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Monday, June 11, 2007 | Candidates for political office normally wear endorsements proudly.
For San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre, the fact that some supporters of his 2004 campaign have defected from his camp is a badge of honor.
The police and firefighter unions lent their names and thousands of dollars in campaign expenditures to support Aguirre before he narrowly won victory two and a half years ago, only to find themselves opposite him in his ambitious legal crusade to stamp out past pension deals that increased municipal employees’ benefits.
After The San Diego Union-Tribune endorsed Aguirre in 2004, the daily metropolitan newspaper has become one of the city attorney’s favorite targets for criticism during the animated public speeches and press conferences he regularly makes. The paper returns the favor by regularly scolding Aguirre for his performances.
The city attorney relishes the controversy he has stirred up with former supporters, claiming the moves he makes are with the welfare of the public — not special interests — in mind.
“That’s because I don’t think politically,” said Aguirre, who, ironically, is often accused of being too politically minded for his office. “I’m thinking about how I can best advance interests of the city.”
But the probable absence of prestigious backers from Aguirre’s support system in next year’s election — and the business community’s quiet but deliberate efforts to replace him — leaves the self-described “controversial” city attorney with little assistance from the city’s traditional kingmakers.
Among those courted by dissatisfied partisans, business leaders and local attorneys is a former U.S. attorney and former state legislators, the attorney who has fought to preserve the Mount Soledad war memorial, and a former school superintendent who recently returned to San Diego after a stint in the statehouse.
By appearances, next year’s race for city attorney will be one of the more contentious elections to feature an incumbent officeholder in San Diego’s recent history, as Aguirre’s populist message and political savvy will be rigorously tested by a political establishment that has grown disenchanted with Aguirre’s management and confrontational style.
With his re-election a year away, it appears Aguirre will likely face several challengers who are hoping to hitch their candidacies to the ever-growing criticism of the City Attorney’s Office under Aguirre.
At least one contender, Dan Coffey, said this week that he intends to run against Aguirre in 2008. Several other prominent lawyers in the area say they are considering joining the race or have at least been asked to by local political watchers to run, but have not committed to running.
With names trickling into the candidate pool over the coming months, as most local politicos expect, the equation changes for Aguirre. He has styled himself a City Hall reformer, taking shots at past decisions, such as controversial pension deals, as well as current ones as they unfold, such as the Sunroad Enterprises saga.
But in 2008, voters can expect to witness Aguirre on the defensive, as his opponents will try to make the maverick incumbent the focus of the election.
“The downtown crowd will come at him from all angles, and hard,” said political scientist Steve Erie, director of urban studies and planning at University of California, San Diego.
Aguirre has frustrated many with the unorthodox way he has served as city attorney. Within the local political world, he is criticized for being unpredictable in his conduct. Some in the legal community have viewed his lawyering as being overtly political.
And within a larger constituency in San Diego — football fans — sports talk radio and Chargers officials have fired rebukes against Aguirre for his skeptical view on the team’s efforts to relocate their home stadium.
To supporters in neighborhood groups and the environmental community, which continue to be his strongest base of support, Aguirre is carrying out the role he promised to play in 2004.
“It doesn’t matter what you think of Mike personally or his management, some of the things he’s done to uncover cronyism and corruption are major steps in cleaning up the city,” said Ian Trowbridge, a Mission Hills activist who has led legal challenges to the controversial redevelopment of Navy Broadway Complex. “He’s been an activist as a city attorney. I’m relieved he works for the public and not for the special interests.”
But besides the popularity Aguirre receives from the general public who are charmed by his populist message and tenacious personality, he has alienated many of the institutional players who campaigned alongside him in 2004.
“Obviously, we’re very disappointed,” said City Firefighters Local 145 president Ron Saathoff, who has been accused of corruption by Aguirre and other local prosecutors for his role in past pension deals. His union has been a formidable presence in local elections, as the firefighters’ endorsements — and the largesse they spend on local races —are valuable assets to any city campaign.
“And if he didn’t have that support in the last election, he would not have won,” Saathoff said.
Bob Kittle, editor of the Union-Tribune’s editorial page, an influential commentator in local politics, stresses that the newspaper’s endorsement of Aguirre was couched in provisos: The Oct. 3, 2004, editorial told readers that Aguirre had filed “a barrage of politically motivated lawsuits” during his career and that their support was “a gamble that he is wiser and more mature than in the past.”
