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Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2007 | Speculation that Alan Bersin will run for city attorney next year has reached new heights, as the longtime public figure acknowledged he is considering a run and several sources say he has wondered aloud whether he’d have the support to challenge incumbent Mike Aguirre.
The recent hype over a possible Bersin candidacy comes at a time when members of the local political community, especially the city’s business leaders, scramble to search for an alternative for Aguirre, who has been a lightning rod during his first term in the City Attorney’s Office.
Bersin can be a similarly polarizing figure. But his time spent in the public eye as a school superintendent, U.S. attorney, state education secretary and airport authority chairman provides his candidacy instant viability, should he decide to run.
“Bersin’s got the pedigree,” said a local lobbyist who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It makes him credible.”
Bersin, a Democrat like Aguirre, said he is only mulling a run and has not made up his mind. He said Tuesday he is conferring with friends and his wife, Superior Court Judge Lisa Foster. He shrugged off the idea when asked about it in June, saying he was “not seriously considering it.”
While sources said he has quietly looked for advice on whether he should run or how much he would have to spend to compete with Aguirre, Bersin downplayed his moves.
“I’m not testing the waters, I’m just thinking about it,” Bersin said. “It’s not the traditional exploration of a candidacy. I’m just trying to figure out what would be best for my family and the city.”
After bouncing from one public office to another, albeit in unelected posts, Bersin finds himself with a day job that will soon take a hefty pay cut. After earning about $171,000 per year as the chairman of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, Bersin will make a maximum of $25,200 under a new state legislation that will take effect Jan. 1.
The visibility of that job, as well as stints in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration, the San Diego Unified School District and the U.S. Department of Justice, comprise a biography that will define Bersin in what politicos say will be a very difficult race for any challenger.
Front and center would be Bersin’s tenure as the superintendent of the city’s schools. He was forced out after seven years of an ambitious reform effort that was pocked with controversy. He was praised by supporters for his emphasis of math and literacy despite a brusque management style that oftentimes alienated teachers and parents.
Although both are Democrats, neither Aguirre or Bersin will be able to easily count on organized labor, a normal stalwart in local progressive politics, because of their past records.
Aguirre has alienated much of the labor community by challenging employees’ pension benefits, branding union leaders as corrupt, and supporting Mayor Jerry Sanders’ initiative to outsource city work. The teachers union saw Bersin as a top-down manager who steamrolled his “Blueprint for Student Success” into place despite their concerns.
“If those were the two candidates, I would suspect the endorsement process would be very contentious,” said Lorena Gonzalez, political director of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.
But even with the controversy, Bersin is very well known in the San Diego community — a positive attribute in a race against Aguirre, whose penchant for cameras and public forums have allowed him to redefine the role of the city attorney from member of City Hall’s supporting cast into its lead.
Currently, the race lacks a high-profile challenger, as candidates Dan Coffey and William Gentry are not well known and will have to raise substantial money to compete with Aguirre.
Despite the likely resistance by organized labor, Bersin is plugged into the city’s business community, whose support for Jerry Sanders helped push that mayoral campaign to victory in 2005. The chamber of commerce-types have been meeting regularly, but informally, to agree and solicit a candidate to take on Aguirre, who they accuse of being disruptive to the normal course of business at City Hall.
“Right now, if you have a law degree, have passed the state bar, and live in the city of San Diego, chances are someone in the business community has asked you to run,” another source close to the discussions said.
Also, The San Diego Union-Tribune editorial page, which soured on Aguirre after endorsing him in 2004, was a staunch Bersin booster during his superintendent days.
Aguirre has in turn lashed at both members of the business establishment — which he calls “the old San Diego” — and the newspaper, claiming they want to remove him because of the aggressive reforms he pushes.
The city attorney did not comment on this story, but he has publicly criticized Bersin before for his work on the airport authority. He has characterized an exchange of memos between Sanders’ office and Bersin regarding the loan of an airport executive as a behind-the-scenes effort to aid Sunroad Enterprises in its controversial development of an office tower that exceeded a federal height limit.