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Monday, Sept. 8, 2008 | Incumbent City Attorney Mike Aguirre desperately wants to distance himself from the day-to-day grind of running for elected office, even as his campaign manager fervently promises that his boss will be running a “real bells-and-whistles campaign” this fall.

In the spring, Aguirre seemed content to rely on the power of his incumbency, missing televised debates, raising and spending very little on electioneering and seemingly content to sit on the sidelines and watch the race unfold. Now, with the general election beginning to heat up after the traditional summer lull, Aguirre acknowledges that his bid to keep his job about more than just his daily work as a highly visible, and highly controversial, city attorney.

But even as he faces a tough challenger in the form of Superior Court Judge Jan Goldsmith, who bested him in June’s vote tally, the incumbent shies away from discussing what he considers the dirty work of actually campaigning for votes.

“Once you put your candidate’s hat on, it hurts your credibility,” Aguirre said.

There’s reason behind Aguirre’s approach. Goldsmith has sought to portray Aguirre as a political remora, who constantly attaches himself to the latest headline-grabbing issue. The result, Goldsmith claims, is that Aguirre has neglected the mundane task of providing the city with timely, accurate, legal advice in favor of pursuing his own political agenda.

Goldsmith has said he will not jump into what he calls the “sandbox of politics,” and that he will bring a scholarly, fatherly and, above-all, lawyerly approach to an office that he says has been neglected because of Aguirre’s shortsightedness, aggression and personal vendettas.

“We’ve got to end this idea that the City Attorney’s Office is a political organization, it is not,” Goldsmith said in a recent interview.

But, whatever image each candidate seeks to portray to voters, the reality is that Aguirre is ramping up his campaign artillery in preparation for a face-off against Goldsmith’s already well-oiled political machine. In addition to his promised television advertising, the incumbent has hired a campaign manager, has pledged to spend his own money on his campaign, and has been pitching his tenure to community and business groups and unions around the city for months in a quest for new votes.

In other words, he’s now doing many of the things that would be expected of someone hoping to win one of the city’s highest elected offices.

Aguirre’s campaign is only going to get more visible and more active in the run-up to the Nov. 4 general election, said Steve Rivera, an enthusiastic young Democratic Party worker who Aguirre recently hired to manage his campaign.

“We’re professionalizing the campaign, going from a volunteer-driven effort to a streamlined, focused campaign,” Rivera said.

Rivera said he already has several television commercials scripted and ready for Aguirre to film. He said he’s waiting to see how much money Aguirre can raise in the coming weeks, and how the political landscape shapes up, before deciding how much airtime to buy for his candidate. Radio commercials and campaign press conferences are also being considered by Aguirre’s campaign team, Rivera said.

And Aguirre said he will be featured in a door hanger soon to be distributed by the Democratic Party that lists his name as the officially endorsed Democratic Party candidate, one of a host of names listed under that of the Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama.

Aguirre is also just starting a string of fundraisers, Rivera said. He will be appearing at three fundraisers in early July, and from then his campaign will be holding events “back-to-back,” Rivera said.

It all sounds like quite a contrast to June’s lackluster show by Aguirre.

In the run-up to spring’s primary election, the incumbent effectively sat back and watched as four opponents to his incumbency, effectively tore him and each other apart in debates, at press conferences and on expensive, glossy campaign mailers. Aguirre rested on the laurels of his incumbency, using his office, not his bank account, to get him on television.

To many local political observers, Aguirre’s tactic of silence was a shrewd, calculated move. “Everybody knows who Mike Aguirre is, he doesn’t have to do any of that stuff,” veteran Democratic political consultant Larry Remer said at the time.

But when Superior Court Judge Jan Goldsmith bested the whole field of city attorney candidates in June, including edging out Aguirre by 3 percentage points, those same pundits started to raise doubts about the incumbent’s future.

“I would bet that he’s not going to win,” Remer said of Aguirre immediately after the results were announced. “I would bet that there are too many long knives after him.”

In interviews, Aguirre has stuck to his guns since June, insisting that he will win reelection based on the public’s perception of his last four years in office and not on 30-second sound bites. And he said that the dynamics of the election have changed since the spring, because public and media attention will increasingly be focused on his opponent.

He said that public inspection will turn the tide of voters against Goldsmith, as more and more is revealed about the challenger’s past and about what Aguirre says is Goldsmith’s true modus operandi: Returning City Hall to a pre-Aguirre world of rubber-stamp legal advice controlled by a shadowy old boy network.

But recent events run counter to Aguirre’s predictions. Goldsmith has racked up endorsements from the two city councilmen who ran against him and Aguirre in June. He has also secured a number of other endorsements from across the political spectrum.

And Goldsmith has proven both willing and able to stand up to Aguirre’s political attacks. At a well-publicized debate aired by KPBS in August, Aguirre appeared flustered and off-point while Goldsmith purposefully kept his tone level, delivering, at one point, the brutal line:

“Mr Aguirre, control yourself Mr. Aguirre. Be an adult. Be an adult, or you’re not going to have many debates.”

Of late, Aguirre has let a rueful, almost apologetic, tone slip into his assessment of his tenure. He is no less bombastic, and retains an almost unfaltering conviction that he has effectively battled the city’s demons and won. But he also now acknowledges that, along the way, he may have veered off course now and again.

Aguirre attributes his epiphany to a Theodore Roosevelt quote he read while camping in Santa Barbara last month on a rare break from work. The quote troubled him, Aguirre said.

“It goes something like this: ‘A gentleman is courageous and courteous,’” Aguirre said. “That made me realize that, under the standard of someone I really admire, that there were too many cases where I had not met that standard because I had not been courteous.”

Rivera said Aguirre’s new approach has also been shaped by input from a gaggle of diehard Aguirre volunteers who have been meeting with the incumbent and both lambasting elements of his approach to the campaign and offering him support for the future of the race.

Those sorts of meetings with supporters, in which Rivera said he will try to extricate Aguirre from the day-to-day rigors and intricacies of his job so that he focuses on the banalities of voter communication, are another key element of Aguirre’s new campaign strategy, Rivera said.

But Rivera admitted that while Aguirre might emerge from such sessions — or camping trips — imbued with a sense that courtesy is courageous, that doesn’t mean he will be turning into a pussycat overnight. Asked when he thinks the campaign for city attorney will turn ugly, Rivera grinned.

“Frankly, I’m surprised it hasn’t already,” he said. “The fact that it hasn’t is intriguing.”

The two city attorney candidates will face off in at least seven debates in the next two months, starting with a debate at the Mira Mesa Town Council on Monday.

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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