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Most of the city’s top mayoral contenders showed up at a police-sponsored forum on Tuesday pledging to bolster police compensation and resources.

Then there was former City Attorney Mike Aguirre, whose message was much different: The city needs to eat its vegetables. When it comes to police, he said, that means making due with the city’s limited resources.

“I’m not here to make any promises to any police officers,” Aguirre said, even as fellow mayoral candidates vowed to fight for raises and equipment upgrades as the city recovers from a decade of budget issues.

Councilman David Alvarez repeatedly said the city needs to pay its police officers more to encourage them to remain on the job. Councilman Kevin Faulconer dubbed himself a champion for police officers and said he’d bring that approach to the salary bargaining table. Former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher emphasized past public safety bills he supported and repeatedly mentioned his service in the Marines to underscore his commitment to officers who put their lives on the line.

Aguirre as the odd man out was a dynamic that emerged throughout the debate — and one that’s also reflected in the race as a whole.

Aguirre is often overshadowed by the three higher-profile candidates in the race, but debates are one arena where he has the potential to gain ground. Aguirre, a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard University who once provided legal counsel for a U.S. Senate committee, has a formidable mind and can use debates as an opportunity to display his mastery of city policy, his willingness to cut through talking points and a less aggressive persona than the one he was known for during his four-year stint as city attorney.

It wasn’t clear he lured any new supporters with his debate performance on Tuesday, though he must have realized an audience of police officers wouldn’t be the most receptive audience for his contention that giving them raises would be irresponsible.

Again and again at Tuesday’s debate, Aguirre reminded officers and fellow candidates of the city’s tight budget and significant costs to repair crumbling infrastructure and pay the city’s pension bill. Aguirre, who served as city attorney during the city’s worst financial days, didn’t want them to forget.

His rivals said the City Council should approve a five-year, $66 million Police Department blueprint to add staffing and invest in equipment. (It’s languished since a council committee approved it last year.)

Aguirre called it “a pie-in-the-sky plan.”

And he cited the Police Department budget to make his points.

The city is already spending a large fraction of its budget on police, Aguirre said. “The taxpayers can’t do any more than what they already are doing. We have to recognize that.”

As his time to speak ran out, Aguirre said that “pandering to you is not really being honest … ”

That’s when his microphone cut out.

Aguirre got a chance to finish when it was his turn to sign off. Moderator Marc Bailey of San Diego 6 asked whether the candidates had any bad news to reveal.

“I didn’t come here to pander to you today,” Aguirre said. “I came here to challenge you to help sacrifice for our city.”

The city must maintain its streets, libraries and parks, and pay its pension bill. There’s only so much cash for police, he said.

He wanted to make sure I remembered the city’s failure to properly invest in those needs in the past.

After the debate, I approached Aguirre, who carried a stack of documents featuring numerous police budget numbers and statistics. One of them was his own Power Point presentation.

The next mayor needs to be transparent about his opportunities and challenges, he told me.

“We got in trouble because of the pandering,” he said.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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