Monday, June 30, 2008

Queer Democrats Endorse Aguirre for City Attorney

Incumbent Wins 71 Percent Club Vote after Bitter, Intense Debate


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Mike Aguirre and Jan Goldsmith, counting of the ballots for the city attorney's endorsement (Doug Case is at the table and Marilyn Riley and Alex Sachs are in front; Andrea Villa is at far right), Dale Kelly Bankhead, Nick Liebham

Reversing its position in the primary election for San Diego City Attorney — when it rejected the incumbent, Democrat Mike Aguirre, in favor of City Councilmember Scott Peters — the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club endorsed Aguirre for re-election in the November 4 runoff against Republican Jan Goldsmith. Aguirre won a sweeping victory with 47 votes, 71 percent of the total, to 19 votes against making an endorsement in the race, the only other alternative club members had on the ballot. But the debate surrounding the endorsement was so intense that at one point club president Andrea Villa had to threaten to eject two members from the meeting to restore order.

Since the city attorney’s office is technically nonpartisan, the club’s bylaws required it to invite both candidates — and, to the surprise of some members, both Aguirre and Goldsmith turned up. What’s more, their own debate was considerably more civil than the club’s internal discussion that followed. Aguirre began it by boasting that he won the third City Council district — the center of San Diego’s Queer population — by 10 percent and saying that “since the election I’ve reached out to Scott [Peters]” and worked with him on a proposed solution to the city’s ongoing pension crisis. “My job is to unify the party and those of us who believe in a progressive future for San Diego,” Aguirre said. “The office is nonpartisan but it is not valueless, and my values are your values. I believe in the future you believe in.”

“Thank you for having me,” said Goldsmith. “I am a Republican, and if I were running for the legislature or for City Council you wouldn’t want to hear from me. But the city attorney’s office is supposed to be nonpolitical and nonpartisan.” After challenging Aguirre’s claim to represent the same values as the club’s members — “Your values are not dividing employers and employees; your values are not taking away pensions,” he said — Goldsmith claimed that when he left the state assembly and accepted a judicial appointment 10 years ago he entered a new playing field, in which impartiality and a commitment to the law trumped partisan priorities.

Questions from the audience included specifically Queer issues like Proposition 22, the ban on legal recognition of same-sex marriages passed by voters in March 2000 but invalidated by the California Supreme Court last May. Goldsmith admitted that when the bill was in the legislature before it became an initiative, he had supported it. Aguirre proudly said he had voted against Proposition 22. He also said that in 1991, when then-San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor asked the mayors in the League of California Cities to pass a resolution endorsing anti-discrimination laws based on sexual orientation, Goldsmith, then mayor of Poway, argued against it.

Asked about their stands on marriage equality and Queer rights in general, Aguirre claimed to have been educated on the issues by two openly Gay men: the late Neil Good, who in 1987 recruited Aguirre to the campaign to challenge the Boy Scouts of America’s sweetheart lease on 18 acres of San Diego parkland despite their national organization’s anti-Queer policies; and his deputy, openly Gay club member Alex Sachs, with whom he co-wrote the city’s amicus curiae brief supporting marriage equality before the California Supreme Court. Goldsmith ducked the question, saying that he hadn’t been involved in legislation for the last 10 years and as a judge “I have treated people fairly.”

But the strongest points of contention between the candidates were on the role of the city attorney and the state of the office and its staff under Aguirre’s leadership. “The city attorney’s office is accountable to the public,” said Goldsmith, “but our client is the city of San Diego, not the Mayor or City Council personally but in their capacities as city officials. If the city attorney doesn’t represent them, the city doesn’t have an attorney. It’s in our best interests to have a city attorney to help the city function.”

“The city attorney is supposed to represent the Mayor and City Council, but also the people,” said Aguirre — expressing his expansive concept of the office that has been one of the key criticisms made of him. “The reason the Republican Central Committee and the Lincoln Club asked my opponent to move into the city of San Diego to run against me is because they don’t want the city attorney to represent the people. The city attorney’s job is to fearlessly represent the people, and not just be a rubber stamp for the City Council and the Mayor.”

Asked how well the city attorney’s office is functioning under the incumbent, Aguirre boasted, “The city attorney’s office is the most functional in San Diego. I am so proud to have Karen Heumann, Katherine Burton and Alex Sachs on my staff. A Filipino is the liaison to the police department and a woman heads the civil litigation unit. When I got there, the office was riddled with people with no interest in the public interest. It is now the finest city attorney’s office in California.”

Goldsmith, not surprisingly, took what Aguirre was presenting as a healthy housecleaning and used it to attack Aguirre’s skills as a manager. “There are 135 attorneys [in the city attorney’s office] and 120 are Aguirre’s hires,” he said. “The deputy city attorneys are in fear of getting fired if they give the ‘wrong’ opinion. It’s a political operation aimed not only at policy but people. It is hurting our city because the staff isn’t getting good legal advice. The problem is from the top.”

Though the interchange between Aguirre and Goldsmith got testy at times — especially when Goldsmith accused Aguirre of saying he opposed Queer-rights laws during a 1989 campaign for City Council he lost to longtime Queer-rights supporter Bob Filner, later backing down when he admitted he couldn’t document that — it was a model of civility compared to the debate between club members which followed. Even the normally routine motion to consider making an endorsement in the race — usually a procedural formality before the club can consider whom to endorse — attracted intense opposition.

