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Candidates For San Diego City Attorney Emphasize Experience

Photo caption: The candidates running for San Diego city attorney. From left to right: Mara ...

Photo credit: Courtesy Photos

The candidates running for San Diego city attorney. From left to right: Mara Elliot, Gil Cabrera, Rafael Castellanos, Bryan Pease, Robert Hickey.

The four Democrats and one Republican running for San Diego city attorney mostly emphasize their experience over politics. But while the office is meant to be politically neutral, it can still have great influence on city policy.

The race for San Diego city attorney is one of the most competitive in the city this year, with five candidates vying to lead what is often called the most important law firm in town. Along with the race for mayor and City Council District 1, the city attorney's race is likely to determine the partisan direction of San Diego for the next four years.

Mara Elliott

Age:
47
Hometown:
Huntington Beach
Education:
B.A., English and philosophy (core logic), UC Santa Barbara; JD, McGeorge School of Law
Family:
Husband Greg, sons Garrett and Graham, and a mutt named Lily Mae
Career history:
Chief deputy city attorney at the San Diego City Attorney's Office, senior deputy county counsel at County of San Diego, deputy general counsel at San Diego Metropolitan Transit Development Board, attorney to public school districts at Lozano Smith
Other interests:
Home improvement shows, do-it-yourself projects, trains
Fun fact:
Made extra cash during middle school shooting pool

The city attorney traditionally does not advocate policy, instead giving neutral legal advice to San Diego officials and departments. In practice, however, a city attorney's political leanings can manifest themselves in the kind of counsel they give, and the office can have significant influence on policy. The office also prosecutes misdemeanors, including less serious crimes of of domestic violence and fraud.

Mara Elliott, one of four Democrats in the race, already works in the City Attorney's Office as a chief deputy. She advises the City Council's environment and audit committees and worked on the city's landmark Climate Action Plan.

She began her legal career in education and public transit law, then moved to the County Counsel's Office. Since 2009 she has worked for City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, a Republican who cannot run for re-election because of term limits. Elliott said the city attorney cannot be one dimensional, and that her background in municipal law is best suited to the office.

Gil Cabrera

Age:
43
Hometown:
Huntington Beach
Education:
B.A. in political science, minor in English, CSU Fullerton; JD, Boston College
Family:
Wife Krista Cabrera; daughters Maia, 8, and Lisette, 6
Career history:
Luce Forward Hamilton & Scripps LLP, 1997–2000; Cooley Godward LLP, 2000–2007; attorney and owner of The Cabrera Firm, APC, 2007-present. Judge pro tem of the Superior Court, 2007–2014; member, city of San Diego Ethics Commission, 2005-2010.
Other interests:
Big fan of SciFi TV and movies; loves food and enjoys trying new local restaurants
Fun fact:
Drumline captain in high school and licensed pilot since 2003

"We really need to have a knowledge base in just about everything that office does, because things will slip through the cracks if you don't," she said. "We're dealing with very complex issues: Chargers stadium, aging infrastructure, pension reform, police misconduct. You have to have some experience in everything, and I'm the only person in this race that has that."

Gil Cabrera, another Democrat, also said the next city attorney should have a breadth of experience. He runs his own law firm advising small- to mid-sized businesses, serves on the Convention Center board and was the chairman of the San Diego Ethics Commission. He said his work on the Ethics Commission proves he can be truly independent.

Rafael Castellanos

Age:
41
Hometown:
Winnemucca, Nevada
Education:
B.A. in history from Arizona State University; law degree from the University of Chicago Law School
Family:
Angie, Dylan and Ray
Career history:
Port commissioner; real estate and business attorney with Solomon Minton Cardinal Doyle & Smith LLP
Other interests:
Community service, history, hiking
Fun fact:
Worked as a heavy equipment operator in a gold mine after high school

"You have to be able to speak truth to power," Cabrera said. "Sometimes you have to tell a mayor, council and others, 'This is not a road you can go down because there's legal issues, or it's illegal.' That's the difference in terms of my experience versus really anybody else's at the table."

Rafael Castellanos, a Democrat and a San Diego Port commissioner, said the city would benefit more from an attorney with his background in real estate and land use law than a litigator.

"Litigation is not a strategy for an organization to succeed," Castellanos said. "It's something you have to do because of a dispute. But good planning, good strategic operations, good risk management — that's how organizations succeed. And that's the type of approach the city attorney should have as a true general counsel for the city."

Castellanos argued some of the biggest issues facing San Diego — a downtown Chargers stadium, a Convention Center expansion, affordable housing — involve real estate and land use, and that he could provide better legal counsel to city officials on those issues.

Bryan Pease

Age:
38
Hometown:
Liverpool, New York
Education:
Cornell University for undergrad; SUNY Buffalo Law School, including visiting semester at Oxford University
Family:
Brother, 34, is married with two sons (3 and 1 years old) in Syracuse; I am divorced, no kids
Career history:
Has run a public interest law practice in San Diego for more than 10 years
Other interests:
Yoga, surfing, basketball
Fun fact:
Has been to jail several times for nonviolent civil disobedience

A relative latecomer to the race is public interest and environmental lawyer Bryan Pease. He has sued the city of San Diego in the past on free speech rights and protecting the La Jolla seals, and sometimes won. He said he would go against the mayor and City Council when he feels it is necessary, earning him a comparison to combative former City Attorney Mike Aguirre.

Pease, a Democrat, said he would bring a similar philosophy to the City Attorney's Office, but would be much easier to work with.

Robert Hickey

Age:
47
Hometown:
San Diego
Education:
Bachelor's in political science from UCSD; JD, USD Law School
Family:
Wife and two children ages almost 13 and 14
Career history:
Deputy district attorney, San Diego County, 1995-2000; McKenna, Long & Aldridge, 2000-2002; deputy district attorney, San Diego County, 2002-present
Other interests:
Lifelong surfer and Little League coach for nine seasons
Fun fact:
Unapologetic post punk 80s music fan who has passed on the love to his millennial children

The only Republican in the race is Robert Hickey, a deputy district attorney who has prosecuted a number of high-profile murders in the office's gang unit. He said his prosecutorial experience will be important as the City Attorney's Office takes over a growing number of crimes downgraded to misdemeanors under Proposition 47. Beyond his legal experience, he said he would bring the office strong leadership.

"If you power (your deputies), you'll get the best work you can out of your people," Hickey said. "And if they know you have their back and you support them and you're their leader, you'll get better work out of them and create this environment where they'll appreciate their role."

Hickey is endorsed by the San Diego County Republican Party, the conservative Lincoln Club and the San Diego Police Officers Association. He also has the support of Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the four Republicans on the City Council.

The San Diego Democratic Party declined to endorse any of the four Democrats in the race.

Elliott won the endorsements of her colleagues at the San Diego Deputy City Attorneys Association and Save San Diego Neighborhoods, a group that advocates for greater regulation of short-term vacation rentals.

Cabrera is endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters and the Municipal Employees Association.

Castellanos has support from San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association and a number of neighborhood Democratic clubs.

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