Why the 2016 Race for City Attorney Matters

by on December 31, 2015 · 2 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, History, Politics, San Diego

By Doug Porter

jan goldsmithThere is no more important local electoral contest than the race for City Attorney. This relatively obscure office has been the part of government where dreams come to die, the priorities of the modern-day landed gentry are enforced, and the political will of the city’s business interests is turned into policy.

Incumbent City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, elected in 2008, deserves credit for molding his agency into a politically powerful entity. While his record is far from spotless, the more general thrust of developing a well-coordinated keeper of the flame for business interests has proven to be a valuable asset for the local moneyed classes.

Today we’ll take a sneak peak at the four candidates vying to replace Goldsmith, along with my general assessment of where they stand in relation to preserving the status quo.

The City Attorney Does What?

Under the San Diego City Charter, only two officials are elected “at large” by all the voters: the Mayor and the City Attorney. I’d include quotes from the City’s website in this story about the role of the city’s chief legal officer, but–surprise!–the municipal website is down.

So I’ll go with quoting a 2008 County Grand Jury report:

...it is the City Attorney’s responsibility:

  • to advise the elected representatives, and the city’s subordinate departments and agencies, on the legal ramifications of city business,
  • to defend the actions of the Municipal Corporation in court when necessary,
  • to afford city officials attorney-client confidentiality (except as modified by California Government Code §54950.5 – the Ralph M. Brown Act), and
  • to perform such other duties as the City Charter or the Council may direct. This last point may include such matters as initiating lawsuits and prosecuting misdemeanor offenses.

Here’s the job description given in a recent Union-Tribune article about the 2016 contest:

The city attorney plays a key role in land-use decisions, misdemeanor prosecutions, city financial policies and enforcing city laws, such as San Diego’s medical marijuana ordinance.

Note the words “land use decisions” and “financial policies.” Much will be made about the City Attorney’s role as a prosecutor in the upcoming months. This Voice of San Diego article explains the prosecutorial workload.

The real important work of the office has everything to do with money.

Two things led to the increased importance of the City Attorney’s office: the transition by San Diego into a strong-mayor form of governance and former CA Mike Aguirre’s “wild-card” tenure from 2004-2008.

The Fall of Mike Aguirre

Mike_Aguirre_tx700Aguirre had the notion that his role was to represent what he saw as the best interests of the general population of San Diego. This was heresy as far as just about anybody with a vested interest in the way things worked in the past.

Aguirre, who won the election by promising to “clean up the mess” resulting from a series of scandals, found himself scorned for taking on causes outside the traditional cases handled by the City Attorney. The meme “Mike is out of control” gained prominence in bipartisan circles, encouraged, in part, by some ill-informed reporting and a Union-Tribune editorial board loyal to developers’ causes.

Then-Judge Jan Goldsmith, whose background included terms as Mayor of Poway and as a State Assemblyman, stepped down from the bench to run against Aguirre. With the backing of local Republicans (Democrats supported Scott Peters in the primary), Goldsmith ended up winning a run-off against Aguirre in the November 2008 general election.

I became personally familiar with Goldsmith in 2010, when he threatened a then-client at the Linkery restaurant with fines and jail for charging a fixed service charge instead of tipping. The Linkery was far from perfect, but the attempt to change the pay system was revolutionary for San Diego. Now, of course, it’s becoming a mainstream idea.

It was clear to me at the time that Goldsmith was sending a message from others in the hospitality industry not to rock the boat regarding the status quo of how things were supposed to be done. The case was later dropped. I’m sure the decision of Linkery owner Jay Porter (no relation) to go to the media with the threat played a role in that decision.

Filner’s Chaos Creates Opportunity

filner presserThe election of Democratic Bob Filner as Mayor in 2012 presented Goldsmith with his greatest challenge and opportunity. Filner went public with his disapproval of the City Attorney regarding the prosecution of activist Jeff Olson for chalking anti-bank slogans on city sidewalks outside Bank of America branches and from there things went downhill.

It is an article of faith in some circles that Goldsmith was plotting to undermine Filner even before the inauguration. The then-Mayor’s combative relationship with various downtown interests started on day one of his administration and Goldsmith actively opposed Filner’s actions.

As it turned out, the former mayor had plenty of ammunition to hand the assholes looking to gun him down.

From the San Diego Reader:

Long before any sexual harassment allegations surfaced, Goldsmith and Filner sparred publicly over several issues. To curry favor, Goldsmith turned to the media. He communicated with reporters on his private email account. His office produced transcripts from closed-session meetings in order to show Filner’s erratic behavior and mistreatment of Goldsmith’s assistant city attorney at the time, Andrew Jones.

But it is Goldsmith’s loose lips with the press about Filner’s alleged sexual misconduct that Tyler and Ragazzino’s attorney says should come back to bite the city.

In a November 2013 article in the Los Angeles Times Goldsmith admitted that by February 2013, nearly four months before Ragazzino’s and Tyler’s visit with Filner occurred, Goldsmith said he believed that the mayor was in need of “therapy.” In that same article, he took credit for what he called was a “de-facto impeachment.”

With a brief bit of history under our belts, let’s take a quick look at the candidates seeking the City attorney’s office in 2016. (There will be more detailed coverage later in the year, I promise.)

