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Tuesday, January 3, 2006 | When Jerry Sanders gave his inauguration address minutes after becoming San Diego’s next mayor, he made a number of pledges. Then, he offered a sort of pre-apology to City Attorney Mike Aguirre.
“Mistakes I make will be those of the mind, not of the heart,” Sanders said in the speech last month.
It was a gracious line that hinted to the delicate and much-watched relationship the two embarked on a month ago. So far, the firebrand city attorney and the former police chief have come out of the gates in lockstep, issuing effusive praise for one another as they pledge to work together to cure the city’s many ills.
The alliance is a rare one for Aguirre, who spent most of his first year in office publicly hammering former Mayor Dick Murphy and a number of City Council members. It is also an important one for Sanders, whose reform efforts would be greatly hindered by Aguirre’s often stinging public critiques. And with many of the city’s current problems legal in nature, Sanders’ reform package would be greatly enhanced by the cooperation of the city attorney.
It’s also an intriguing fellowship. Some core supporters of both men openly dislike the other. They appeared headed for dysfunction in the final weeks of the Nov. 8 election after Aguirre began campaign hard for City Councilwoman Donna Frye – and against Sanders. For now, both men offered unfettered praise for the other. Sanders called Aguirre “smart,” while Aguirre called the new mayor “a breath of fresh air.”
But they also both understand public opinion. Aguirre and Sanders, the only two city officials elected citywide, enjoy popularity ratings of more than 50 percent – a stark rarity in these political times in San Diego.
In the days leading up to the election, Aguirre entered the campaign fray after months of public silence on the race. He vehemently insisted that Frye’s financial plan, which closely mirrored his, was the only financial plan that would work.
That changed after the Nov. 8 vote.
“My opinion changed on the fact that the voters made the judgment that they want to go with his approach. So that’s what we’re going to do,” Aguirre said. “I can’t claim to be a man of the people and ignore their directives.”
Even Sanders admits he didn’t know what to expect from Aguirre, who’s launched numerous investigations into city business, when he took office.
“I wasn’t sure what kind of relationship we’d have. But he’s been very responsive, very respectful,” Sanders said.
Still, observers will be watching the relationship just as closely in 2006 – the year in which San Diego’s financial fate might just be decided – as they did the first time the two were interviewed together on television on Election Day.
“I think the main reason it is working is that Jerry Sanders in no way, shape or form had anything to do with the problems, so [Aguirre] can’t be critical of anything Sanders is doing,” said Andrew Berg, government relations director for the local chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association.
Indeed, both men said they see the other as a partner in reform, however different their political bases, styles and personalities may be.
But not everyone thinks the good vibes will resonate for long. Sanders did, after all, only take office on Dec. 5 and the City Council has been on holiday recess for nearly his entire tenure. There were precious few issues, new or old, the two men were forced to confront in the relatively silent month of December.
“I think there will be an outbreak of hostilities at some point, partly because some of the Sanders backers see Aguirre as the main threat,” said Steve Erie, political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.
“Mike has carved out a position as the caped crusader and I don’t think there’s any ‘off’ button there,” he added. “I think they’re just waiting to see who launches the first attack. Once the attack is launched, expect a counterattack.”
In the first and perhaps only public test of their relationship to date, Sanders immediately won points with the city attorney when he staked out a tough position with Kroll Inc., the high-powered consultants conducting an investigation into allegations of wrongdoing at City Hall.
Aguirre frequently criticized the style and size of the consultants’ billings, but was largely rebuked by the City Council when airing these grievances. Upon taking office, Sanders postponed a request from the consultants for an additional $9 million to $11 million in order to receive a more detailed budget and timeline.
The investigation coincides with ongoing probes and prosecutions being handled by a number of local and federal agencies, as well as a fiscal crisis that has barred the city from lending on Wall Street and forced a significant curtailing of city services.
The problems, and Aguirre’s near daily criticisms, drove former Mayor Dick Murphy to submit his resignation in April. They also made quick enemies of Aguirre and a number of City Council members.
Sanders appears to be more willing to play peacemaker with the council, whose votes and cooperation will be needed to enact some of the new mayor’s reform package. He and Aguirre could end up playing the good cop, bad city attorney routine at City Hall.
“He does not have the same divisions I’ve had with them. I think it’s a real advantage for him to be able to interact with them,” said Aguirre, who is consistently congenial only with Frye and City Councilman Tony Young – who was not in office when the city’s problems surfaced.
The new mayor said his relationship with council members is not as good as it is with Aguirre because they have been on break for much of his time in office. Sanders said he plans to meet with the council members soon and hopes to befriend them as he has the city attorney.
Still, all eyes will be focused on the relationship new mayor and the city attorney.
“It’s essential,” Berg said. “They have to work together.”