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Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008 | On Tuesday night, as San Diego reverberated in blue and Democrats across the county rejoiced and partied, a small side room of a Greek restaurant a short distance from Golden Hall sat empty and undecorated.
The room, which was allegedly party central for City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s campaign, remained cold and silent throughout the night, without supporters to show solidarity with the incumbent, who made a brief presentation to the press before disappearing into the night.
The bleak end to Aguirre’s short tenure as the city’s most-watched politician summed up the city attorney’s fall from grace perhaps even more than the vote tally, which weighed heavily against him all night and, with 56 percent of votes counted, stood at 59.41 percent for Goldsmith and 40.59 percent for Aguirre.
Aguirre once boasted the endorsements of the political juggernauts of organized labor, business leaders and even the editorial page of The San Diego Union-Tribune when he won election in 2004. For a short time, he had friends in every corner of the city’s political establishment, all of whom seemed willing to give the gadfly attorney a chance to shake up a city roiled by scandal from the inside-out, one issue at a time.
He finished his reign alone, with just his fiancée — who in recent weeks had become a de-facto campaign manager, spokeswoman and public relations aide rolled into one — by his side. The supporters were gone, the endorsements were long-forgotten and the local newspaper and other media outlets had been pouring scorn on the city attorney for months.
His defeat capped a remarkable four-year roller coaster ride in which he redefined the role and prominence of the city attorney and became an extreme symbol of local politics — a noble knight to his supporters and a hell-bent dictator to his detractors.
Aguirre’s critics and the few allies he has left agree that, while the perception of the city attorney in the minds of the city’s voters has been decimated over the last four years, Aguirre has remained steadfastly himself, doing the job he believes he was elected to do in the only way he knows how to do it. Aguirre’s made mistakes, they said, but he hasn’t changed.
“Mike is just being Mike. He’s the same person he was when he was elected four years ago. He’s fighting for the same things; he’s saying the same things; he’s got the same personality,” said Chris Crotty, a political consultant who took a prominent role in the campaign in its final weeks.
But Mike being Mike didn’t work at the ballot box.
In 2004, the environment couldn’t have been better for the aspiring politician. The tangle of crises and investigations engulfing City Hall provided a sudden foundation for a man who’d long seen corruption everywhere as a public-interest attorney and political gadfly. With that backdrop, and with so many allies, he squeaked out a narrow victory and was entrusted with the complex duty of cleaning up the city’s mess.
Although Aguirre went after the city’s pension and securities scandals with gusto upon taking office, he also quickly and regularly veered from investigation to investigation, announcing the launching of new probes regularly — many times without resolution. And, when he disagreed with one-time or former allies, he didn’t just disagree — he often sharply questioned their motives.
His flagship pension litigation failed at every step and currently sits waiting for a decision from the Court of Appeals. The City Council has, so far, been markedly reluctant to pursue the case and Jan Goldsmith, who takes over from Aguirre in December, has dismissed the case as largely a waste of time and money.
Several of the city attorney’s critics, including political consultants, two city councilmen and representatives of labor unions, said the breaking point for many voters was the ten-month stretch between January and October 2007.
In that time, Aguirre called Sanders corrupt for his handling of the Sunroad office tower scandal and inserted himself into two major natural disasters, the La Jolla landslide and the October wildfires. He rushed to the scene of the landslide and admitted that the city could face some liability for the disaster, something that resulted in an outcry from the mayor and City Council. Then, during the wildfires, Aguirre wrote the mayor and fire chief a memo calling for an evacuation of the entire city.
“Really the breaking point for voters was the landslide,” said John Hoy, a political consultant who advised Jan Goldsmith during the campaign. “It crystallized the opinion among voters about what was wrong with him and what was wrong with voters.”
To be sure, Aguirre had his victories. Along with his lieutenant, Executive Assistant City Attorney Don McGrath, he fought a slew of groundbreaking legal battles against former consultants and law firms who had advised the city. Using outside counsel to argue complex malpractice cases on the city’s behalf against the firms, Aguirre recouped millions of dollars in settlements for the city.
And Aguirre fought to open up both the City Attorney’s Office and City Hall to increased public scrutiny. During last year’s Sunroad scandal, he pressured the mayor into denouncing the actions of a company that built a building violating federal aviation regulations, and the building was eventually deconstructed to its legally allowed height.
But, ultimately, these victories could not hope to compete for voters’ attention with the public relations nightmare that Aguirre created not just with his actions on the landslide and the wildfires, but also with his public spats with other city government officials, opposing lawyers, journalists and even judges.
The scattering of public fights Aguirre got himself into over the last four years proved ample fodder for Goldsmith, who needed little imagination to needle away at Aguirre on these issues at public debates and on television. Bumper stickers and signs reading “Evacuate Aguirre” — a reference to the wildfires — didn’t hurt Goldsmith’s cause either.
In the end, the public decided that it wanted a city attorney with a fundamentally different outlook on the role of the office.
Goldsmith has promised to return the City Attorney’s Office to a black-letter law firm that does the legal work of the city in a timely matter. Likewise, he has said that he intends to keep completely out of the realm of policy. Politics is for the City Council and the mayor, he has said countless times, he’s just there for the legal advice.
It seems that, as of Nov. 4, 2008, that’s the sort of City Attorney’s Office the voters of San Diego want.