Since his election in 2004, City Attorney Mike Aguirre has redefined the scope and impact of the City Attorney’s Office. By asserting that the city attorney is accountable to the people of San Diego directly, rather than via the authority of the City Council, Aguirre has effectively placed the office, and himself, at the forefront of policy and politics at City Hall.
Consequently, Aguirre has spent the four years since his election issuing legal decisions, holding press conferences, completing investigative reports and generally asserting himself into the daily political machinations at City Hall like no other city attorney in memory. For that, he’s endeared himself to a group of supporters who say they’re fed up with business as usual in city politics.
Aguirre’s disposal of this power has also been heavily criticized. A judge, for example, rebuked the city attorney for not maintaining an ethical wall between the civil and criminal sides of the vast law firm that the city attorney essentially manages. His legacy legal challenge to employee pension benefits has so far been unsuccessful.
His tendency to announce investigations into city officials as if to impugn their integrity has cost him support, as has his willingness to label officials as “corrupt.” He has seemed to change directions with the news of the day and embrace politically charged themes without necessarily identifying the city attorney’s role in them.
This fueled a backlash.
Two sitting city councilmen, Brian Maienschein and Scott Peters both decided to challenge Aguirre earlier this year. Both announcements were unexpected, but Maienschein’s was a bombshell to local Republicans.
Maienschein, himself a conservative Republican, seriously rocked the local Republican Party when he threw his hat into the race. Local Republicans, after some initial faltering, had already endorsed conservative Judge Jan Goldsmith, a former state legislator and mayor of Poway, as their chosen candidate. They voiced concern that Maienschein could split the Republican vote and hamper their candidate’s chances.
Joining Peters, Maienschein, Goldsmith and Aguirre in the race is local Democratic attorney Amy Lepine, who one worked for Aguirre and is currently suing him and the city for sexual harassment and wrongful termination. Considered the underdog in the race, Lepine has nevertheless injected a feistiness into recent candidates’ forums that other contenders have avoided.
The candidates face off against each other in a primary election on June 3. If none of the candidates wins 50 percent of the votes, the top two vote winners proceed to a runoff election to be held on the same day as the Presidential election in November.
Recent non-partisan polling suggests Aguirre will make it into a runoff. All eyes, therefore, are on second place.
Until March, Maienschein bested the other candidates in fundraising, building on a campaign war chest of more than $250,000 he amassed during his uncontested run for reelection to the city council in 2000. But by mid-May, Scott Peters was pulling in more money in individual contributions than his opponents. Maienschein had spent much of his war chest and Aguirre and Goldsmith were both out-fundraising him.
Scott Peters also has his own money to spend and has been pumping cash into advertising. He has played on his 15 years of experience as an environmental lawyer, some of which were spent as a county counsel, as evidence that he’s the most accomplished attorney to take over from Aguirre.
And Goldsmith, with the financial backing of the Republican Party and endorsements from Republican heavy hitters District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and Sheriff Bill Kolender, and an extensive legal and political career, appears to appeal to many conservative voters.
The two councilmen must overcome their association with the city’s pension scandal, an issue that has dominated many of the city attorney debates in recent weeks. Goldsmith will have to resurrect a political career that’s been dormant for almost a decade. Lepine will have to continue the battle to make her name stand out against the well-known and experienced group running against her.
Right now, it’s anybody’s race.