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Monday, Nov. 3, 2008 | The last days of a citywide political campaign aren’t sexy.
In the blazing sunshine of early Friday afternoon, city attorney challenger Jan Goldsmith, sweat beading on his forehead, waved at the cars and trucks rattling by at the intersection of University and 6th Avenue in Hillcrest.
He grinned. He whooped at supporters. He put on a brave face. Then Goldsmith turned away from the street for a moment and wiped his face with his sleeve, more of a grimace than a smile on his features.
“After 32 years as an attorney and 10 years as a judge, it comes down to this. Waving on a street corner,” he said.
Later in the day, across town on a hill in a middle-class neighborhood in Clairemont, incumbent City Attorney Mike Aguirre stood, somewhat unsteadily, on the back seat of a rented silver Chrysler Sebring convertible and held a bullhorn to his lips.
“Mike Aguirre. Your city attorney, Mike Aguirre,” he called to the quiet streets.
“Fuck you, Aguirre, we’ve had enough,” came a shout from a passing pickup truck.
After an awkward pause, Aguirre steadied himself and muttered, “That’s the first one of those we’ve had.”
As the curtain closes on probably the most closely watched local political campaign of the season, the two candidates for city attorney have been getting down to the everyday brass-tacks-work of winning election in a city not known for its political activism or the motivation of its voters.
As the race comes to a close, Goldsmith said he’s been doing what he’s been doing for months: Meeting with community groups and Rotary Clubs. Drinking lots of coffee. He said almost a year on the campaign trail has been exhausting, but exhilarating, and that he’s learned much from the thousands of people he’s spoken to since last December.
Aguirre’s also doing what he’s always done. He’s run for election in San Diego every few years for the last two decades and he’s always closed out the campaign on the back seat of a convertible, a bullhorn in his hands, driving the streets, shaking hands, and planting campaign signs in friendly constituents’ lawns.
Despite their obvious differences in everything from temperament to dress sense, the two city attorney candidates have more in common than perhaps they’d like to believe.
Both have the weathered skin and elastic smiles of men who smile more for effect than pleasure. Both switch effortlessly into campaign language as soon as a journalist approaches, and keep an eagle eye on every word that appears in print about them. Both are quick to pounce as soon as a story surfaces that doesn’t portray them in their best light.
While he waved on Friday, Goldsmith talked vision.
The challenger outlined his plans for the City Attorney’s Office: Splitting the office into four distinct divisions, with department heads akin to senior partners in a law firm in charge of each. He said he would shore up training at the office, which he says has languished with Aguirre at the helm, and talked about thinning the city attorney’s media operation, which he says is more befitting of a governor than a lawyer.
There’s no doubt that, at this point in the campaign, Goldsmith has begun to mold the vague notion of taking office into a more tangible, clear vision that’s become less opaque as his campaign has gained ground and everyone from the city’s firefighters to San Diego’s top developers have thrown their weight behind him.
Standing, holding a sign and waving at traffic, Goldsmith defended the practice of electing the city attorney of San Diego, which he said is healthy and good governance, but repeated the drumbeat claim of his campaign: Once he gets into office, the politics stops, he said.
Across town, as Aguirre planted a campaign sign among a Halloween-scene mock graveyard in a large house in Clairemont, he looked as if he wasn’t just in politics, but politics was in him.
Strutting down the street with a pile of campaign signs under his arm, Aguirre acknowledged that he may not win this election. With “all the special interest groups in the city” lining up against him, he said, it’s going to be tough to connect with voters and convince them that he’s the right choice. What if he loses?
“I guess I’ll just go back to making money,” he said. “I guess there’s worse things.”
As the sun began to set over Mission Bay on Friday evening, a white van cruised down the hill and slowed when the driver spotted Aguirre planting a campaign sign. The van’s window rolled down.
“Mike, hey Mike! I’ll pull into this side street,” the driver said.
Bob Craig had just finished his shift at a nearby hospital. He walked up to Aguirre, grinning.
“I told my wife that if I’d ever see you, I’d do this,” he said. “Come here.” With that, Craig gave Aguirre a big hug, the city attorney looking entirely un-flummoxed.
“If I had 100 votes, I’d give them all to you,” Craig said.
There are these moments on the campaign trail for both candidates.
As Goldsmith smiled at the passing traffic, a red Chevy slowed and a middle-aged woman in the front seat flashed a law enforcement badge and waved to him.
“We’re with you Jan!” she called. “Please win.”
And every few cars that passed, a horn sounded or a whoop was shouted in Goldsmith’s direction. Passing pedestrians stopped to say hello. Supporters and campaign staff called the challenger’s cell phone every couple of minutes.
But there were also plenty of people who just stared at Goldsmith with questioning faces, not sure whether they should cheer or jeer. And Aguirre, quite the spectacle with his bullhorn, raised more confused glances than anything else. Children came running to see who it was on the back of the convertible, then stopped and stared, disappointed, when they realized it was just a candidate in a municipal election.
As both candidates acknowledged, the last few days of this election are focused on reminding San Diegans that there’s a city attorney’s race running at all. With the Obama-McCain carnival in full swing, it’s vital to let voters know that San Diego is electing a city attorney as well, they said.
Whether it’s walking the streets or just standing on a street corner and waving, both candidates know that, come Tuesday, there will be plenty of pens hovered above the two candidates on the ballot for city attorney, searching their memory for just who Jan Goldsmith and Mike Aguirre are, exactly, and why they should vote for either one.
A young man passing by Goldsmith’s campaign in a rusty truck on Friday summed up what many San Diegans’ attitude may be towards the city attorney’s race.
“Who’s Jan Goldsmith?” he asked, leering. “Is he a porn star or something?”