Rarely in politics will an incumbent seeking reelection face four challengers, and especially not such serious contenders. Usually, incumbents have a cakewalk. But City Attorney Mike Aguirre has, to put it mildly, pissed off a few people around town, whether it's from calling the mayor corrupt, union leaders corrupt or City Council members corrupt, a lot of people have had enough of him.
Nonetheless, a poll conducted by the Republican Party in March indicated that Aguirre had a comfortable lead, with 27 percent of the vote, followed by Judge-on-leave Jan Goldsmith, City Council President Scott Peters, City Councilmember Brian Maienschein and former Deputy City Attorney Amy Lepine.
No candidate will receive more than 50 percent of the vote on June 3 and win the office outright, which means the top two vote-getters will duke it out until the November general election. CityBeat consulted with consultants, polled the polls and spoke to the candidates to try to plot the chart for victory for each candidate. Mike Aguirre
Current gig: City Attorney
You know him from: The pension cases, the Roque de la Fuente cases and fighting with the mayor, the mayor's staff, and just about every member of the City Council. Where don't you know him from?
Path to City Hall: Republican consultant Duane Dichiara characterizes the race as split between Maienschein vs. Goldsmith (the Republicans) and Peters vs. Aguirre (the Democrats). In the latter race, Aguirre has the advantage of being able to hammer his opponent with reminders of the city's financial mess and Peters' roll in it. It's the kind of message Aguirre's supporters will love, since they tend to believe that Aguirre is doing his job of taking on the entrenched powers, no matter how he goes about it. Most of Aguirre's supporters believe in his mission in the casual way that Peter, Thomas and Simon the Cananean believed in Jesus' mission. That group should easily get Aguirre through the June primary, when the anti-Aguirre electorate will be split. But can he survive November?
In 2004, Aguirre barely defeated Leslie Devaney, and that was with the support of the Union-Tribune, the Realtors, labor and a host of others who have since abandoned him. If he makes it out of the primary, some of those groups may be faced with the choice of endorsing him or staying out of the race.
Dichiara points out that a third of Aguirre's base is Republican and his feud with popular Republican Mayor Jerry Sanders is eroding that support.
“The well is poisoned for him,” Dichiara said. “If I could, I'd cash out my house and my children's college fund to bet him losing.”
But Republican strategist Tom Shepard, currently busy with Sanders' reelection bid and not working the city attorney race, sees a lot of hope for Aguirre.
“I don't want to underestimate Mike's abilities as a politician,” he said. “He is a good debater, and he's very good at framing issues to his advantage. I don't think it's a slam dunk going to November, that whoever survives will beat him.”
Shepard thinks Aguirre would do himself a big favor if he were to announce a major office reorganization, one that emphasizes subject-area expertise over all other considerations. But he thinks Aguirre's main weapon will be a philosophy that he's emphasized throughout his tenure—that his office is an independent branch of government.
“It's very difficult to explain in a sound bite what the city attorney ought to be doing,” he said. Aguirre's “response that ‘I represent the people' is very compelling and hard to debate in a short sound bite.”Amy Lepine
Current gig: Private attorney
What we know her from: She used to work for Aguirre on pension matters but eventually quit and sued him for sexual harassment.
Path to City Hall: Lepine knows her road has a steeper incline than anyone else's. She has little name recognition (one political consultant interviewed for this story referred to her repeatedly as “the woman”), and what there is stems from her lawsuit. She hasn't raised much money so far—just $501 at the last filing—and money is crucial in a citywide race.
Her message has been what Chris Crotty, a Democratic consultant, called “Aguirre Lite.” She says Aguirre had the right idea in asserting that the city attorney should serve as a watchdog, independent of the City Council and the mayor, but he screwed the pooch when it came to execution. She promises to be a more sensible, more controlled watchdog.
She's made her biggest splash by lobbing bombs at recent debates, repeatedly referring to her opponents as “members of the old guard” and perpetrators of the pension scandal.
Shepard thinks her only real shot is to fall into some money, whether it's through self-funding or an unexpected endorsement.
“She has to find a way to get her message out,” he said. Scott Peters
Current Gig: City Council president
We know him from: His role as one of the “negligent five,” his stance against the La Jolla seals, his excessive use of domestic water and his frequent clashes with Aguirre.
Path to City Hall: Peters can make a very strong case for himself: As City Council president, he has locked horns with Aguirre time and again, creating the perception that he's not timid. His past work in the San Diego County Counsel's office gives him good grounding for public law. He is widely assumed to have the resources to self-fund his campaign (he's already loaned himself $45,000). And he has the right kind of moderate politics for an increasingly Democratic San Diego.
“Most people have a high opinion of Scott's intellect,” said Shepard, who worked for Peters during both of his City Council campaigns. “Whether they agree or disagree with Scott on specific issues, they think he'll be a competent city attorney.”
But Peters carries the burden of the pension scandal. During his first term, he cast votes to illegally under-fund the pension while also granting new and retroactive benefits for city employees and to approve five different bond issues that later turned out to be missing crucial information. The Securities and Exchange Commission chastised the city as a whole for this behavior, and the city's own investigators, the consultant firm Kroll Inc., labeled five council members, including Peters and Maienschein, negligent.
Peters hasn't made things easier on himself. When asked his opinion of Aguirre predecessor Casey Gwinn at a recent forum hosted by the San Diego Retired Employees Association, Peters responded, “I kinda miss the guy. I'd love to have Casey Gwinn back.”
