By Doug Porter
San Diegans don’t have a general election contest for mayor in 2016, and four of the five seats up for grabs on the City Council are already taken. But we do get to vote on City Attorney, and this happens to be an important contest.
The June primary winnowed down the field to Mara Elliott, currently serving as Chief Deputy City Attorney under CA Jan Goldsmith and Robert Hickey, a Deputy District Attorney under County DA Bonnie Dumanis.
Elliott has been endorsed by her Democratic primary opponents and has the support of the party apparatus. Hickey has the active support of Republicans in town save one: his boss.
Why the City Attorney Contest Matters
It’s safe to say that 90% (or maybe more) of the matters handled by the City Attorney’s office are mundane. They provide legal advice to the Mayor and City Council (except when outside counsel gets hired), prosecute misdemeanor offenses, and defend the city when it gets sued.
The office gets political when it comes to the city’s relationships with quasi-private entities (like the tourism industry’s marketing outfit). Over the years these types of arrangements have become an increasingly common way to extend government functionality under the aegis of “partnerships.”
It’s hard to tell whether dog wags the tail or vice versa in these relationships. The Hospitality Cartel tied San Diego in knots when a certain now-unmentionable mayor tried to reign them in. Neighborhood Main Street-type groups utilize public funding for street fairs and the like. I’m not saying it’s all bad. I’m saying there’s plenty of room for abuse.
A neighborhood may turn to a business improvement district for street cleaning. Or a community parking district may receive a portion of meter revenue revenues to run a lunchtime trolley.
The point here is that all these relationships are shaped by legal guidance. And that guidance comes from the city attorney’s office. It’s safe to say every San Diegan is affected by these relationships.
It’s also true that, by virtue of it’s prosecutorial/investigative functions, the City Attorney is part of law enforcement. There is an us-vs-them mentality throughout many of these agencies. On one level it’s there because bad people do bad things and sometimes it doesn’t make sense to be as transparent as the public might like.
Lately, in San Diego and around the country, the dark side of the us vs them outlook has surfaced. Whether it’s suicides in local jails, videos of unarmed humans being shot, or a chain of command that countenanced sexual harassment and abuse, all of these are facilitated by the “blue wall.”
The City Attorney is connected to this world by virtue of their need for a broad range of cooperation. A good person in the top job can keep an eye out for the public interest. Or they can bury unpleasantries.
As I explained in my first article about this race back in December 2015:
There 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.
The incumbent City Attorney has not endorsed in this contest, though I’m told he thought about endorsing Elliot after the Lincoln Club ran ads portraying him as the bad guy. (What can I say, Jan? They’re sharks. You’re retiring.)
The incumbent District Attorney hasn’t endorsed either, as noted above. Hickey is in perpetual purgatory for not playing nice with Ms. Dumanis during her campaign for re-election. And one source tells me Hickey also has his eyes on her job in 2018.
Mara Elliott, On the Inside Track
Mara Elliott’s selling point throughout the campaign has been that she’s ready, by virtue of her experience in the City Attorney’s office, to hit the ground running.
Her victory in the primary came as a surprise to the many observers (including yours truly) predicting her Democratic (and male) opponents’ slugfest would decide the race. And maybe it did. Just not in the way some folks imagined.
I have to give all the candidates in the primary contest for City Attorney credit for the effort they made to get in front of people. It was hard to keep track of all the debates, forums, and other events they jointly participated in.
In the end, I think fourth place candidate Gil Cabrera hit the nail on the head in an interview with the Times of San Diego on the night of the election:
He said her best line of the campaign was she just needs to “move her office down the hall a little bit.”
Elliott’s experience as the leader of the City’s legal team responsible for reforming contracting practices and role as advisor for the City’s independent Audit Committee give credibility to her “I don’t need training wheels” claim. It’s also significant that she’s not portraying the job of City Attorney as some kind of leader in the fight against crime.
Instead, the Chief Deputy City Attorney is pushing a hundred day plan with a reasonable amount of specifics aimed at increasing involvement and transparency with –gasp!– the citizenry.
In Elliott’s interview with the editors of the Union-Tribune prior to the primary, she listed off things important in her as reasons for wanting to be City Attorney:
What I want to focus on again is restoring our Neighborhood Prosecutor Program. And having deputies working within communities and building trust. The other thing I want to focus on is making sure that we are cracking down on providers to the city of San Diego. And ensuring that when we hire for instance a contractor, that we’re getting what we expect and going after contractors that don’t deliver. And bringing back as much money as we can into the city. Because the more we bring in, the better we can offer on services. And then finally, one of the biggest things that’s driving me to run, is the potential to deliver services to ordinary people. I want to restore that confidence in our office and protect consumers within San Diego. Crack down on domestic violence, elder abuse, child abuse. We’ve got that power in our office to do that. And I’m looking forward to delivering.
