Thursday, Aug. 23, 2007 | Some people just radiate Republican — it beams off of them like a 100-watt lapel pin. Local businessman Steve Francis is one of them. Dark, well-combed hair, clean cut and dapper, the guy exudes Republican. He’s the chairman of the state Republican Party’s finance committee.

There are a lot of Republicans who don’t radiate Republican but who nonetheless are strong conservative Republicans. But there is nobody who exudes Republican like Francis who isn’t a Republican.

At least, maybe, until now.

As he continues to study the possibility (if not actively plan for the eventuality) of running for mayor, Francis is angling to become a populist. And that means, on some issues, he’s angling to the left. He is courting City Attorney Mike Aguirre and City Councilwoman Donna Frye and championing a populist tone on issues. He’s saying things that would bring a smile to the faces of many of the town’s most cynical critics of developers and other “powerful interests.”

On Aguirre:

“His intentions are good. He’s trying to weed out corruption and he’s dealing with an entrenched group of individuals who have run this town for a long time,” Francis said. “He successfully managed his way through the Sunroad matter. He won the battle. It shows Mike was right all along and one has to pause and wonder if that’s not the case with the other things he’s working on as well.”

On Frye:

“I find her to be a clear-thinking person and I think she is misunderstood and I don’t think she gets the respect from the business people in this community that she deserves,” Francis said. “If articulating that to the community makes it seem like I’m being perceived to be reaching out to her, so be it.”

It’s another interesting incarnation of the man who wants to be mayor. But it makes sense. Die-hard Republicans are nothing if not loyal. If Francis wants to be mayor, his support will not come from a base of Republicans, who seem likely to stay with incumbent Mayor Jerry Sanders. The deciding votes for Francis might have to come from the mayor’s left.

To get those votes, Francis would not only have to keep Frye out of the race but he’d also have to successfully accomplish what Frye was incapable of doing in 2005: Persuade voters that Sanders is the establishment and persuade voters that the establishment is really bad.

And that’s where Aguirre comes in. The city attorney built a virtual temple to the religion of the anti-establishment. To get into it, you need a recommendation from him. Aguirre has gone so far as to both firmly believe and expressly allege that his most recent high-profile setbacks in court are a direct result of the fact that the powerful establishment is against him.

On Aug. 6, Aguirre held a news conference to announce his decision to appeal a judge’s ruling batting down what remained of the city attorney’s prized pension litigation. He also said at that venue that it was incumbent upon the mayor to join his crusade to roll back benefits that the city had given to employees in 1996 and 2002.

As reporter Evan McLaughlin wrote after the press conference, Aguirre had a pointed message for the mayor.

“The mayor has to decide whether he’s going to lead the reform effort or if he wants Francis to lead the reform effort,” Aguirre said then.

Aguirre confirmed for me this week that he had met with Francis not long before that.

“He is a very personable guy,” Aguirre told me about Francis. He said the two met for about 40 minutes.

Francis has done more than that. Months ago, he lamented that the city would give money to the San Diego Opera at the same time that the City Council steadfastly refused to give an across-the-board 2 percent raise to firefighters.

In June, you might remember a little controversy that erupted when Mayor Sanders vetoed city funding for a homeless shelter downtown. The mayor argued that the funds should come from private donations and the Housing Commission. Frye was incensed and demanded that funding be reinstated somehow, either through city funding or from redevelopment funds that could be paid back to the city.

Sanders refused to do that. But days later, he along with Councilwoman Toni Atkins, announced that they had found the funds through the city’s redevelopment agency, the United Way, and the Housing Commission.

Francis was cynical. No way, he said, could the United Way have come up with that money so quickly. The whole thing was planned, he alleged.

“Ms. Frye, the City Council, the media and the public were manipulated for a press opportunity to make the ‘establishment’ look good,” Francis wrote in an e-mail to me at the time.

Again, that damn establishment.

Frye said she talks to Francis often and that it’s “highly unlikely” that she’ll run for mayor but that she’s learned the hard way “never to say never.”

Francis maintains that if he runs for mayor, he will not accept a single campaign donation and he will therefore be free of any influence from special interests.

Will it work?

Donald Cohen, the executive director of the pro-labor think tank the Center on Policy Initiatives, was skeptical.

“There are some who might oppose Sanders who would look at any other option imaginable even if it were Mickey Mouse,” he said. “I’m not buying it.”

It appears that Francis, whose business has won him a vast fortune, might be banking on the possibility that someone will buy it.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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