“The caveats in that editorial were numerous,” said Kittle, who calls Aguirre’ performance since his election “troubled.” Kittle said the Union-Tribune won’t decide whom it will endorse until conducting interviews with the candidates closer to the election.
At least one local lawyer will likely try to capitalize on the probable departure of Aguirre’s backers.
Coffey, a Democrat, has been a staunch Aguirre critic, appearing often at the city attorney’s court hearings and public events with a video camera and a legal pad, with which he furiously takes notes. In 2005, when he ran for the open District 8 City Council seat and finished fourth, Coffey enjoyed some support from the blue-collar municipal employee union, which appreciated his skepticism of Aguirre’s pension attacks.
Coffey is vice president of a residential realty firm he co-owns with his wife, Pepper. Husband and wife were vocal opponents of the proposed expansion of the Brown Field airport into a regional cargo terminal. Coffey said he plans on writing a book with the material he has gathered, some of which appeared in his Daily Transcript columns.
Beyond Coffey, no other candidate has thrown their hat into the ring. But various corners of the political community — in both Republican and Democratic circles — have been busy trying to prod others into the race.
Speculation that several other well-known lawyers has politicos and City Hall abuzz.
Among those who said they are considering a run are:
- Bob Brewer. Formerly a federal prosecutor, Brewer is now a litigator with McKenna Long & Aldridge. The registered Republican said he has “not ruled anything out.”
- Leslie Devaney. The former assistant city attorney was Aguirre’s chief rival in 2004. Widely expected not to do well in the run-off election against him, she nearly pulled an upset.
There was speculation that she would run to represent District 5 of the City Council. She said she has ruled that out but she has not necessarily ruled out running for city attorney.
“Until the public understands the role of the city attorney, I’m not ready to run for the position again,” she said. “Now, that could happen. It could happen next week. It could happen next month. So I’m not ruling it out.”
- Jan Goldsmith. Currently, Goldsmith serves as a judge in the San Diego County Superior Court’s El Cajon branch. He has run the gauntlet in electoral politics before, serving as a state assemblyman in the 1990s and the mayor of Poway before that. Goldsmith would have to move into the city from Coronado if he were to run. He is a Republican.
- Mike Neil. He is one of the namesakes at local firm Neil, Dymott, Frank, McFall & Trexler, where he is a trial lawyer. Neil is a former brigadier general in the Marine Corps and he serves on the board of the Padres baseball club. He is a registered Republican.
- Howard Wayne. He handles consumer rights cases for the state Attorney General’s Office. Wayne entered the race for city attorney against Aguirre in 2004, but dropped out early into the campaign. He served as an assemblyman until 2002, when his stint expired with term limits.
Several attorneys around town said they have been asked and have heard their names bandied about, but that they are not considering a campaign. But, as lawyers typically do, these attorneys left themselves opening to run if they changed their mind by saying they haven’t completely ruled out the possibility.
- Alan Bersin. As former superintendent at San Diego Unified School District, he was a polarizing figure. Bersin has also held high-profile jobs as the U.S. attorney for San Diego and as California’s secretary of education under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Currently, he is the chairman of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority. Bersin is a Democrat.
- Charles LaBella, a former U.S. attorney. LaBella said he has been asked by members of local political parties, the business and law enforcement communities to run, but that he doesn’t want to run for elected office. He said he hasn’t ruled anything out, but that he’s not considering it. LaBella said he is a political independent.
- Charles LiMandri. Best known for his work with the Thomas More Law Center as the attorney for the Mount Soledad cross’s proponents, LiMandri said he has been asked by members of the local Republican Party to run. He said that he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of running, but that he would have to move from North County into the city and finish work on several pending cases before deciding whether to run.
- Scott Peters. The City Council President has been one of Aguirre’s most outspoken critics at City Hall. Particularly, he has opposed Aguirre’s assertion that the city attorney can act in legal matters on the city’s behalf without the council’s approval. Aguirre has tried to deflect the criticism, claiming Peters offers it in retaliation for allegations he makes that Peters was culpable in the city’s financial problems. Prior to his election to the council, Peters worked in the County Counsel’s Office and in private practice. Peters, a Democrat, said he is interested in holding another elected office, including city attorney, but that he may decide to return to private practice.
One other rumored candidate, Julie Dubick, said flatly that she won’t run. Dubick is a policy aide to Mayor Jerry Sanders.
Another, former U.S. Attorney Carol Lam, could not be reached for comment, although it is widely believed that she will not run. Lam was hired as senior vice president and legal counsel at Qualcomm after her ouster by the Justice Department, which has gained her national attention.