Filner claims victory as next San Diego mayor

A veteran congressman claimed victory Wednesday in a tight contest to make him San Diego's first Democratic mayor in 20 years.

Bob Filner said he would bring new voices to City Hall to reflect a more ethnically diverse city, improve relationships with municipal employee unions, make the maritime port an engine for job growth, and pay more attention to overlooked neighborhoods.

"There are going to be new seats, new people at the table," Filner said at news conference in a neighborhood park, a venue he chose to set himself apart from the "downtown power structure" that he railed against throughout his campaign.

With about 322,000 votes counted in the officially nonpartisan race, Filner led Councilman Carl De Maio by about 10,000 votes, or 51.5 percent to 48.5 percent. About 200,000 mail-in and provisional ballots still remain to be counted, and The Associated Press has not called the race.

DeMaio conceded earlier in the day, acknowledging he fell short in his bid to make San Diego the first major American city to elect an openly gay Republican leader. The first-term councilman relentlessly attacked municipal employees during his meteoric rise in city politics, hitching his bid to a successful June ballot measure to cut city pensions.

Filner, 70, would be San Diego's first Democratic mayor since 1992 and only its second since 1971. The city has long been led by moderate Republicans, even after Democrats overtook Republicans in voter registration in 1994 and built a 12 percentage point edge ahead of Tuesday's election.

Filner opposed the ballot measure to cut pensions for city workers but renewed his promise Wednesday to implement it if it survives legal scrutiny. Municipal labor unions spent heavily to stop DeMaio.

"What we've had for the last four years is a vilification our public employees and the unions that represent them. That's going to stop," Filner said.

Mayor Jerry Sanders, who is being forced out by term limits seven years after taking office amid a deep financial crisis, congratulated Filner and promised a smooth transition before he leaves office Dec. 3.

When he was 18, Filner spent two months in a Mississippi jail in 1961 after joining the Freedom Riders in their civil rights campaign against segregation in the South. The Pittsburgh native later served on the San Diego school board and City Council and was elected to 10 terms in Congress.

While he and DeMaio differed on policies, the campaign focused largely on personality and governing styles of rivals who were seen by many as strident partisans.

DeMaio, 38, raised $3.3 million, compared with less than $1 million for Filner, and outside groups flooded the airwaves with ads that portrayed Filner as short-tempered and arrogant. Filner's stock response was, "I'm guilty of being passionate."

DeMaio said repeatedly that gay rights would not be a priority for him as mayor and focused almost single-mindedly on fiscal issues like potholes and pensions.

"We wish we were celebrating victory, obviously, but I feel really good because I'm so proud of what we've accomplished," DeMaio said.

DeMaio pollster John Nienstedt said young, independent voters who supported President Barack Obama were a crucial bloc for Filner.

Tom Shepard, Filner's chief campaign strategist, said ethnically diverse, working-class neighborhoods were a key difference.

"We're seeing profound shift in demographics and the political center of gravity, and this is the first mayoral election that reflects that," he said.

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Associated Press writer Julie Watson contributed to this report.