That creates a contradiction: The City Council members singled out by Kroll blame their votes on bad advice as the reason they cast the votes. The Kroll report even says the members of City Council “were failed by their legal counsel—the City Attorney's Office and outside fiduciary counsel.” Gwinn was the city attorney when those votes were cast. So if Peters cast bad votes because of bad advice, why does he miss the giver of bad advice?Associating himself with Gwinn will make it even harder for Peters to prove to the public that he's learned his lesson. He's made it a priority of his campaign to teach the public how he and the City Council have made things better. Whenever the pension comes up, Peters rattles off a list of new procedures put in place, including ending under-funding, implementing new financial controls and halting certain retirement perks.
“The conventional wisdom is that campaigns are not the time to be educating,” Shepard said. “Given limited resources, changing people's minds is a pretty heavy lift for most campaigns.”
Peters has accumulated some crucial endorsements, including the gay- and lesbian-dominated San Diego Democratic Club and the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.
“Our members are well aware that Scott Peters is the only progressive that can win the city attorney race,” said Evan McLaughlin, the labor council's political director.
McLaughlin said polling suggests that Aguirre can't get above 30-percent support, making Peters the best bet in November. But to get through June, Peters will need to peel off Aguirre's Democrats. And the best way to do that, Shepard said, would be to persuade the public that Peters' work bringing together disparate voices as the City Council President proves he can get the wheels of government turning once again.
“Depending on how good a job his campaign does of communicating that,” he said, “that's a compelling message.”Brian Maienschein
Current gig: City Councilmember
You know him from: The wildfires of 2003 and 2007 and his role as one of the “negligent five.”
Path to City Hall: Maienschein is the only candidate not really running a citywide election, instead placing all of his electoral eggs in the District 5 basket. The district includes all of suburban northeastern San Diego, including fire-stricken Rancho Bernardo. Maienschein built a strong record as a problem-solving politician in the aftermath of the 2003 Cedar fire, one that carried him to an easy re-election in 2004 (he ran unopposed). But by 2007, he'd been burdened by the same pension votes that Peters cast. All of which means that, politically, the 2007 wildfires were really great for Maienschein. His post-fire work energized his base, making him a popular politician in a wealthy district with high voter turnout. With low citywide turnout expected in June, the strategy might work.
“It's not a bad position to be in,” Crotty said.
So if Maienschein can really dominate his district, and pull in a few more votes from elsewhere, he could conceivably survive June, after which he hopes anti-Aguirre sentiment will unify behind him. The Republican poll indicated that he's unknown outside of District 5. To spread word of his greatness, Maienschein will be able to tap the $250,000 left over from his 2004 campaign, as well as some new money: A few weeks ago he shocked the field when he raised $68,000, more than anyone else by $30,000. Maienschein is thus well equipped to pay for TV ads and mass mailers.
Anyone who has listened to Maienschein campaign or be interviewed recently has heard that peculiarly District 5-oriented message: wildfires, Route 56, wildfires, 12,000 acres of open space, wildfires, reduced beach closures and wildfires. He is so on-message that he used the same phrases at the retirees forum, in an interview with CityBeat, and on KPBS' These Days program.
“He's a classic example of a poll-driven candidate,” Crotty said. “It doesn't matter what question that you ask, he'll bring it back to: ‘I helped out at the fire, calm, deliberate, blah blah blah.'”
There is some irony in Maienschein's unceasing reminders of his performance during the fires. The way he interprets being city attorney, his job in a crisis would be to remain in the office, providing legal support, and not out in the field, helping constituents.
“It would be hard for me,” he conceded to CityBeat in an interview.
Maienschein has also been criticized frequently for his numerous absences from City Hall, a trait the Aguirre campaign has been harping on lately.
“There were medical issues that had to do with my daughter. And that's all I'm going to say,” Maienschein said.
And those bad pension votes keep coming up in conversations. Generally, he tries to play off those votes as the human act of a badly advised official, often saying they were “a mistake.”
“As soon as you say you made a ‘mistake,' they stop listening,” Crotty said. Jan Goldsmith
Current gig: Superior Court judge, on leave
You know him from: He was a state legislator and the mayor of Poway, but really, you may not know him at all.
Path to City Hall: The Republican establishment rallied around Goldsmith almost the moment, last winter, he decided to run. Everyone from the county party apparatus, Sheriff Bill Kolender, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and usual Republican heavyweights like the Association of Building Contractors have given him their endorsements. He's raised less money so far than Maienschein, but Dichiara seems to think the party's ability to “communicate with its members”—a loophole through campaign-contribution rules—will make up for any deficiencies.
No one embodies his message like Goldsmith. At debates, he never raises his voice, he speaks about the law with precision (often with memorized quotes from the City Charter) and he projects an aura of bespectacled competence. He has the confidence to agree with his opponents, and he even praises Aguirre's motives shortly before slamming him for running the city attorney's office poorly. No forum or debate goes by without frequent reminders of his work as a judge, and he likes to talk about the Kroll report to remind everyone of his opponents' failings.
He has the support of the Republican establishment, and reminders that he voted for the energy deregulation bill that preceded brownouts in 2000 and 2001 don't seem to be sticking. Goldsmith has been a judge for nearly a decade, which means most of the electorate has forgotten him, but that's not really his biggest challenge.
“For Goldsmith, and this applies to other challengers as well—they're going to use different words to say it,” Shepard said. “But the bottom line is, can they convince voters that they can run the office more competently than Aguirre.”