In the San Diego mayoral election last autumn, the two candidates couldn’t have been more different: a long-time, liberal Democratic congressman and a first-term Republican city councilman crusading against municipal pensions.
But the victorious Mayor Bob Filner and his opponent, then-City Councilman Carl DeMaio — who is now running for Congress — shared a politically explosive Achilles heel: alleged inappropriate sexual behavior that was an open secret among some.
Filner's secret has been out since July 10, when former City Councilwoman Donna Frye sent a letter to the mayor demanding that he resign, citing what she termed "credible evidence" that he had sexually harassed women. Since then, 16 women have come forward alleging offenses by Filner dating to at least 2005.
The revelations sparked a national media frenzy and have led to a tentative agreement from Filner to resign as part of a proposed mediation deal, according to media reports.
But there never has been a public accounting of how during 2009 DeMaio allegedly would leave the San Diego City Council dais during meetings to masturbate in a men’s room — events known by elected officials and suspected by members of the media.
In the months before last November’s mayoral election, Ben Hueso, the City Council’s president in 2009, acknowledged to this reporter that he witnessed DeMaio engaging in the practice twice. Hueso, now a Democratic state senator, and others suspected DeMaio’s alleged inappropriate activity was more frequent.
Describing the scene that spring when he walked in on DeMaio, who was in front of a urinal with his pants down, Hueso said: “DeMaio was masturbating. He jumped, caught by surprise. He jumped to the sink … saying 'I’m sorry, I’m sorry' about six times. Then washed his hands, darted out.”
Hueso again confirmed this account last week.
San Diego City Councilwoman Marti Emerald confirmed Hueso’s account, saying she saw him in the hallway immediately after the encounter with DeMaio.
“Ben was in a state of shock, face red, eyes bulging,” recalled Emerald recently. “I said: ‘You look like you just saw the devil?’ He said: ‘DeMaio is masturbating in the middle of the room.’ ” Another witness to the aftermath supported Emerald’s account.
Dave McCulloch, a spokesman for DeMaio, categorically denied in an interview that any such activity occurred.
“It is absurd and ludicrous,” said McCulloch Thursday. “It is absolutely ludicrous to report on something like this in the first place.”
McCulloch also noted a well-funded effort to discredit DeMaio during the mayoral campaign.
DeMaio is currently running for Scott Peters' seat representing the 52nd Congressional District in north San Diego County. There has been much speculation, however, regarding whether DeMaio would make another mayoral run if Filner were to leave office.
When first contacted, McCulloch said DeMaio is only running for the House seat and would have no further comment on his plans until after Filner's fate was clear.
In 2009, Emerald said she sought to have the incident reported to police, but no one apparently did so. She hadn’t witnessed any act, she said, so she didn’t report it.
And Hueso, like others who purportedly knew, chose not to file a complaint against a powerful councilman riding a popular wave after his 2008 election to clean up City Hall following years of financial disasters.
Interviews show DeMaio’s men's room activities became a joke at City Hall. Councilmen smiled about relief breaks, even gesturing from the dais about who would check the men’s room to see whether the coast was clear.
Asked who she thought knew, Emerald said, “everyone,” from the council to some staff, who even complained to DeMaio’s office.
But none of DeMaio's colleagues blew the whistle. And the media stayed away from the story, despite efforts to report it.
In September 2011, records show, a former reporter working for then Mayor Jerry Sanders wrote up a work plan for investigating DeMaio. That plan was a road map for opponents of DeMaio to hire another former reporter to investigate him.
The plan, stated the investigating reporter, was to “explore the embarrassing story about DeMaio’s being caught committing a self-gratifying sexual act in City Hall restroom, reserved for male council members, during a council meeting.”
The work plan was part of an overall effort against DeMaio, McCulloch said.
“A whole lot of money was spent to paint Carl in a bad light,” said McCulloch. “If this allegation was at all serious, or actually true, this would have been exposed.”
The Media's Role
How the media and even opposing campaign organizations handle such personal characteristics is one of the more vexing aspects of the American political experience.
“For the mainstream media, there still isn’t a compass on what to do on the personal and sexual behavior of politicians,” said Marc Cooper, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California and long-time political reporter for The Nation.
“The other media is generally adrift on this stuff. Not knowing how to handle it, they usually default to those in power.”
But Cooper is adamant that such activities should be published, particularly in DeMaio’s case, since he carries the standard of the socially conservative Republican movement.
“If he wants to tell you how to live, that’s OK,” Cooper said. “But then we want to know how he lives.”
