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Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008 | Mike Aguirre believed that it didn’t matter how many supposed enemies he made. It didn’t matter what horrible things his one-time admirers and employees said about him. It didn’t matter what came out about his management and work in the media. It only mattered what the people thought.
He viewed the role of the City Attorney’s Office he occupied simply: the city attorney was the lawyer for the people. Therefore, he was doing the people’s work and he sincerely believed that the people appreciated it. He was a populist.
But what happens when the populace rejects the populist? San Diegans may think they need a lawyer, but they definitely fired this one.
Three troubles — whether character flaws or miscalculations — destined Aguirre to go from the top of San Diego’s political totem pole to the bottom: He was completely unable to handle criticism and disagreement. He couldn’t pick his battles. And he could not delegate responsibilities or manage his staff.
Obviously , you can trace the individual moments in Aguirre’s short tenure in office to try to identify what particular controversy or enemy was the one to bring him down — was it the landslide? The evacuation plea? The corruption charges? The media? The disaffected departed staff? The breaching of the idea that he might actually be too crazy?
But really, it is more valuable for us to look at the roots of his decline and learn from them.
I’ll never forget the newly elected Aguirre traipsing across the concourse outside City Hall in 2004 with an entourage of supporters and aides. On the day he was sworn in, he walked to Golden Hall and decided to give a good, long speech instead of the traditional expressions of gratitude and acknowledgements.
The realistic listing of the city’s ills and the hopeful promise to tackle them earned him a standing ovation — though some in the audience, most notably leaders of the city’s employee unions, emerged with a look on their face unmistakably communicating something along the lines of “What have we done?”
What happened to that Aguirre? What caused the city attorney to go from that standing ovation to this: A tired and despondent — and extremely lonely — failed politician? Again, three fundamental troubles were at the core of what happened.
Take the first: His inability to handle disagreement. Aguirre is a very intelligent man. But he’s almost too smart. In office, he thought he was right about everything and if someone disagreed with him — if they stubbornly refused to bend to his efforts of persuasion — he never wondered if they had a point. Instead, he decided that there was something wrong with that person. Not only did that person not see the truth, but they were probably, actively, trying to avoid the truth. In other words, they were actively ignoring the reality he was describing because they had something to hide and they were probably corrupt.
This is unhealthy at best, dangerous at worst. People have disagreements, sometimes very tense disagreements. This conflict is essential in a civilized society. It produces consensus and progress.
But not here. You were with Aguirre or against him. And since he was on the side of the people, well, if you disagreed with him, you were disagreeing with the people. Not only that, you were actually working against the people. You were, in a sense, evil. Hence his tendency to call his rivals names along those lines.
This type of behavior engenders a different type of enemy than your normal political rival. This creates the kind of animosity toward you that fosters relentless opposition movements.
The kind of opposition, in fact, that can lead to the end of your public career.
Now, about picking his battles: Aguirre can’t.
Council President Scott Peters, asked Tuesday night what his thoughts were about Aguirre’s demise, had a fascinating response.
Peters, of course, has been on the receiving end of Aguirre’s attacks for years.
“I never thought he was insincere with what he was trying to do,” Peters said. “I just thought he was wrong.”
This is an important point. Many of Aguirre’s detractors attribute some awful motives to him. It’s, in fact, quite ironic that Aguirre generated so many enemies because of his relentless questioning of their motives and integrity. And yet, those enemies also dabbled all too frequently in the same kind of conspiracy mongering.
To not understand that he was sincere is to miss an important truth and a chance to learn.
Aguirre has run for office many times. He wanted, deeply, to be a transformational political figure much like those he admired: Robert Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt and others. He is conscious of the ills in the world.
And then one day, he woke up and he realized that he had dozens and dozens of lawyers working for him. Wow!
In his new job, Aguirre would wake up — if he had even slept — read the news and see an issue or controversy and immediately want to be a part of it. The fact that many highly skilled lawyers worked for him gave him a not-incredible illusion that he could solve all problems. He became notorious for calling on his staff to convene to discuss a new special project or redirect a lawyer from project to project without completion.
He rarely stopped to think about whether even his large staff could handle the many investigations he wanted to pursue. The issues he brought up would languish and ultimately disappear — even though in the process of announcing them he would have smeared yet another new enemy. For a smart man like him not to even imagine that this might come back to haunt him politically is rather remarkable.
More importantly, though, he could never form alliances. It’s OK to take on major issues and targets, but you have to build support — a network that can come to your aide and defense when the inevitable backlash comes.
He ultimately was one man with a staff of public employees who had many day-to-day responsibilities. He simply never was able to look at an issue he found outrageous and leave it alone knowing he simply couldn’t do anything to help make it better. This made it so that many of the issues he worked on simply came out worse. Reformers would cringe when he would take up their issue. Whether it was water, or pension reform, or global warming, he had a way of making the discussion about him and ultimately risking that it was left worse than it was before.
Finally, Aguirre simply wasn’t a manager. He’s not built to manage a major law firm. His employees were unwilling to work on or finish projects out of fear their boss would angrily snatch it away because they had unknowingly crossed him. In addition, he insisted on brandishing his trial skills and he had to be in charge of, if not fully responsible for, all the sexiest issues on his plate.
Managers simply can’t function like that. If you do not trust your staff, you will not create a productive environment.
Aguirre not only did not trust his staff, but he feared them and maintained the right to dismiss them with a breathtaking velocity.
He wasn’t interested, actually, in the boring minutia of managing a law firm. Again, he wanted to change the world — global climate change, animal rights, the housing market collapse, on and on the list goes. He probably would have been a much better City Council member than city attorney. As a legislator, he would be able and willing to attack the policies and craft solutions to the community’s problems.
But he was essentially a manager of a law firm.
Aguirre hoped that his legacy would be different — that he would be known in history as having saved the city from a culture of corruption and helped it change directions toward a financially secure future.
That’s not going to be the case. His legacy now is really a civic opera: From the opening scene of a standing ovation and an entourage of enthusiastic supporters to the conclusion: a lonely concession to reporters in a restaurant devoid of supporters.
But he did leave a mark on City Hall that will be forever felt. Perhaps his most influential and lasting observation about the City Attorney’s Office was also his first: That it is powerful in a way unbeknownst to his predecessors. He has taught the city that its elected attorney can act furiously as a check on the rest of City Hall. Lawyers analyze laws different ways all the time. What he demonstrated was that the city attorney could read laws looking for possibilities not just restrictions.
And he also showed that if the city attorney does that irresponsibly, that city attorney might suffer a ruthless political defeat.