Former City Attorney Mike Aguirre earned just 4 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s mayoral race but he may have come away with another sort of win.
Aguirre’s presence in the race – buoyed by show-stealing debate performances – helped him restore a good chunk of the credibility and reputation he lost after four turbulent years as city attorney.
The UC Berkeley law school graduate and former U.S. attorney’s tunnel-vision focus throughout the campaign on serious policy issues like pension and utility reforms was rounded out with a lot of self-deprecating humor.
That combination gave Aguirre an opening to repair his tattered public image.
Even some recent political opponents admitted he was making headway.
A spokesman for City Councilman Kevin Faulconer’s mayoral campaign acknowledged Aguirre’s debate skills.
— Anthony G. Manolatos (@tonymanolatos) November 6, 2013
Indeed, in debate after debate, Aguirre spoke off-the-cuff about complex city issues and suggested reforms that have worked in other parts of the world. All the while, he poked fun at his controversial term as city attorney.
A sampling: “I united people like they had never been united before. Unfortunately it was against me.”
Aguirre didn’t return my calls for this story but Chris Morris, a partner in Aguirre’s law firm, and campaign representative Charles Langley both say the ex-city attorney’s mayoral bid offered a chance to reintroduce himself and ensure issues he cared about, namely the city’s pension burden, got more traction.
Still, he didn’t inject significant personal cash in the race or accept hefty donations, based on his contention that large contributors drown out other voices in political races. In the end, campaign finance reports show Aguirre had just shy of $8,000 to spend, compared with the hundreds of thousands he poured into past races.
The low-stakes bid appeared to have some impact.
In the past two months, Morris estimated at least three to four people have approached him daily to say they were impressed by the apparently reformed Aguirre.
And after our #noBSmayor debate, we heard from several attendees who said they left with a more positive impression of the ex-city attorney.
Langley wasn’t surprised.
“When people looked at the man behind the curtain, they realized this isn’t a person with fangs,” he said.
Veteran Republican political consultant John Hoy, who managed current City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s successful 2008 campaign against Aguirre, agreed that his bid for mayor offered a shot to begin rebranding himself.
“Mike was under no illusions about where he was going to end up in the race, thus he was free to some extent to run a campaign based on public charm,” Hoy said. “If the goal was to kind of remake his image, I think he’s probably taken one or steps down the road. I must say, it’s probably a long road.”
The mayor’s race didn’t re-establish Aguirre as a candidate who can draw significant voter support but Hoy and other politicos publicly and privately say his bid gave him an opening.
If he chooses to promote his ideas to the City Council or comment on city issues, he’ll now do so with more legitimacy.
“He has made himself a more serious voice in public policy in San Diego,” Hoy said.
Not everyone is inclined to listen.
Fire union president Frank De Clercq, whose union publicly feuded with Aguirre, isn’t convinced he’s a new man – or that his primary concerns resonate with most San Diegans.
Residents care more about repaved roads and new fire stations. They’re through talking about the pension reforms Aguirre champions, he said.
“For me, it was the same pension drum-beating Mike Aguirre who brought up the same message he brought up for four years, day after day,” De Clercq said.
Aguirre, for his part, has repeatedly said that the city must lower its pension bill so there’s more cash to spend on neighborhood needs.
Michael Zucchet, general manager of the city’s white-collar union, said Aguirre’s campaign was simply a repeat of his successful 2004 bid for city attorney.
A decade ago, Aguirre charmed voters with what seemed to be reasoned policy proposals and an affable personality and then brought another approach to the city attorney’s post, Zucchet said.
Voters seem to remember that too.
“I think the election results speak for themselves,” Zucchet told me. “When you’re pretty high profile, and you’re considered a major candidate for a couple months and you’re invited to all the debates and you get 4 percent, I don’t know how else to answer your question about what the public thinks.”
Attorney Pat Shea, a longtime Aguirre friend, thinks those results partly reflect Aguirre’s choice to run on his personality and a single policy issue – city finances – rather than try to fight fire with fire in terms of high-profile endorsements and campaign cash.
Aguirre understood the political realities of that, and yet became increasingly upbeat as his mayoral campaign continued, Shea said.
“He felt like he was hitting an audience that was becoming more receptive both to him and more appreciative of the fact that he was willing to get into the race and raise the financial responsibility issue that without him wouldn’t be in the campaign at all,” Shea said.
Shea and other friends I spoke to aren’t certain what Aguirre will do next. They’re just convinced he wants to be a credible voice in future debates.
“I think he believes he has both the responsibility and the authority from his (former) office to continue to participate and I suspect he will,” Shea said.