This post has been updated.
Mara Elliott won her first political campaign and she’ll now be expected to make good on her first political promise: to depoliticize the city attorney’s office.
Elliott, a Democrat and deputy city attorney, prevailed over Deputy District Attorney Bob Hickey to take control of the office she’s worked in for seven years.
Early in her campaign, Elliott said she wasn’t even sure city attorney should be an elected position, preferring a more deferential role like the county’s chief legal counsel, where she used to work.
She’s softened on that over the last year, but has still maintained that she’ll simply be nonpartisan legal counsel for the mayor and City Council, and won’t pursue legislative priorities through her legal opinions.
Her supporters say that’s just fine, after watching what her boss, Republican Jan Goldsmith, managed to do with the office over the last eight years.
“It’s been hard to fight against a lawyer using politics more than the law to do city business,” said Michael Zucchet, general manager of the Municipal Employees Association, the city’s white-collar union, which endorsed Elliott. “I expect Mara Elliott to follow through on running a municipal law corporation and not a political office.”
The city attorney’s race never grasped San Diego’s collective imagination, despite the position’s significant influence in City Hall and the fact that it was the only competitive citywide race on the ballot. The office’s legal interpretations can thwart or clear the way for a policy goal from the mayor or Council, legal defenses when the city’s sued can save or cost the city big money and it works with the city’s police to prosecute misdemeanors.
A late entry into a long-awaited race among City Hall insiders, Elliott prevailed in June over two better-funded Democrats who were seen as the frontrunners.
She was then outspent again by Hickey in the general election, by a four-to-one margin. Hickey’s campaign, and a third-party committee backing him, brought in roughly $2.3 million. Elliott’s campaign and a third-party group together brought in less than $500,000.
Yet riding a wave of Democratic voter turnout, Elliott prevailed once again.
Her supporters breathed a collective sigh of relief to bid goodbye to Goldsmith, who they have for years seen as an impediment to furthering liberal priorities, even if they managed to get enough votes on the City Council and evade a veto from the Republican mayor.
“She has the right personality, and she’s an incredibly intelligent woman. We see her as someone who has principles and will bring fairness,” said Mickey Kasparian, president of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council, a powerful force on the left in city politics. “You can only ever hope that a city attorney will act in the best judgement for the city, and I never thought Goldsmith would do that.”
Kasparian said there aren’t any upcoming issues that he sees suddenly changing thanks to Elliott’s election. He said he hasn’t been holding back any policies that he can now announce, in hopes that Elliott will receive them more favorably than Goldsmith would.
Rather, he thinks the city’s business can now move forward with a fair referee on the field.
“There’s just a sense of relief that now, we won’t get a ruling that’s riding a political tide,” he said.
One major case Elliott will now oversee is the challenge, from the Municipal Employees Association, against Prop. B, the pension reform measure that San Diego voters approved in 2012. The MEA has said the measure is improper because city officials didn’t first meet with labor unions to negotiate the proposal.
Elliott – like her opponent – said throughout the campaign that she would continue to defend the initiative that’s before an appeals court now, with oral arguments scheduled for the start of 2017, and could eventually wind up before the state Supreme Court. She has said she believes city employees deserve defined pensions, but after voters approved Prop. B – which instead gives new city employees 401K plans – it is now her job to defend it in court.
Brian Pepin, executive director of the conservative Lincoln Club of San Diego, a major Hickey financial supporter, said his group has been convinced over the course of the campaign that Elliott will continue to defend Prop. B, even if changing circumstances could make it easier for her to recommend that the city consider a settlement.
“We are glad to see that over the course of the campaign, Mara Elliott has been responsive to many concerns raised by many people about where she stands on pension reform,” he said.
But Zucchet said Elliott’s victory shouldn’t be seen as a major advancement for progressive priorities. That’s not the approach he expects Elliott to take.
“It’s more stuff that will stop happening that have happened under Goldsmith, than it is enabling something big that Democrats want to do,” he said.