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Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008 | With Scott Peters announcing his candidacy for San Diego city attorney on Monday, the stage is set for a showdown between one of the city’s heaviest-hitting political pugilists and a seasoned local politician who’s used to ducking blows.

It’s a race that could well define the city’s political landscape for many years to come.

Peters and incumbent City Attorney Mike Aguirre have made it quite clear over the last few years that they loathe each other, and while each claims he wants to keep things clean on the campaign trail, both Aguirre and Peters have pushed off from their starting blocks and begun the race with some sharp-elbowed jostling.

It’s a battle that places the chief critic of the city’s recent political history against its most strident defender.

Aguirre has denounced Peters as part of an old guard of incompetent city insiders that only cares about special interests and its own political future. He said Peters was a key player in creating the city’s ongoing pension debacle, and questioned whether the council president, who last worked as an attorney in 1999, had the requisite legal skills to serve the city.

“There’s a reason they call it legal practice and that’s because you have to keep on practicing,” Aguirre said in an interview prior to Peters’ official announcement.

For his part, Peters seems to be building his candidacy as much on electing Scott Peters as ousting Aguirre. That’s a tactic another city attorney candidate, Republican Judge Jan Goldsmith, has staked his candidacy on as well. At a press conference last week, Goldsmith’s posse handed out bumper stickers that read “Evacuate Aguirre.”

At his press conference Monday, Peters played the crowd similarly.

To ecstatic cheers from his supporters, Peters proclaimed simply “Mike Aguirre needs to go.” His stump speech focused more on what he considers the failings of Aguirre than his own qualifications and achievements during his eight-year tenure on the City Council.

Peters said Aguirre has alienated hundreds of his own employees, who have left the City Attorney’s Office and whose work now needs to be done by outside attorneys who, he said, cost taxpayers millions of dollars a year in legal fees. He portrayed Aguirre as out of control, like a child in need of supervision.

“You know, it’s fitting that we’re here, next to a rec center that provides after-school programs that give kids adult supervision after school, because that’s exactly what the City Attorney’s Office needs right now, some adult supervision,” Peters said at his press conference. “Mike Aguirre has turned one of the most important offices in this city into a playground of politics, posturing and plain dysfunction.”

To back up that claim, Peters cited two now infamous incidents. He said Aguirre went on national television after last year’s landslide on Mount Soledad and admitted that the city was liable for the disaster. And he labeled Aguirre’s call for a citywide evacuation during last October’s wildfires “rash and dangerous.”

Peters knows these issues will resonate with Aguirre’s detractors. And he obviously thinks the best way to attack Aguirre is by portraying him as something of an errant child.

But Aguirre said Peters is just spinning the truth to win political points. On the Mount Soledad landslide, he said, he never admitted liability to anyone. He pointed to an 89-page report compiled by one of his investigators into the landslide that Aguirre said details every word he uttered on live television. The report proves he never admitted anything to anyone, Aguirre said.

“That’s part of the game Peters plays,” Aguirre said. “The city goes out and does something it shouldn’t, then if you say anything about what they’ve done, you’re somehow admitting liability.”

On the fire evacuations, Aguirre claimed that he merely suggested the city should have a plan in place for a mass evacuation. He never advocated, let alone ordered, a full-scale evaluation, he said. To paint his reasoned legal advice as panicked knee-jerking is not just unfair, but dangerous, Aguirre said.

“In times of emergency, people won’t say things that could be helpful, because people like Scott Peters will hold them up afterwards and tell everyone what they said,” Aguirre said.

The election for the city attorney should be all about the issues, Aguirre said. Voters should be primarily focused on the city’s troubled pension system, he said, which has now ballooned into what he claims is an $8 billion liability for the people of San Diego.

Peters said at his press conference that the pension system is in great shape. And he said despite the mistakes he has made, such as when he voted in 2002 to extend pension payments that have since become the focus of federal and state criminal charges, the pension system’s better off now than before he took office.

“We’ve been focused for five years on turning this pension system around, and we’ve taken steps that I don’t think any other local government has taken on this,” he said. “This thing is shipshape condition, and I’m really proud of where we’ve gotten it.”

However, the pension system continues to carry a $1.2 billion deficit, and the city’s annual payments into the system will continue to have significant impacts on its annual, day-to-day budget for years to come.

Aguirre said because Peters has the support of the city’s powerful labor unions, which have a vested interest in seeing the pension crisis play out a certain way, he’s intrinsically misplaced to represent the city’s best interests. Aguirre, who very much views the pension issue as a problem that’s been created and nurtured by the city’s unions, likes to paint the crisis as an “us versus them” battle between the people of San Diego, represented by him, and the city’s special interests, represented by people like Scott Peters.

Yet for all the drama that an Aguirre vs. Peters showdown promises, they are but two of a growing group of candidates for the office. Joining Peters in challenging Aguirre are fellow City Councilman Brian Maienschein and Goldsmith from the Republican Party and Democratic lawyers Lee Burdick, Amy Lepine and Dan Coffey.

If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in June’s primary, the top two finishers will square off in the November general election.

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

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