs train."

"That little train … could completely change the economy of Imperial County and San Diego County," he said.

Filner is ready to study other issues such as agriculture, with which he has had only passing experience.

"I don't know much about the Salton Sea but I'm going to be the congressman who has it in my district, so I'm going to learn about it," Filner said. "The issues maybe I don't know that much about, but I'm eager to learn."

Jess Stoddard, a retired history professor, said Filner is a quick study. She met Filner when he was hired at San Diego State University's history department, where Filner taught for 20 years. He made an immediate impression as someone quick to act.

During the first faculty meeting he attended, Filner immediately asked why the faculty wasn't given advanced copies of the meeting's agenda, thereby preventing teachers from preparing for the meeting.

"He reminded us of some of our rights we should have been asking for before," she said. "It was really like a light coming on. The old codgers didn't like it."

She said his view ultimately caused a major change in the way the department operated, making it more open to faculty input. Some call it abrasive, others call it tenacious, but ruffling feathers has long been part of Filner's way of operating.

In 1961, as a college student, he spent two months in a Mississippi jail after taking part in efforts to desegregate a lunch counter. He called his time in jail a life-changing event, one that helped cause him to change from a budding scientist — he was then a chemistry major at Cornell University in upstate New York — to someone much more interested in helping people.

His activist roots showed again ago when he was arrested in 1997 in front of the White House, along with 15 Philippine-American veterans demonstrating to get full benefits for fighting with U.S. troops in World War II. It is an issue he has championed from his seat on the Veterans' Affairs Committee.

"I take a very active approach," he said. "If my constituents are out there being arrested, I'm going to be out there with them. I don't make any apologies for that."

When he finds something he's concerned about, he goes in hard, working relentlessly, Stoddard said.

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