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San Diego Mayoral Candidate Mike Aguirre Works To Overcome Past

Video by Katie Schoolov

The good news for Mike Aguirre is that he has attracted enough attention to be one of the top four candidates in the race for San Diego Mayor. However, Aguirre is still facing an uphill climb. KPBS Business and Environment Reporter Erik Anderson says Aguirre is trailing in the polls, isn’t raising money and is battling a perception that he’s hard to get along with.

— The good news for Mike Aguirre is that he has attracted enough attention to be one of the top four candidates in the race for San Diego Mayor. The bad news is that the former city attorney is still facing an uphill climb in his bid to become the city's 36th mayor.

Former City Attorney Mike Aguirre hopes to use his name recognition to win a spot in the runoff election. But he needs to overcome his image as a combative political figure.

Special Feature Special Election

Aguirre is trailing in the polls, is not raising money and is battling a perception that he's hard to get along with. But the Democrat remains confident he can land a spot in a mayoral runoff election. Republican Kevin Faulconer, and Democrats Nathan Fletcher and David Alvarez are running ahead in the polls and those candidates have amassed formidable campaign war chests.

Aguirre has already decided not to ask for big contributions. He is not buying TV ads. He will not print up campaign mailers.

"I have managed to build a reputation based on actual work and not advertising. I don't want to win that way," said Aguirre. "If I'm going to win, I want to win without being beholden to anyone."

"The other candidates go in with both hands tied behind their backs they have to serve the people who are basically paying for their campaigns," Aguirre said. "Campaigns are now run by financial interests other than the candidate."

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Mike Aguirre

Aguirre wants to be mayor because he said he can make a difference at City Hall. He has spent the past few weeks calling attention to a city pension obligation that is siphoning tax dollars away from public safety, city services and roads.

His strategy to reach out to voters relies on press conferences and candidate debates. At one debate broadcast on KPBS TV and 10News, Aguirre used humor to soften his image.

"I did what was right every single day. I always asked myself one question and that was, what is in the long-term best interest of the people of San Diego," Aguirre said during the debate with Alvarez, Fletcher and Faulconer. "I united people like they had never been united before. Unfortunately it was against me." he said with a wide grin.

Aguirre now jokes about the rough time he had as city attorney, but his combative approach managed to alienate nearly everyone by the end of his four year term. Democrats, Republicans, business owners and unions all found reasons to oppose him politically. He blamed the city's major newspaper for coming after him and creating a negative atmosphere.

He also said he may have come on a bit too strong.

"Last time I came in on a big white horse. And I thought, well I'm here and so that's all that needs to happen, I don't need to respect anyone else," Aguirre said. "I can just come in and make it happen because these people are clearly not working for the best interests of the city. Well, you know what. That's not the way it works."

Photo caption:

Photo by Erik Anderson

Mike Aguirre explaining how pension system is draining city coffers.

Aguirre's public persona was not helped by a very public, long-running spat with then San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders. "It didn't feel good fighting every day, that's just not how I've done things," said Sanders.

The men differed on a lot of issues, including the role of the city attorney. Sanders considered the position the mayor's legal counsel. Aguirre was the first city attorney to argue he represented the people. Both concur that the role of the city attorney shifted after Aguirre held the job.

But the former mayor, who is backing Kevin Faulconer, says Aguirre was not just bent on changing the city attorney's office.

"I think a lot of people at the time said he wanted to function as mayor and he used that office as a platform to do that," Sanders said. "You know, I told him unfortunately I was the mayor. That's what I was elected to do and that was the course that I took."

Aguirre agrees with that assessment.

"The biggest hit on me was, I wanted to be mayor. Well, I figured out how to solve that problem." Aguirre said with a self-deprecating laugh.

Aguirre did not earn a second term as city attorney, getting only 40 percent of the vote. Even so, he said he was impressed he got that many votes in such a hostile environment.

The political defeat led to reflection.

"I'm a very, very hard worker. And I really try to work at getting better. And over the last four years I have spent many, many hours thinking about, reflecting, reading, trying to figure out what I did wrong," said Aguirre. "And what it all comes down to is this. You can not move a community faster than its able to move."

But moving fast is what a special election is all about. Voters don't have a year and a half to get to know the politicans running for the city's top job. David Alvarez, Nathan Fletcher and Kevin Faulconer are spending a lot of money to get their messages out.

Aguirre's decision to focus on press events and debates might work with well informed voters, but many voters will likely not hear the message.

"Mike Aguirre is trying to make the case that he's changed. That he's a different person now. That he's less confrontational. Which is a reasonable message," said Brian Adams, a SDSU Political Science professor. "But it's a message he's got to communicate to voters. He's got two real problems here. One he doesn't have the money to actually communicate the message."

The other problem rests in a cynical public, according to Adams. Voters have heard the "I've changed" pitch from politicians before, and it may be a difficult case to make. Adams said Aguirre's name recognition might also hurt as much as it helps, especially if voters carry a negative impression into the voting booth.

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