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Monday, July 11, 2005 | It was peculiar to watch the San Diego City Council’s June 27 meeting and see two city leaders with the whitest of collars talk about how they were more “union” than the city attorney.

Not that you have to wear a blue collar to be union, of course. And never mind that they’re wealthy individuals – wealthy people can still support labor unions. But how could it not be interesting to hear Councilman Scott Peters and Mayor Dick Murphy remind the gathered audience that they both held summer jobs in the past and were members of unions during those periods of drudgery?

“I was a meat cutter a whole summer, AFL-CIO,” Peters said to a round of applause from a packed City Council Chambers.

“I was a member of the retail clerk’s international union for two summers,” Murphy one-upped his colleague, drawing laughter and even bigger cheers.

Peters and the mayor were both playing to a crowd that had not cheered at all when City Attorney Mike Aguirre, while explaining his position that the city’s pension benefits are simply unsustainable, told the audience that he was a “union man.”

The audience, instead, booed Aguirre.

Aguirre draws a lot of jeers and hisses from members of the city’s employee unions these days. It’s quite a change from the time when he attracted labor endorsements.

In February 2004, Aguirre announced that he had won the support of the city’s firefighters and police unions in his campaign for city attorney. Standing next to him and ready with quick comments about Aguirre’s suitability for the job of city attorney was Ron Saathoff, the president of the firefighters’ union.

He’s the same Ron Saathoff whom Aguirre named personally in a lawsuit as one of the eight people most responsible for the city’s pension fund crisis.

You might say they’ve had a bit of a falling out.

But why? After all, during his campaign for city attorney, Aguirre never hid his plans for what would happen if he won the post. And yet the firefighters and police officers stood with him.

In fact, by this time last year, it was clear that the race for city attorney was far more interesting than the one playing out for the mayor’s office. Donna Frye’s late entry and the controversial results of its outcome later changed that, of course.

But even at the height of tension and energy in the mayor’s race, the distinctions between those candidates were nothing like the differences between Aguirre and his rival, former Assistant City Attorney Leslie Devaney. Those two could not even agree on the basic definition of the job for which they were competing.

If you wanted to weigh in on the future of San Diego’s city government, a thousand votes in the mayor’s race didn’t have the significance that only one or two did in the city attorney’s.

And the firefighters stuck with Aguirre through the whole campaign.

Even when he, in September, responding to a question about whether the city was approaching bankruptcy, said this:

“We need a forensic audit done of our unfunded liabilities and deficits and the results need to be put before the people of San Diego … We know there has to be some type of reorganization of our finances that can either be done formally or informally.”

Devaney realized the significance of that statement. Aguirre believed that illegal acts might have taken place and he was going to investigate them and then fix it himself if he had to. That’s what he was going to do.

Devaney objected that there’s no way Aguirre could have known that a “forensic” audit was needed, and to advocate for one that early was irresponsible, she said.

But again, the firefighters and police unions stood with him.

He won, obviously, and how much his investigations, rhetoric and legal actions have changed the city since his election might well be evidenced by the fact that not one of the mayoral candidates challenges the tone of the current discussion. It’s a tone that Aguirre largely set himself.

So it begs the question, did the firefighters endorse his plans when they stuck by him through the campaign? Probably not, which provokes another question. How can you support somebody with whom you disagree on how to handle such a profound issue the city faces?

That conundrum is coming up in this election as well. City Councilwoman Donna Frye has the endorsement of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, the local chapter of the AFL-CIO. She’s been regarded as a friend to the labor movement. But she also supports taking legal action to roll back what Aguirre calls illegal pension enhancements.

AFL-CIO leaders, who are going to wince when any worker loses a perceived vested benefit, don’t support that effort at all.

Yet they still decided, against their brothers at City Hall, to back Frye.

“The option was silence or make the best decision you could for the labor movement,” said Donald Cohen, who runs a progressive think tank, the Center on Policy Initiatives, which works closely with the local labor movement.

So far the city’s employee unions have been mum on who they support for mayor. That’s a big development in the recent history of San Diego city politics. After all, it was the firefighters’ last-minute blitz against candidate Ron Roberts that may have put the last nail in the coffin of that county supervisor’s mayoral aspirations last year.

If it’s true, it’s rather stunning that the firefighters’ political clout could be gone so quickly. And how ironic is it that their support of Aguirre in the last election may have helped hasten their political demise.

Scott Lewis is a former reporter at The Daily Transcript. You can e-mail him at

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