Friday, Feb. 22, 2008 | They don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on campaigns. They don’t have fancy endorsements from the likes of the district attorney or the Republican Party. They aren’t followed around by clutches of advisors with clipboards and Blackberries clucking over speech notes and organizing lunches.

Democratic attorneys Amy Lepine and Dan Coffey, who are both running for city attorney, know they are facing something of an uphill battle in the coming months. The two lesser-known candidates in what promises to be the most talked about political campaign of the year said they know they have to convince San Diego’s voters that they are serious, viable, and electable, in that order.

In a field that includes such marquee political names as Mike Aguirre, Scott Peters and Brian Maienschein, not to mention a seasoned, well-backed Republican judge who used to be a local mayor, political newbies Lepine and Coffey might be forgiven for feeling a bit overwhelmed. But in interviews, both candidates said they plan on pushing forward, at least as far as June’s primary election, and that each believes they have a fighting chance.

On Wednesday, Lepine and Coffey saw a fellow political rookie, Democratic attorney Lee Burdick, drop out of the race and endorse Scott Peters. Burdick, who said she quit the race largely because of the challenges of raising funds and name recognition in such a large field of candidates, said her overwhelming reason for stepping down was a fear of splitting the anti-Aguirre vote too thin and playing into the hands of the incumbent.

“You throw three players in there like Lee Burdick, Amy Lepine and Dan Coffey, and each of them is a spoiler,” Burdick said. “Each of them, if they get 3 percent of the vote, becomes a Ralph Nader to Al Gore. I don’t think the city can benefit from that.”

Though Coffey and Lepine don’t like to think of themselves merely as thorns in Aguirre’s side, each has a history of needling the city attorney.

Coffey has been a fixture at City Hall since before Aguirre’s last campaign. The environmental attorney has an obvious dislike for Aguirre and described him in an interview as “a fool,” “crazy” and “silly.”

Coffey, who has practiced law since 1987, said his presence at City Hall, where he often shows up to press conferences and council meetings alongside the local media, is part of being an attorney. As a lawyer, he said he is a member of a profession charged with protecting citizens and upholding the Constitution.

“I’ve set myself the task of cleaning up the City Attorney’s Office,” Coffey said.

Coffey said much of his animosity towards Aguirre comes from threats he alleges Aguirre has made to have Coffey and his wife investigated by the U.S. attorney. But asked if he’s running a campaign based purely on a grudge against Aguirre, Coffey got defensive.

“Who would spend this sort of time over a grudge?” he said.

For his part, Aguirre dismissed Coffey as “Scott Peters’ alter ego.” He said Coffey’s only role in the city attorney’s race is to smear him and provide ammunition to his detractors.

“Coffey is Scott Peters’ attack dog, he’s just there to attack me,” Aguirre said.

A former Pan-Am air hostess-turned-journalist-turned-attorney, 43-year-old Amy Lepine has had her own skirmishes with Aguirre. Last year, Lepine brought a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment against the city attorney, for whom she said she went to work after dropping a cushy, six-figure salaried job at a local law firm.

Unlike Coffey, Lepine said she supports much of what she said Mike Aguirre “once stood for.” Lepine said she vigorously backed Aguirre when he first ran for city attorney four years ago, so much so that she went to work for him. But she said she’s been aghast at Aguirre’s tenure since 2004.

“He started off with great ideas, with great ideals and I think we needed that at the time because the old guard had fallen asleep,” she said.

But Aguirre has gone too far, Lepine said. She said he has spent his time filing frivolous lawsuits and dividing, not uniting, the city government. Lepine said she would bring all of Aguirre’s passion to the City Attorney’s Office, without vilifying her political opponents.

“There’s a balance to be struck, that’s the reason I’m running,” Lepine said. “I don’t think that it’s one or the other, I don’t think you’re either a lapdog or a pit bull.”

Aguirre said Lepine’s a talented lawyer but said she has been unable to stick to a job and “hasn’t been able to settle down.” And he said Lepine’s lawsuit against the city puts her in an awkward position.

As with all political campaigns, the candidates for city attorney will need a war chest to fund their foray into the local political scene. Campaign filing records show Coffey had raised about $7,400 by the end of 2007. He said he’s realistic about how difficult raising money will be as a candidate in a race with so many well-known figures competing for attention.

Lepine said she plans on running a grassroots campaign along the line of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential race. She will be holding local fundraisers, she said, and most of her campaign funding will come from individual donors giving through her Website.

By comparison, City Councilman Brian Maienschein is sitting on $250,000 in contributions he raised during his uncontested run for City Council in 2004. Maienschein is holding a fundraiser on March 8 with Shawne Merriman, a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers.

Scott Peters will presumably tap into his own significant personal wealth to fund his campaign. Jan Goldsmith is carrying the Republican endorsement, which brings with it clout and, usually, campaign cash. And Mike Aguirre, who self-financed his campaign to the tune of more than $500,000 in 2004, has had the last four years in the public eye.

But the two underdogs said they know the challenges they’re facing that and they’re going to push ahead regardless.

“Absolutely,” Coffey said.

“Only death or dismemberment would stop me,” Lepine said.

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

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