For More Information:
Robert Hickey, Insider in a Different Way
The first thing Robert Hickey wants voters to know is that he is “veteran prosecutor for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office.”
A graduate of Poway High School and UCSD, Hickey has been around San Diego for four decades. He’s tough, going after gangs, narcotics, and murderers. He was twice elected as President of the San Diego County Deputy District Attorneys Association.
Here’s a portion of Hickey’s answer to the Union-Tribune editors about his motivations for seeking the City Attorney position:
I went into public service as a prosecutor, a deputy DA here in San Diego. I’ve been doing that for much of the last 20 years. I was drawn to gang prosecution. The gang problem in the late ’80s and early ’90s was tremendous. I saw what a disproportionate impact gang crime had on certain neighborhoods. Our office had a philosophy of going after gang crime. I was the assistant chief for the gang unit. I’ve been the Prosecutor of the Year for a gang prosecution of the killer of two innocent women who were shot and killed coming home from a midnight church service. As assistant chief of the gang unit I led 30 attorneys close to 30 attorneys in numerous murder and other investigations. I really wanted to make sure we work hard in the Southeast San Diego community and protect that community. All of our communities deserve the same attention and the same protection. I was assistant chief of our narcotics unit and I was also the president of the Deputy District Attorneys Association, 300 lawyers. It’s no secret lawyers are difficult to lead. Lawyers are all leaders themselves they all have a lot of opinions. So it’s a unique challenge. And the city attorney of course faces that challenge with 150 lawyers to lead. I also was in private practice at a major national law firm now part of the largest law firm in the world where I led a massive litigation of a $330 million Ponzi scheme case. I also worked on land-use issues where I ended up reading every lawsuit filed against Qualcomm expansion, a convention center expansion part one, and then Petco. So I got a real taste for what the city attorney does.
There sure were a lot of semantic trigger words in there, don’t you think? The word “gang” appears seven times.
I wonder what image appears in a Donald Trump voter’s mind when that word gets said? I’ll bet it’s not Bernie Madoff.
Let’s take a gander at his 18 months in the private sector.
From Voice of San Diego:
Deputy District Attorney Robert Hickey’s case to become San Diego’s next city attorney has hinged heavily on his plans to fix the city’s system for prosecuting crimes.
It’s not a surprising angle: as a veteran prosecutor, that’s where he has the most experience.
But for a brief period 15 years ago, Hickey left the DA’s office for private practice and represented JMI Realty and the San Diego Padres in their attempts to ward off litigation in order to finish building Petco Park.
So, um, he can put bad guys in jail and help get a stadium built. He’d probably say that’s an unfair assessment, but from my point of view, all this ‘law and order’ stuff has gotten us exactly nowhere.
I’d write more about his stances on issues, but his campaign website’s issues page says “Coming Soon.”
I want to know if has the political courage to investigate (hint, hint) the city’s business improvement districts. Or the ‘special relationships’ between developers and the city.
Somehow I don’t think so.
From the San Diego Reader:
Thomas Sudberry threw a $23,440 fundraiser for Republican city attorney candidate Robert Hickey, who is facing off against Democrat Mara Elliott in November. Sudberry’s wife Jane did the same, according to an April 28 lobbyist disclosure filing.
For more information:
Hickey has the endorsements of Mayor Kevin Faulconer, County Supervisor Ron Roberts, the four Republicans on the city council, several law enforcement unions, the Republican party and the Lincoln Club…
…Hickey has been endorsed by the Police Officers Association, the County Sheriff’s Association and the Deputy District Attorney’s Association.
The Big Debate- September 24
Mara Elliott and Robert Hickey will take part in a debate on Saturday, September 24th at Voice of San Diego’s Politifest.
The Race to Become City Attorney
Theater, 3:30-4:30 p.m.
Moderated by Wendy Fry, NBC 7
Democrat Mara Elliott and Republican Robert Hickey are running for city attorney, a position that can greatly influence the course of city politics. They’ll go head to head in a debate moderated by NBC’s Wendy Fry.
Notes: Our endorsements will be included in our General Election Progressive Voter Guide, published shortly after mail-in ballots are delivered in October.
Other San Diego Free Press coverage of the 2016 general election.
Tomorrow: The sole contest for Board of Supervisors. We’ll be writing about various state and local contests Monday-Friday for the next five weeks.
Key Dates for the November 8, 2016 General Election –> pic.twitter.com/uEQEgPKHRk
— CA SOS Vote (@CASOSvote) September 12, 2016
On This Day: 1788 – The Constitutional Convention decided that the first federal election was to be held on Wednesday the following February. On that day George Washington was elected as the first president of the US. In addition, New York City was named the temporary national capital. 1926 – The Post Office Department ordered 25,000 railway mail clerks to shoot to kill any bandits attempting to rob the mail. 1971 – In New York, National Guardsmen stormed the Attica Correctional Facility and put an end to the four-day revolt. A total of 43 people were killed in the final assault.
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