Dialogue with Tom Blair
A LAWYER, ONCE HEAD of his own firm; a former mayor; a former state legislator; a law professor; and a judge——Jan Goldsmith’s qualifications for city attorney would seem to be in order. But those looking for order in the race to succeed incumbent Mike Aguirre would be in for some disappointment. It’s a field crowded with two city councilmen, Aguirre himself and a former deputy city attorney who’s suing Aguirre. And it’s likely to go into a November runoff that will be costly. Goldsmith, who won his first elective office two decades ago, says this will be his last. As we head into the June primary, polls show him to have the best chance of ousting the incumbent. Goldsmith, the father of three children, Brett, Scott and Jennifer, recently moved to downtown San Diego’s Little Italy, where he lives with his wife, Christine, who’s also a judge.
TOM BLAIR: The last sitting judge to run for office in San Diego resigned under fire just barely into his second term as mayor. Today, Dick Murphy might be wishing he’d kept his seat on the bench. What compels you to leave the safety and security of a job in the judiciary for the rats’ nest City Hall has become?
JAN GOLDSMITH: It’s the law. That’s my passion. Sometimes politics and the law don’t mix. Maybe that’s what Dick Murphy experienced. But I also enjoy public service and a challenge. And turning the city attorney’s office around will be like running a large law firm; it’s a challenge, and it’s all about the law. But I love being a judge. I’ll be honored if I lose or if I win.
TB: So after two terms you’d quit politics? If you could turn it around in one term, would you quit?
JG: My goal is to turn that office into one of the finest law firms in the country, no matter how long it takes. If I could do that in two months, that would be great. The city attorney’s office can be very instrumental in helping lift San Diego out of its problems by creating an atmosphere that’s conducive to good public policy. Right now, it’s permeated by fear. There’s a lack of training——there is no training in that office. I don’t know how the young lawyers are making decisions.
TB: When you decided to run, did you expect such a large field of contenders?
JG: No. As a matter of fact, I was approached in spring 2007. I thought about it and decided not to run. They came back to me in October——primarily Republicans and business people——and they convinced me. I said, “I’ll do it, but here’s what I’m going to stand for.” And I came up with 10 commitments about independence, being nonpolitical, nonpartisan——you’re not getting a Republican version of Mike Aguirre. This will not be the city-attorney form of government.
TB: Certainly there are some politics involved. And this is not your first bid for elective office. You’ve run successfully for the Poway City Council, mayor of Poway and three terms in the state Assembly. And then there was that losing bid for state treasurer. Do you have the political bug?
JG: Oh, I did. I could walk into a room and come out having raised all sorts of money. I was very good at it. I understand I’m in a political campaign, but it’s the office itself that needs to be nonpolitical. You need to understand the politics, but you do not play in the sandbox of politics. You stay above it.
TB: During your six years in Sacramento, what would you say was your most significant accomplishment?
JG: Juvenile justice, definitely. I chaired the Assembly subcommittee that put together a package of legislation that eventually got into some initiatives. So that, coupled with foster care. I was proud to be named legislator of the year for the Children’s Lobby. I gave the Foster Parents Association a desk in my legislative office. The people I went to bat for in Sacramento were the foster families and foster kids. We got them better reimbursement. We got some more rights for the kids——the Foster Kids’ Bill of Rights. I carried the legislation that eliminated the bias against trans-racial adoption. It was the most satisfying work I did in Sacramento.
TB: What about your ill-fated save-the-ferrets legislation? Did the effort to legalize pet ferrets come back to bite you?
JG: Not at all. I was representing a constituent group. That was just one piece of legislation. I’m okay with people remembering that; I can take a joke. But people were actually put in jail for having pet ferrets. We got [the bill] through the Assembly. But the Department of Fish & Game was adamant they didn’t want that in California——even though in every other state in the continental U.S., ferrets are legal pets.
TB: Well, as a champion of ferrets, do you feel any kinship with Mike Aguirre, the champion of Balboa Park squirrels?
JG: No. But I think Mike also includes a few rats in his protection.
TB: Okay, we’ve covered ferrets, squirrels and rats. Let’s talk about “The Case of the Barona Bedbugs.” In January, an attorney claimed you’d acted unethically when you were a judge. She’d appeared before you representing a client who said she was bitten by bedbugs while staying at Barona. You dismissed the case. She said you’d once taken $1,000 in donations from Barona, so you should have recused yourself. The presiding judge sided with you. The attorney said she’d appeal. Where’s the bedbug brouhaha now?
JG: Well, first, it was rather interesting how that became an issue just about the time I was taking a leave of absence to run for city attorney. Nothing like that had happened in the previous nine and a half years.
TB: So you think it was political.
JG: Either that or a coincidence. I’ve never seen a lawyer hire a Sacramento PR firm, to go out on the Internet and to hold a press conference to bash a judge. Her motion to disqualify me was denied. And the court appeal was dismissed. So the law was very clear.
TB: The incumbent city attorney says his first allegiance is to the citizens of San Diego, not to the elected city officials——especially those he’s called “corrupt” and who, he says, are responsible for the illegal pension benefits that have put our city in fiscal crisis. Who do you say the city attorney should represent?
JG: First, on Mike Aguirre, I believe he is sincere. I’m not an Aguirre-basher. I believe a city attorney’s allegiance is to the people of San Diego; the accountability is to the people. I agree with him on that. But the client has to be the city, not the mayor or city council personally——he represents the city, and he deals with the mayor and city council because they are the elected representatives of the city. We all own the city; it affects us all if the city does well or not. If we didn’t have an attorney for the city, then the city would be a multibillion-dollar municipal organization that would have no legal guidance.
