Jan. 22 2014 10:35 AM

We sit down with San Diego's city attorney for an unexpected marathon interview

Photo by Kelly Davis

Recently, San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith surprised the CityBeat editorial staff by inviting us for a no-questions-barred interview and blocking off three hours for it. The cordial offer came from Goldsmith's right-hand man, Assistant City Attorney Paul Cooper, who said via email that question topics could range from "legal" to "policy" to "personal."

In recent years, news media have regularly featured Goldsmith at or near the center of City Hall drama. Whether cast as the conservative foil to former Mayor Bob Filner's progressive crusading, the ally of powerful special interests or a level-headed legal mind, the city attorney is one of the city's most powerful and talked-about political players.

One of our key questions was: How do Goldsmith's political beliefs affect his professional decisions as the city's top lawyer? Less than 10 minutes into the interview, before CityBeat could pose the question, Goldsmith brought it up.

"Let me just open by saying that when I ran in 2008, one of the things I said—and I've said over and over again, and I try to follow it—is that we do our legal work based upon the law and not politics," he said.

Goldsmith, who'll turn 63 this month, has had a long career, both legal and political. Becoming a lawyer in 1976, he focused on business law until 1990 when he was elected mayor of Poway. Two years into the job, he resigned to become a member of the state Assembly, where he served three two-year terms. Between 1998 and 2008, he was a San Diego Superior Court Judge.

In 2008, San Diego residents elected Goldsmith over incumbent Mike Aguirre as their city attorney, a job that straddles the line between politics and law.

On the Friday of the interview, wearing faded blue jeans and a Chargers jersey—which he joked was an office requirement of "iMayor" Todd Gloria—a chatty and cheerful Goldsmith was ready to wax philosophical on the rewards and challenges of being an elected city attorney.

"I think there's an incredible merger of two systems that are, in some ways, like oil and water, and it's a real challenge to keep them separate," he said. "If you're a good judge, you learn to have your opinions, and you learn to keep them out of your decisions, and I thought I was pretty good at that.

"Coming over here, it's a little different. You can still keep it separate, but you're in the political environment, and you're in a fishbowl. So if somebody doesn't like your opinion or what you've done, and they're an activist or an advocate, immediately they seize on that and say, ‘See, that's political.'"

That the city of San Diego has become a hotbed of partisan bickering and conspiracy theories, Goldsmith said, was the reason he called CityBeat for the interview.

"Well, guys, we haven't talked in a long time, and I do think there's a lack of communication in our town," he said. "Despite all the multitude of communication outlets, sometimes we really don't communicate with each other.

"I'm getting a little concerned about the conspiracy buffs," he added. "And I'm not saying you guys. I'm not saying you're like that, but the conspiracy buffs that [say] behind everything there's some big conspiracy. So I thought it would be a good idea to talk to someone who I think is reasonable."

An increasing lack of objectivity in the media has also added to the situation, Goldsmith said. "There's a lot of the media that has become the politicized media, like, you know, the Voice guys," he said, referring to nonprofit news website Voice of San Diego. "It's like they see the world through a prism, and it's political.

"If I'm going to put something out, I'd really like at least somebody who's going to give it a fair shake from the standpoint of what we say rather than a spin," he added.

A quiet Cooper, wearing a black plaid button-down—which he presciently quipped was worn in mourning of the Chargers' soon-to-be-over playoff season—also attended and recorded the interview. Cooper, who checked his iPhone regularly through stylish horn-rimmed glasses, became part of the conversation only briefly when Goldsmith was asked if he was "grooming" his assistant to be the next City Attorney.

Cooper looked slightly uncomfortable as Goldsmith said, almost inaudibly, "not now."

Goldsmith said he's not preparing anyone to be the next City Attorney. "This is a tough job," he said. "To do it right, it's a tough job. [Former City Attorney] Casey Gwinn just kind of sat back and let things happen, and we got into trouble."

CityBeat asked if former Deputy City Attorney Andrew Jones' abrupt resignation this month was due to frustration over not being groomed for the job.

"Can I tell you something?" Goldsmith said, flashing an icy glare that quickly melted into a sunnier disposition. "If Andrew Jones would have run for this office, I would not have run for reelection. I wanted Andrew to run."

Jones was thrust into the media spotlight last year after former Mayor Bob Filner accused him of leaking information to the press. Filner had Jones removed from a closed-session City Council meeting in June that became very public.

"Andrew Jones would have made a terrific City Attorney," Goldsmith said. "He just doesn't want to do it. People are not political. Let me tell you, I tried."

Goldsmith said he didn't know why Jones was retiring and quickly changed the topic. "Yeah, it's his personal decision to retire—just like I retired. Did you know I retired in 1988? I was in a private law practice doing real well."

Throughout the interview, the city attorney talked freely about his opinions on specific city policies, as well as his broader political beliefs.

"I like the less-government and all that, but not to a total extreme," he said. "I'm more libertarian from a standpoint of people's rights."

Goldsmith said he didn't have an official role in the local Republican Party, but he is a member. "[E]very once in a while, I'll go to their meetings, and I'm a Republican by choice. I used to be Democrat. At one point, way back, I was an objectivist. You know what that is? Libertarian. That was Ayn Rand morphed into libertarian.

"I [don't] necessarily agree with all what Republicans do," he added. "I didn't like George W. Bush. I really like Mitt Romney. I used to like [New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie."

Is it confusing for the public when someone in his position openly expresses political views?

"Do I do that? Have you seen me even endorse a candidate for mayor?" he said. Goldsmith then quickly answered his own question: "I did last time, by the way, at the end—one statement. Yeah. But you don't see me out there raising money or advocating things."

In contrast, Goldsmith said he views his predecessor, Mike Aguirre, as having inappropriately used the office for political advocacy.

As the city attorney, "there is a level of some independence," he said. "Not as far as Mike went. But that's why I used to say during the 2008 campaign, ‘Sometimes you're going to say no to a mayor.' Mike hated this when I said it. By the way, we're friends now. We have a lot of fun together."

Drinking several cups of coffee and sucking on countless cough drops, Goldsmith enthusiastically defended the impartiality of his legal opinions.

"There's things I do well and things I don't," he said. "One of the things I do do well is being able to separate, ‘Here are my views; here's my law practice.' And that's completely separate. Examples come out the kazoo."

To illustrate, he pointed to his office's legal work instituting the strong-mayor form of government, which he said he dislikes.

"We drafted the proposition that would extend it, and we did the impartial analysis and all that, but did I vote for it, to extend it? No. Should I have spoken out? I don't know. What do you think? Think I should have spoken out? I don't know?"

Perceived as a way to enhance accountability, a voter-approved initiative in 2004 instituted the so-called "strong mayor" form of government, which made the mayor the city's chief executive and gave the position sweeping administrative authority. Under this form of governance, the city's top bureaucrats report directly to the mayor, not the City Council.

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