Tuesday, April 8, 2008 | City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s been awfully quiet recently.
Apart from a quick press conference at the beginning of March and an appearance at the Lincoln Club’s city attorney debate on March 11, the incumbent’s been markedly absent from the public view. On Thursday, Aguirre showed up briefly at a city attorney debate but left before the debate itself took place, leaving the crowd and the moderator confused by Aguirre’s empty chair. Aguirre also cancelled an appearance at a debate organized for Tuesday morning.
Aguirre said he’s been spending all his waking hours working on an appeal of his flagship pension lawsuit, which has struggled to gain any traction over the last few years. Staff members at the City Attorney’s Office said Aguirre is in workaholic mode, staying at the office until late into the night and desperately working to meet an April 11 deadline to file his appeal.
“I’m buried in this appeal,” Aguirre said. “Once the 11th comes around, I’ll be free as a bird.”
Aguirre’s subdued campaign is in marked contrast to his 2004 election campaign, when, fuelled by more than $500,000 of his own funds, his team plastered the city with yellow and blue placards and Aguirre took part in several local debates.
Democratic political consultant Larry Remer, who is not involved in the city attorney’s race, said Aguirre has all the time in the world to get his message out to the public. Remer said most voters don’t start paying attention to elections until they get their ballot booklets in the mail in early May. When Aguirre wants to speak, Remer said, the public will take notice.
“Mike is the 600-pound gorilla in this race in terms of attention,” Remer said. “When he decides that he’s ready to articulate his side of the story or his version of events or his case for reelection, everybody’s going to show up and listen.”
But Duane Dichiara, a Republican political consultant who’s also not involved with this race, said Aguirre’s strategy of silence is effective for an altogether different reason.
“The man is his own worst enemy,” Dichiara said. “If I were his political consultant I would find a bunker underneath San Diego, blindfold him, gag him and bury him down there.”
At his press conference to announce his candidacy in early March, Aguirre urged voters to judge him on his successes over the last four years. In a long speech, Aguirre listed what he considered the major accomplishments of his tenure, from tackling the Sunroad building controversy to saving La Jolla’s seals.
But perhaps the main cornerstone of Aguirre’s record in office has been his lack of success to date in tackling the city’s pension issue in court.
Aguirre has built his legal argument on the concept that pension deals entered into by the city council in 1996 and 2002 created benefits that Aguirre claims are illegal. That argument hasn’t had much traction in court and Aguirre and his team have been foiled in several efforts to keep the lawsuit afloat. Aguirre’s next shot at making his argument stick is the appeal he plans to file on Friday.
Some success in the pension litigation would give Aguirre’s reelection effort a shot in the arm. His critics have been quick to point out the floundering of Aguirre’s flagship litigation, claiming his record as an attorney has been spotty for the last four years.
Deputy City Attorney Walter Chung, who’s working on the appeal with Aguirre, said the case will definitely not be decided before the primary election for city attorney in June. Unless one candidate gets more than 50 percent in that vote, there will be a runoff election in November. It’s anyone’s guess whether the Court of Appeals will rule on the pension case before a November election, Chung said.
Aguirre said he’s sticking with the appeal, which he said is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the city’s taxpayers and is the most important case he’s been involved in as the city attorney. Since announcing his candidacy in March, Aguirre has said he thinks the city’s voters know him well enough and that he doesn’t plan on advertising on television or “playing political games.”
Aguirre’s lagging against his opponents when it comes to raising and spending money. According to campaign filing records, Aguirre raised less than $7,500 between Jan 1 and March 17. That’s compared to $67,798 raised by Councilman Brian Maienschein and $38,644 raised by Judge Jan Goldsmith, two other candidates for city attorney.
But Aguirre has shown in past elections that he is willing to spend his own money to get elected. Remer said if Aguirre is planning on bankrolling his campaign again he’s wisely keeping his cards close to his chest until the last weeks before the election when the voting public has begun to tune in to the race.
“I try to spend 70 percent of the campaign budget in the last three weeks. That’s when people start paying attention,” Remer said. “We’re not at that stage yet, so from Mike’s point of view, he’s got time.”