As a voter, Cooper added: “I’m interested in a candidate’s character. And in this case, I’m concerned about psychological stability.”
Several observers have said the same thing about Filner, noting he was warned about his advances to women during the campaign but ignored the advice.
In the election run-up, articles repeatedly published accounts of Filner’s history of abusive behavior. Most overview stories included a 2007 altercation with an airport security agent where Filner was found in a plea deal to have trespassed.
However, reporters never aggressively delved into allegations of Filner's inappropriate behavior toward women. Before the election, an anonymous letter describing Filner’s treatment of women reportedly was sent to DeMaio campaign officials.
But the DeMaio campaign never made a concerted effort to publicize Filner’s interactions with women. Likewise, Filner's campaign never directly pushed the masturbation reports.
One observer compared the standoff to Cold War brinksmanship.
“It could have been mutually assured destruction. If DeMaio raised it, Filner could have trumped it,” said Steve Erie, a UC San Diego professor and author who studies the region.
While one of the city’s most savvy observers and outspoken critics of DeMaio and his backers, Erie had not heard of the masturbation report. “This is juicy,” said Erie. “You couldn’t make this stuff up. What a town, what a town. I’ve been here 30 years, and this still amazes me.”
Over the winter of 2011-12, several San Diego publications received the anti-DeMaio dossier prepared by the former reporter for the city’s main newspaper, UT San Diego.
But the dossier was ignored by the city's main media outlets. Only a couple of small publications made references to it.
Last March after a Fair Political Practices Commission settlement on a campaign probe, a link to the work plan then was posted on the UT San Diego website, when it published an article on the anti-DeMaio campaign.
Douglas Manchester, a Republican developer who is a major financial backer of DeMaio's, owns UT San Diego. During the mayoral election, Manchester used his newspaper to champion DeMaio' candidacy to an extent seldom seen.
The UT was among publications provided the dossier, but it and other outlets chose not to publish any of its allegations, because they were considered old.
Details From Hueso
And before the November election, this reporter independently wrote an article including Hueso’s and Emerald’s comments, but could not get it published.
In interviews, Hueso described events a few months after he assumed the presidency of the council in 2009:
One day, Hueso recalled, Former Councilman Tony Young unexpectedly described how DeMaio was masturbating after bolting the council chamber following attention-grabbing speeches chastising city staff. Hueso said he brushed the suggestion off as too wild and forgot about it.
Then sometime later, Hueso said, Young caught his eye during a council meeting, signaling to check on DeMaio, who had just left the dais. This led to Hueso’s initial eye-opening encounter.
After waiting about two weeks for a confirmatory opportunity, Hueso said he timed his own dais departure after DeMaio left so he could catch the bathroom door before it closed. This meant it didn’t click shut, and require the noise of the combination lock keypad to open it.
Hueso said he held the door for a few seconds, then swung it open, again seeing DeMaio masturbating, producing another awkward scene.
Later, Hueso said, he talked about the events with then Councilman Todd Gloria, who Hueso said acknowledged knowing. Before the election, a Gloria spokeswoman said he wouldn’t comment on an allegation against a councilman.
Young initially agreed to be interviewed on the topic, but then he declined all requests, later saying through a spokesman he didn’t know what the queries were about. Last January, Young resigned the council to become the chief executive of the American Red Cross San Diego-Imperial Counties.
After the embarrassing confrontations, Hueso said DeMaio started using men’s rooms on other floors when he left the dais. “I bet he’s still doing it,” said Hueso, before the election.
McColloch points to Young's refusal to speak to Hueso's allegations as proof that nothing happened.
“If the other members of City Council felt it was true, they would have done something about it; they are San Diego’s elected leaders,” said McCulloch. “They did not, because it is absurd.”
San Diego officials say masturbation could be considered a fireable offense for municipal employee but not for elected officials.
Hadi Dehghani, director of the city’s personnel department, acknowledged last year such activity could have criminal implications, depending on the circumstances, with the city attorney’s office making that call.
“There definitely should be an investigation,” said Erie. But he questioned who could conduct it, given the apparent conflicts.
San Diego’s city attorney, Jan Goldsmith, is a supporter of DeMaio who led the effort to drive Filner out of office. And the county district attorney, Bonnie Dumanis, endorsed DeMaio in the November election.
Whatever occurs, Cooper said: “No one had the courage or gumption to publish, abandoning their responsibility to inform the public. I find that astounding but not surprising. The media has a lot of explaining to do.”
Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the journal Nature. You can reach him directly at email@example.com.