Tough on Crime

robert hickeyThere’s only one Republican in this race: Robert Hickey, a prosecutor with the county District Attorney’s Office. The city’s GOP stalwarts and law enforcement associations are firmly in his camp. The Lincoln Club and the Republican Party of San Diego are expected to provide major support for his campaign.


Hickey’s current boss, DA Bonnie Dumanis, isn’t so enthusiastic, probably because he failed to endorse her re-election effort last time around. Despite her proclamations to the contrary, the County District attorney is a very political animal.

Why Do We Vote for This?

mara elliotMara Elliott currently works as deputy City Attorney. A recent UT profile describes her as “a Goldsmith lieutenant who helped reform city contracting policies.” Her endorsers include John Witt, who served as San Diego city attorney from 1969 to 1996, former state Sen. Christine Kehoe, City Councilwoman Marti Emerald, the Run Women Run political organization and the San Diego’s Deputy City Attorneys Association.

From Voice of San Diego:

Although he was voted out of office four years later, the power and prominence of the office had been revealed, and it hasn’t been the same since. Jan Goldsmith, Aguirre’s successor, ran on a plank of taking politics out of the office. But he hasn’t bowed completely to do the bidding of the mayor and City Council.

His chief deputy city attorney, Mara Elliott, wants to go, it seems, a bit further and clarify that the city attorney is quite simply the legal counsel for the mayor and City Council. The Democrat doesn’t even think it should be an elected office.

A Well-Connected Charmer

via Point Loma Democratic Club

via Point Loma Democratic Club

Port Commission board member Rafael Castellanos has been endorsed by a number of constituency groups, including Democratic clubs serving Pacific Beach, Hillcrest, North Park and Chula Vista, along with some Latino groups, and the Neighborhood Market Association. Big name politico endorsers include: Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, State Sen. Ben Hueso, Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas, National City Mayor Ron Morrison and Marne Foster, San Diego Unified School District school board member.

I’ve seen him in action (charming!) at political gatherings and have a sense that he’s the mainstream Democrat in this race. Here’s snip from an intro from a Voice of San Diego podcast:

…he is making a clear, land-use, urbanist case for his campaign to become the next city attorney.

Land-use decisions, development and construction projects are the heart of City Hall and he’s just the guy to make sure they get done, he says.

“That’s sort of the bread and butter of any municipality of any sort of local government is getting projects completed successfully. That’s sort of the meat and potatoes of the city — planning. You would think that you would want your general counsel your city attorney to have expertise in those areas,” he said.

Welcome to San Diego Politics. Need a Hanky?

There is, however, the Episode In The Past to contend with. Castellanos was accused of sexual harassment by a former employee at the Solomon Ward law firm. A settlement occurred. Castellanos paid nothing as part of that deal and says he was vindicated. Liam Dillon at the Voice of San Diego wrote about it. The law firm’s insurance company apparently did pay something, while admitting no wrongdoing.

Here’s where things get freaky. Supposedly the (Very Republican) Lincoln Club has circulated an internal memo naming Castellanos as the candidate they’d most like to beat in the general election. The idea is that they’d do mailers comparing him to Bob Filner.

And then there is bizarre “the Voice of San Diego is racist” video campaign being waged by long time Democrat and civil rights activist Kathleen Harmon. As far as I can tell, this effort –which appears to have outside financial support– is the result of VOSD’s story on Castellanos.

My informed guess is that the candidate has nothing to do these videos, which ask viewers to call VOSD and demand Dillon be fired as the leader of racism in San Diego. What makes these accusations bizarre is Dillon’s track record on big stories about racial profiling and community policing. It’s hardly the kind of stuff you’d expect to see from a local version of Donald Trump or David Duke.

Not Likely to Be Endorsed by Jerry Sanders


Lastly (for today), there’s Attorney Gil Cabrera, who appears to be the progressive in this race. Endorsers include City Councilman Todd Gloria, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, San Diego School Board member Kevin Beiser, former Mayor Dick Murphy, the Judicial Advisory Committee, attorney Cory Briggs and Steve Cushman, chairman of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation.

Cabrera helped re-write the city’s lobbying ordinance as chairman of the San Diego Ethics Commission. Former Mayor Jerry Sanders refused to appoint him for a second term, which ought to tell you something.

He was hired as outside counsel by the Ethics Commission in its investigation into an effort by developer Fred Mass to dig up and disseminate derogatory information about Carl DeMaio prior to the June 2012 Mayoral primary.

True crime author and ex-UT reporter Caitlin Rother, was hired as an “independent investigative reporter” and tried unsuccessfully to peddle stories to local publications. She and Maas’ group settled the case by filing a financial disclosure statement

Records from that case remain under seal and this tidbit from the UT’s breaking story on the case gives a clue as to why:

Those working on the project behind the scenes included a top aide to then-Mayor Jerry Sanders and at least three other people with ties to the mayoral campaign of Nathan Fletcher, although Fletcher denies any involvement.

I’m eagerly looking for to the candidates financial filings at the end of January. As was true with the race for County District Attorney, rumors abound in this contest about dark money, shady characters, and deceptive tactics.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie December 31, 2015 at 7:33 am

A couple of notes – Aguirre lost the respect of progressives and labor when he tried to demonize city workers.

Also the U-T ran a piece a couple of weeks ago making comparisons of how liberal or conservative local pols were; Mara Elliott was ranked as the most liberal of all ….


Captain America December 31, 2015 at 4:49 pm

Thanks a lot U-T, us voters would be lost without convenient labels on the candidates.


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