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Thursday, June 28, 2007 | One of the questions I’m asked most these days is whether I’ve heard of anyone new who might run for city attorney.
The election of the city attorney of a big place like this doesn’t seem like it should capture the imagination of a region’s politically conscious citizenry. There are some elected offices that just don’t seem like they would provoke the kind of fierce campaigns that engage the public.
I have made it a certain mission of mine never to care about elections to the Board of Equalization, for instance.
But there’s not a thinker around who doesn’t immediately recognize that if a highly qualified opponent of City Attorney Mike Aguirre decided to make a run at him, San Diego may simultaneously witness both its most ferocious and most exciting political race ever.
But you have to remember that this is the race for city attorney. In order to run for the post, you have to be an attorney. And there are few more lawyerly answers floating around town than the ones given by those members of the bar who are considering a run for the post but are not ready to commit.
The best example is the one from former Assistant City Attorney Leslie Devaney, who was Aguirre’s rival in the 2004 race.
Devaney speaks with a sharper tone these days — she’s more confident. She looks vibrant and she projects a strength she didn’t display in 2004: the ability to show people that you can help them understand what’s happening in their world. In the 2004 debates she had with Aguirre, she cowered into the position of a meek punching bag. He controlled the themes and she found herself in an apologetic stance. The stance turned off even those who were distrustful of Aguirre.
As I watched Devaney speak at a recent event, I leaned over to a political operative in the audience and pointed out that if she were to have spoken that well and with that much energy two-and-a-half years ago, she may have become the one to eek out a slight victory.
So, is she running?
“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.”
Of course, the masses are known for grasping esoteric concepts of municipal law in short time spans.
Grasping esoteric concepts of municipal law, in fact, ranks up there with tailgating as a regular activity of the Southern California masses.
Actually, what she means is that something might happen that would really put Aguirre in what his opponents would imagine to be “his place.” They speculate incessantly that the city attorney’s chronic case of the kind of dysentery that causes him to spew unfounded allegations must have provoked an investigation by the California State Bar by this time.
An unkind ruling from that group, if not outright disbarment, would solve their issues with Aguirre.
The public, after all, learns about the nuances of laws or ethical guidelines a lot faster when a celebrity or politician faces trouble for breaking them.
That’s what Devaney means.
That’s no way to run a campaign against Aguirre. There is one reaction that consistently comes up when you talk with someone about who might or might not be running against the city attorney. It goes something like: “Well, they’d run but they really don’t want to deal with the pain of it.”
And by pain, they all mean the same thing. Aguirre, the city attorney, may be ruthless with his instantaneous judgments about the culpability or corruption of city leaders, but Aguirre the candidate must be a typhoon. Any opponent he faces would endure a deafening series of rhetorical attacks, if not more substantive acts of retribution, from the city’s top lawyer.
That does sound scary. But if Aguirre somehow used his office to campaign, and the evidence came out he did, it would backfire too harshly for him to survive. So, I’d count that out.
And while Aguirre may be well known for his willingness to haphazardly sully the name of a political enemy, there is another group of people more eager to, and capable of, doing that: Your everyday campaign operative.
A well-financed and organized opponent to Aguirre will undoubtedly match him tit for tat in the accusation category. The reservoir of legitimate questions about each of their integrities will dry up within weeks of the first volley. Each will then have to dip into their bottles of slime after that.
The most effective criticism of Aguirre now is that he irresponsibly accuses people of crimes and uses his powers of investigation to ruin his enemies. Ironically, though, it was Devaney, who, in 2004, without waiting for a thorough investigation and without indictments or formal charges from law enforcement authorities, accused Aguirre of committing tax fraud. In the waning weeks of their race, she mounted a mini-campaign to convince the public of the truth of the accusation.
Like Aguirre’s many accusations, nothing ever came of it.
Waiting for Aguirre to hang himself is not a good strategy for his opponents.
Aguirre has popped back from his own political crises time and time again. Just months ago, a controversy over a building and his botched handling of a criminal investigation that resulted from it looked like the coffin that would entomb his career. Now, that same controversy has buoyed him. If he can force a mayor and developer to deconstruct a multimillion-dollar office tower, he might seem rather effective.
Of all the things he’s done to hurt himself, nothing short of disbarment would finish him off.
No, to beat Aguirre, opponents will need an old-fashioned, well-funded, well-led campaign that serves to unite the disparate enemies he has created.
To push him out, a dizzying array of powerful individuals and leaders from the left and right would have to jointly look for and support a charismatic candidate.
This town’s power brokers, however, are about as good at organizing ambitious campaigns like that as they are at plowing snow.