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Incumbent City Attorney Mike Aguirre called his opponent, Jan Goldsmith, an “angry man” at a debate this afternoon hosted by the Catfish Club at the San Diego Hall of Champions.

Aguirre said he was referring to Goldsmith’s continued attacks against his character, but the incumbent’s own choice of words was further indication that the city attorney’s race has taken on a new, sharper tone as the campaign enters its final stretch.

Unlike most of the other debates in the campaign, in which the candidates’ responses have been regimentally controlled, at the Catfish Club debate the candidates’ time at the microphone was largely unregulated.

As a result, Aguirre and Goldsmith took turns attacking each other for minutes on end before moderator Steve Fiorina of KGTV Channel 10 News eventually jumped in to cut them off.

Goldsmith laid into Aguirre. In his minutes-long tirades, the challenger left no stone unturned, attacking the incumbent for the high turnover of employees at the City Attorney’s Office, lambasting him for calling for a full-scale evacuation of the city during the wildfires and quoting from a now infamous judgment issued against Aguirre in the Tom Story case.

For his part, Aguirre swung back at Goldsmith, criticizing him for holding a press conference this week with Mayor Jerry Sanders and Police Chief William Lansdowne accusing him of being a “political opportunist” and even suggesting that there’s a special place in hell for his opponent.

“Dante said that the punishment for those who engage in intentional cold-blooded wrongdoing, like my friend here, the place in hell is hotter for those people than for those who make mistakes by way of style,” he said.

It was that sort of debate.

Goldsmith had a few clever lines for Aguirre. At one point he claimed that, despite their wildly different styles, the city attorney and he do have one thing in common.

“Neither of us has ever really advised a city, I’ll give you that,” Goldsmith said. “Neither of us has advised a city about the law, and I think that’s about the only way we have the same type of experience.”

There was some substantive discussion, too. Goldsmith elaborated a little on his plans for reorganizing the City Attorney’s Office, if elected. He said he would set up a number of departments, all focused on different elements of the city attorney’s work and all headed by a department leader. The challenger also elaborated, for the first time, on his previous trial experience, telling the crowd about the last case he tried, in 1980.

Aguirre appealed to the crowd to let him show them what he can do when he’s working with a City Council that “is not under investigation for fraud.” He said his tenure at the office has been stymied by a lack of partners within City Hall willing to push his progressive, Democratic agenda.

In between the fighting and the wit was wedged the usual pablum of the city attorney’s race.

Goldsmith peppered the crowd with the word “law,” drumming home his message that he’s not a politician and that he wants to return the City Attorney’s Office to a functioning law firm. Aguirre told the audience that he has spent the last four years fighting an uphill battle against the city’s special interests and the ever-present financial specter left behind from the Dick Murphy era.

But, whether in the shrillness of Aguirre’s voice at times, or the clear agitation Goldsmith felt at having to explain some of his political past, the debate showed that this race is entering a new phase of urgency.

Goldsmith told me before the debate that he’s got a week-long cruise booked for just after the race. If things keep on like this, he’s going to need it.


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