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Monday, June 2, 2008 | If the blue-and-yellow yard signs advertising Mike Aguirre’s campaign for city attorney look familiar, that’s because some of them are the exact same signs he used four years ago when he first ran for the office.

Stored away for safe keeping, a few of the signs survived almost four years of Aguirre’s tenure as city attorney to be dusted off and planted anew.

Those signs, and hundreds of new ones of the same design, are the most visible element of a lackluster reelection campaign that has been remarkable for its lack of paid staff, modest fundraising record and overall low-key approach to keeping hold of what has become one of the most sought-after public offices in local government.

As the City Attorney’s Office has morphed from a rather obscure and little-watched entity into the political powerhouse it is today, Aguirre’s primary election campaign has, conversely, shrunk from a bells-and-whistles effort replete with expensive television advertising into a modest cadre of unpaid amateurs and an advertising campaign funded by less than $60,000 so far.

Local political consultants not involved in the city attorney’s race and Aguirre confidants said the city attorney could be holding his cards close to his chest, waiting until after Tuesday’s primary, which he expects to survive, to unleash his full fundraising and campaigning efforts. That tactic would allow him to focus against one opponent instead of spreading his efforts against the four candidates currently fighting it out against him.

But two lawyers who ran against Aguirre in 2004 said they are surprised by the stark contrast between this year’s seemingly humdrum effort to reelect Aguirre and the gangbusters primary campaign they faced four years ago, even given Aguirre’s power of incumbency. And Executive Assistant City Attorney Don McGrath, one of Aguirre’s closest confidants, said he’s not sure Aguirre has enough money saved up to wage the sort of high-profile race he’s run in the past.

“I don’t think he’s got any money,” McGrath said. “If he does, he’s choosing not to use it.”

Aguirre could not be reached for comment.

To date, Aguirre’s reelection campaign has been dwarfed in both fundraising and advertising by three well-organized and well-financed campaigns run by his opponents.

City Councilman Scott Peters has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money into his campaign, and has been running the race’s only television advertisements.

Councilman Brian Maienschein has raised more than twice as much money in contributions as Aguirre since the beginning of the year, has held a high-profile fundraiser with a sports personality, and has flooded radio airwaves with his advertisements.

And Jan Goldsmith has been basking in the financial glow of the Republican Party, which has spent almost $250,000 communicating with Republican Party members on his behalf.

All three of those campaigns have paid consultants and campaign managers who help the candidates communicate with the public, liaise with the media and organize mailing lists and advertising efforts.

In contrast, Aguirre appears to be running his own campaign, himself.

His campaign finance statements show he has paid two campaign workers several thousand dollars, but Jeff Van Deerlin, one of those workers and a long-time Aguirre campaigner, said the payments were reimbursements for expenses incurred. In short, Aguirre isn’t paying anyone to help him get reelected.

Though he has sent out mailers and planted about 1,000 campaign signs, Aguirre has not run any radio or television advertising. He has also been notably absent from many of the organized city attorney debates held in recent months. In April, he said work on his pension litigation appeal was keeping him too busy to campaign, but that appeal was filed in early May and Aguirre’s made it to few debates since then.

In 2004, Aguirre was everywhere, said Leslie Devaney, now a private attorney, who ran against him in that election. Aguirre sunk more than $500,000 of his own money into television and radio advertising over the course of both the primary and runoff elections, she said, and raised the stakes in a race she said at the time was widely considered a “ho-hum” affair.

“It was a very hard-fought campaign,” Devaney said.

This time, Devaney said, she’s watched Aguirre run a very different campaign, with very little advertising and little of the pizzazz he brought into the race four years ago. But Devaney said that’s largely because Aguirre’s been in the public eye so much over the last four years. He has spent so much time in front of television cameras since 2004 that he doesn’t need to buy more air time.

“He’s sort of sitting back and watching,” Devaney said.

Political consultant Larry Remer, who has worked for Aguirre on previous campaigns, agreed that the incumbent has no need to advertise himself.

“Everybody knows who Mike Aguirre is, he doesn’t have to do any of that stuff,” Remer said.

That’s the line Aguirre’s been using for the last few months. He said he’s running his campaign on the basis that people know who he is and what he has achieved over the last four years. Running 30-second advertisements won’t do anything to increase his name recognition or inform the public about what he stands for, he has said.

And Van Deerlin and McGrath said the low-key campaign that’s been run so far isn’t necessarily indicative of what’s to come after June 3. If Aguirre makes it through the primary, they said, he will be able to focus on just one opponent instead of four.

“I’m not privy to anything, but I would imagine that the fall campaign will be very different to the spring campaign,” Van Deerlin said.

But Remer said Aguirre was nevertheless imprudent not to take advantage of the infighting that has developed between his opponents.

He said Aguirre would have been wise to use the last few months as a platform to establish what the issues of the race should be going forward. But he said Aguirre, who he described as a “cheapskate” when it comes to election campaigns, missed the chance to set the tone of the race.

“If Mike Aguirre were smart, he would be taking advantage of this time when his opponents are fighting against each other to establish himself,” Remer 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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