(Adds comments from mayor’s chief of staff, expert recall analysis)
By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO, Aug 13 (Reuters) - San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, in his first public statement since taking a leave of absence to enter sexual harassment therapy, refused to bow to a campaign seeking his ouster through a recall election, touting his accomplishments in office instead.
“Now is not the time to go backwards,” Filner declared in a formal answer to opponents’ notice of their intention to file a recall petition with the city clerk’s office. “We need to continue to move forward.”
The brief letter was released by his lawyers late on Monday, just before a midnight deadline for the formal rebuttal to the bipartisan recall drive, which has been spearheaded by a Republican activist and a Democratic publisher of a gay and lesbian newspaper.
Filner’s statement made no explicit mention of the sexual harassment scandal that has engulfed the 70-year-old Democrat and former U.S. congressman eight months after he took office as mayor of California’s second-largest city.
Instead, it highlighted Filner’s efforts to revitalize parts of the city outside its downtown area and his role in negotiating a new labor contract with municipal employees.
It was Filner’s first public comment since he announced July 26 that he was taking a break from office to undergo two weeks of intensive behavioral counseling to deal with what he called a pattern of disrespectful and “intimidating” treatment of women.
By then, more than half a dozen women had publicly accused Filner of groping and making other unwanted sexual advances toward them, starting with a former press secretary who filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the mayor and the city.
The number of women coming with sexual harassment allegations against Filner has since doubled. The allegations against him span nine years, dating to his long tenure as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Filner’s lawyers said during the weekend that he was completing his therapy on Saturday - about 10 days earlier than originally planned - but would continue counseling on an outpatient basis while remaining on personal leave for another week.
Nearly every elected official in San Diego has called on Filner to resign, including all nine City Council members, numerous state legislators, members of California’s congressional delegation and the San Diego County Democratic Party Central Committee.
The city last month brought its own lawsuit against the mayor, seeking to recover any damages the municipal government might incur in litigation against Filner. The City Council also unanimously voted to deny Filner’s request for San Diego to assume his legal expenses in the case.
On Tuesday, Filner’s chief of staff, Lee Burdick, said the scandal would curtail the mayor’s ability to pursue his policy objectives as aggressively as he might have otherwise.
“We’re not going to be able to powerhouse through our agenda any more,” she told a luncheon meeting of local business and civic leaders. “The way we will get things done is bring forward policy and programs that are win-win for everyone.”
The recall campaign began in July and gained strength when two critics from opposite ends of the political spectrum joined forces in early August - Republican Michael Pallmary, a professional land surveyor from the wealthy San Diego enclave of La Jolla, and Democrat Stampp Corbin, a gay African-American publisher of the San Diego LGBT Weekly.
To qualify for the ballot under the city charter, recall advocates must collect roughly 102,000 valid signatures for their petition within 39 days, starting on Aug. 18, according to Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute on Government Reform and editor of the Recall Elections blog.
He said San Diego recall proponents would likely find that hard to do and that few recall efforts nationally have managed six-figure signature tallies in qualifying for the ballot.
The handful that did, he said, included the failed bid to recall Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the recall that ousted then-California Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat, and elected Hollywood film star Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, in his place.
Those campaigns also had much more time than San Diego’s mayoral opponents - between 120 and 160 days - to gather the required petition signatures statewide, Spivak said. He said the city’s recall ordinance was also riddled with “litigation traps” that could drag out the overall process.
If a recall election is authorized, voters will be asked two questions - whether or not to remove Filner, and who they like best to replace him from the list of candidates who have qualified to oppose him. (Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Bill Trott)