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Thursday, June 5, 2008 | After coming in second to challenger Jan Goldsmith in Tuesday’s primary election for city attorney, Mike Aguirre said he’s planning a resurrection of the coalition that brought him storming into the City Attorney’s Office four years ago.
But several of the members of that coalition are almost certain to be unwilling to join hands with the incumbent this time around. And other traditional elements of a successful campaign strategy, like spending money on advertising or spending face time talking to voters, may simply be out of Aguirre’s reach.
Aguirre has alienated himself from the political powerhouses of organized labor and the law enforcement community, groups that helped bankroll his path to victory in 2004 and who campaigned for him steadfastly. He hasn’t yet shown either the willingness or the ability to bankroll an expensive advertising campaign, and said his ability to walk the campaign trail is hampered by the hours he puts in at the City Attorney’s Office.
Aguirre refused to elaborate on his election campaign plans Wednesday, saying to discuss issues like whether he is willing or able to lend his campaign money or whether he will be running radio television advertising would be to give away his campaign strategies.
“I’m keeping my cards close to my vest,” he said.
But to political consultants not involved in the race, Aguirre’s second-place showing on Tuesday means the incumbent had better lay his cards on the table for all to see, and quickly, if he has any hope of winning back a majority of the more than 71 percent of voters who voted against him on Tuesday.
Chris Crotty, a Democratic political consultant not involved in the race, said many voters didn’t vote for Aguirre because the incumbent hasn’t yet effectively communicated his vision for the office and his reelection message to individual voters.
To do that, Crotty said, Aguirre needs to turn back to “old fashioned retail politics.” Aguirre’s got to spend the next few months as a traveling salesman, Crotty said, taking his message to the people of San Diego. If Aguirre can do that, Crotty said, he can beat Goldsmith.
“He’s got to do the same thing he did four years ago. He was everywhere. He went to every meeting of more than 10 people that existed in the city,” Crotty said.
“If he gets someone face-to-face or in a small group, he going to be able to convince them,” Crotty added.
Aguirre didn’t sound won over by that line of reasoning.
He said San Diego’s voters will gradually come to understand that he is the only candidate who represents the interests of the public, as opposed to special interests. The public will soon see that Goldsmith is a conservative cut from the same cloth as his predecessor Casey Gwinn, who presided over San Diego’s burgeoning pension scandal, Aguirre said.
That doesn’t mean he won’t be talking to groups, Aguirre said, but he played down the need for a knee-jerk reaction to Tuesday’s result that includes suddenly booking himself to speak to every Rotary Club in the city.
Instead, Aguirre said, the city’s voters will come to know him and love him through the natural ebb and flow of the campaign. Besides, Aguirre said, he’s got a job to do as city attorney and can’t always be out campaigning.
“Unlike in the primary, I will wage an aggressive campaign to bring the facts to the people of San Diego,” Aguirre said at a press conference Wednesday.
Larry Remer, another Democratic political consultant, who has worked with Aguirre in the past, said the incumbent needs to pump between $500,000 and $1 million into his campaign effort to resurrect his chances of winning back the office.
But Aguirre refused to delve into his financial plans. In 2004 he was more than willing to outspend his opponents to run an effective citywide campaign, but so far this year he has lent his campaign just $22,500, leading some City Hall observers to wonder if Aguirre still has the personal wealth needed to bankroll a reelection effort.
Aguirre only offered one hint at his spending plans: “I think Scott Peters and Steve Francis have shown that spending money is not particularly relevant to politics in San Diego.”
Republican political consultant Duane Dichiara, who is not involved in the campaign but has been a vocal critic of Aguirre, said spending money wouldn’t make any difference to Aguirre’s election prospects anyway.
“If I were Mike Aguirre, I would be in the backyard, sharpening my shovel and digging my political grave,” Dichiara said.
Dichiara downplayed the fact that on Tuesday more voters opted to vote for Democratic city attorney candidates than for Republicans. Added together, Democratic candidates Aguirre, Scott Peters and Amy Lepine won 55.28 percent of the vote Tuesday while Republican candidates Goldsmith and Brian Maienschein together pulled in 44.73 percent. Dichiara said this election was less about party lines and more about the individual candidates.
“This was a vote on whether the public likes Mike Aguirre,” Dichiara said. “The public said it doesn’t like him.”
If Aguirre is truly going to re-corral his coalition from 2004, one group that defined that effort is organized labor, which has spent the last several months and several hundred thousand dollars backing Peters, who bowed out of the race Tuesday with just more 20 percent of the vote, not enough to make the runoff.
Aguirre said he has the support of “bread and butter” unions, though he admitted he has fallen out of favor with the city’s most powerful organized labor groups. But as working people come to know Goldsmith better, and take a closer look at his record as a conservative politician, Aguirre said, they will rally behind the only Democrat in the race.
Goldsmith did not return calls for comment Wednesday.
Posing a final hurdle to winning over San Diego, Aguirre has also alienated himself from some in the city’s media corps over the last four years. In addition to telling a reporter from The San Diego Union-Tribune earlier this year that the reporter should seek counseling for his critical reporting, Aguirre also had a terse on-air exchange with NBC 7/39’s Gene Cubbison and has not appeared on Cubbison’s show, “Politically Speaking,” since the incident.
And on Wednesday, Aguirre left many members of the press disgruntled when he called a 5 p.m. press conference and then showed up an hour late after his plane back from New Jersey was delayed. As a late-afternoon drizzle gradually became a steady rain, reporters huddled under canopies set up next to the international cottages area of Balboa Park’s International Plaza waiting for Aguirre to talk for the first time about his showing in Tuesday’s primary.
It was an inauspicious start to a campaign in which Aguirre will be looking to win back as many friends as he possibly can.
David Washburn contributed to this report.