Dan Coffey, a club member who briefly declared for city attorney himself before withdrawing from the race and endorsing Peters in the primary, denounced both Aguirre and Goldsmith as “two Republicans” and called on the club not to endorse in the race. “Mike Aguirre is backed by Pat Shea, a friend of George W. Bush, who has helped to prosecute Democrats,” Coffey said. [Shea, husband of Diann Shipione — the accountant who blew the whistle on the city’s pension problems — ran for mayor in 2004 on a platform of dealing with San Diego’s financial problems by declaring bankruptcy.] After saying that the people Aguirre and Shea sought to prosecute had been exonerated by a federal judge, Coffey said, “I don’t think an organization based on Democratic principles should endorse Mike Aguirre.”

The only other person to speak on the motion whether to endorse before club members voted to close debate on it was Alex Sachs. “The city attorney’s office is important,” Sachs said. “The choices between the two candidates are important. It is appropriate for us to take a stand.”

Once the club voted to consider an endorsement, president Villa ruled that only six people would be allowed to speak, three for Aguirre and three for no endorsement. One of Aguirre’s supporters was this reporter. Another gave a short statement to the effect that the San Diego Union-Tribune, which has been highly critical of Aguirre throughout his tenure, would not report the club’s vote if it endorsed Aguirre but would if it voted for no endorsement. A third person for Aguirre said, “Mike Aguirre isn’t going to let people tell him what to do. Jan [Goldsmith] will be a lot lighter and back to the old days. Aguirre will bring every issue out in the open, whether he’s right or wrong.”

Aguirre’s opponents were better prepared, spoke longer and were far more personal in their statements. One compared him to former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and said both had politicized offices and used the threat of prosecution against their political enemies. Another, city employee Michelle Krug, said, “Mike Aguirre is not only homophobic but misogynist. He has six women suing him for sexual harassment. [One of them, former city attorney staff member Amy Lepine, ran against him in the primary.] He fired every deputy city attorney who tried to start a union. He has spoken against city workers’ pensions. This is not a man who has my values at heart.” Conceding that Aguirre “has been good on the Boy Scouts and on marriage,” Krug said she feared for her own pension if Aguirre is re-elected.

But the most intense and vicious anti-Aguirre presentation came from Marilyn Riley, who had volunteered for him in his 2004 campaign but then strongly and bitterly turned against him. “The first time I knew Mike was not the man I thought was when he called me into his office and said, ‘What’s the matter with those Gays?’” she said. “Mike did not want to hire Katherine Burton and Alex Sachs. I made him hire Katherine Burton. He used her as a volunteer and I said he had to pay her. He did not want to hire Alex. He’s homophobic. There’s a reason the San Diego Democratic Party did not endorse him.” (The San Diego County Democratic Central Committee made no endorsement in the primary but was scheduled to consider an endorsement in the general election in early July.)

Sachs, incensed that Riley had been able to say that about him and the meeting format did not give him a chance to respond, made a motion to extend the debate and take three more speakers on each side. The club members argued about that so long that one person acidly commented that they were taking as much time debating Sachs’s motion as they would have to call the additional speakers. After Sachs’s motion was voted down, 34 to 21, he sought recognition from the chair on “a point of personal privilege” and denounced the process as “not democratic.” He and Riley started arguing, and Villa threatened to have both of them thrown out of the meeting if they didn’t settle down. Later, she appointed both of them to observe the count of the endorsement ballots and make sure it was fair to both sides.

While the ballots were being counted, San Diego Democratic Central Committee chair and former club president Jess Durfee made a motion, to be voted on at the club’s next regular meeting September 25, that the club stop inviting non-Democrats running for nonpartisan offices to speak before it during endorsement debates. “Historically, San Diego was a very Republican city, but that demographic has changed and we should only be hearing from Democrats,” Durfee explained. (The club would normally have a meeting on August 28, but Villa explained that that’s the date presumptive Presidential nominee Barack Obama is scheduled to give his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, and the club will be joining with the Central Committee to organize “viewing parties” for Obama’s speech.)

Durfee’s motion was immediately opposed by George Gastil, a member whom the club had suspended its rules for earlier to endorse his campaign for the Lemon Grove City Council. Gastil said that, though the club’s charter with the Central Committee forbids it from endorsing non-Democrats, “the club can rate people ‘acceptable’ and many times it’s good if they’re allied with Democrats.” He pointed out that he had worked to elect moderate Republican Susan Hartley to the San Diego County Board of Education against radical-Right Republican Susan Fey, and felt the club should keep its options open in races where there isn’t a viable Democrat but there’s a clear difference between the major candidates on Queer and progressive issues.

Eventually the ballots were counted and Aguirre was declared the endorsed candidate of the San Diego Democratic Club. The club also took votes endorsing Obama for President (an earlier attempt to endorse in the primary campaign had failed when, ironically, most club members had split between Hillary Clinton and John Edwards and Obama had got only two votes) and officially opposing two propositions on the November 4 ballot: Proposition 4, which would require that whenever minor girls seek abortion, their parents must be notified (which California voters have already turned down twice); and Proposition 8, which would reverse the California Supreme Court’s historic ruling for marriage equality by amending the state constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Earlier in the evening, the club had heard from Dale Kelly Bankhead, who as a staff member of the San Diego branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had been instrumental in the marriage case, announcing her appointment to head the statewide campaign against Proposition 8. The club also heard from Nick Liebham, Democratic candidate for Congress against Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray, who recalled that in his college days at a Catholic university in Hawai’i “I came across two Marines who had Joe, who was known around campus as an openly Gay man, pinned up against the third-floor balcony and ready to push him off. I still have the scar on my forehead because of where I stepped in.”