TB: So where do you draw the line when you believe the leaders may have been corrupt?
JG: If I see the law being broken, it’s my job to stop it. Number one, I give clear legal advice up front; show them where that line is. And then watch them. I’m not an attack dog; I’m not a lap dog. I’m a watchdog. And as they get closer to crossing that line, I push them back. But if I have a real criminal as my client, and they cross the line, I cannot just look the other way. So I represent the city; I do not represent these individuals. And if I need to prosecute them and send them to jail, that’s what I do to protect my city. Do I go hold a press conference? That’s not what a prosecutor does. I gather the evidence and march over to the district attorney, or attorney general, or the U.S. attorney’s office. I simply stop the city from committing crimes.
TB: Mike Aguirre came in for heavy criticism when he turned up on the scene of last year’s La Jolla landslide to talk to residents, and then again last year when he waded in on the city’s responsibilities in the wake of the wildfires. What’s wrong with a city attorney stepping forward when a city’s in crisis?
JG: Again, this is not a city-attorney form of government, okay? This is a civil matter, this landslide. It’s not a criminal case that should be reported to the U.S. attorney or attorney general. The city attorney is not is a civil engineer or soils engineer or geologist. So the city attorney should be the adult in the room and say, “Look, until we have all the information, let’s not discuss what caused this, because we don’t know.” Then, when the information comes in from the professionals, the city attorney should sit down with the insurers——you do not want to jeopardize the city’s insurance——you sit down with the council and mayor and give them advice and work as a team. Do you stand up at a citizens’ meeting and talk about your city’s responsibility? No, that is not your role.
TB: But his supporters see him as the white knight, the only one out there battling for them. Why do you think that is?
JG: Because, I believe, we went from one extreme to the other. Before Mike was there, we seemed to have a lot of laxity. And we had some city council decisions that were inconsistent with the law. Read the Kroll report; it reads like a horror story. I think a lot of people remember the way it was, and there’s a lot of distrust of the city. So a lot of people appreciate Mike. And I believe in his sincerity. I believe he believes what he’s doing is right. I think he’s just gone beyond the scope of a city attorney, and he’s denied the city legal advice. What I dislike most is the way he’s run the office. He’s taken away the professionalism from the attorneys. He’s instructed them to file law suits when they don’t even believe there’s a basis for the lawsuits.
TB: A recent news report put the number of attorneys who’ve either resigned or been dismissed by the city attorney’s office at 82. Other reports have gone as high as 109. The incumbent says that’s just been a process of weeding out incompetents. Is that sort of turnover good for the city’s law firm?
JG: I think the number is closer to 120. And no, it’s not good for the city’s law firm. When you bring someone in, you’ve got to train them. And then you’ve got to supervise them. You want an understanding of your authority and your discretion, and you have to have confidence in these people. You don’t micromanage them and have them walk into court as robots. Training takes time. And [Aguirre has] eliminated the training program. So it frustrates them. It frustrates the judges when they’re trying to do settlements. And it frustrates the other attorneys. I’ve had many attorneys tell me they’ve [tried to deal] with the deputy city attorneys, but the deputies don’t have the ability to deal with opposing lawyers because they have to run back to Mike Aguirre on everything. And then it sits on Mike’s desk for days.
TB: Well, there are those who say you have little basis for evaluating the proper management of a law office——that, because of your political ambitions, you’ve had very little experience in a law office for the past 20 years. How do you answer that?
JG: I have been a lawyer for 34 years. I was part of a big law firm, and when I left I was the senior associate. Then we started our own law firm; I ran the firm, and we had 50 employees and 25 lawyers. I was able to turn to public service because I was successful in running a law firm. As a judge, I’m always called upon to assess the work of lawyers in front of me. I also teach in all three [local] law schools. I think I have a pretty good idea of what it takes, and I also have a good idea of what a good case is and what a lousy case is.
TB: Polls have shown you to be the strongest candidate to unseat the incumbent. The Republicans released one poll showing you beating Aguirre 52 percent to 29 percent in a one-on-one race. But first, there is the matter of a primary next month. Do you expect to win the race to challenge Aguirre again in the fall?
JG: Lucky me, that I have those numbers. Truthfully, I was not all that happy to see those poll results, because now I have a big target on my back. I’ll give you a nonpolitical answer: I have no idea what will happen on June 3. But no matter what happens, I’ll be blessed, because win or lose, I’m doing what I love doing.
TB: How do you assess the other three contestants in the race: Scott Peters? Brian Maienschein? Amy Lepine? Who’s strongest, and why?
JG: Scott Peters, no question. The polls I’ve seen show Scott and me about 4 points apart. Brian was way down there. Amy Lepine is a practicing lawyer and has worked in that office. I don’t know Brian Maienschein’s background as a lawyer.
TB: What about the money side of this? Peters can fund his own campaign to the tune of millions. Aguirre has done that once. Maienschein’s got a nice war chest. In the last report I saw, you hadn’t raised much money. What’s happening there?
JG: I’ll tell you, if it’s all about money, I will not be in the runoff. If that’s what the people want from a city attorney——that it’s about your ability to raise money——I will not be in the runoff. I’ll have a campaign that’s effective, but I won’t have a lot of TV commercials. So people are going to have to read a little bit and figure it out.
TB: And if you do win, is this where elective office stops for Jan Goldsmith? Or might we have a Goldsmith-for-mayor campaign four years down the road? Are you willing to make a Sherman statement?
JG: Yes. I won’t run again. I have no interest in starting another political career. I don’t want to be a legislator. I don’t want to be a mayor. I’ve done that. So no, absolutely not!
TB: Okay. I believe you.