By Perlita R. Dicochea
A large black and white photo of Robert Kennedy strolling along an Oregon beach hangs in the entrance hallway of Mike Aguirre’s Hillcrest home. The U.S. Constitution is framed next to a window in his office. Stacks of videos and books Aguirre studies include biographies of FDR. These items frame Aguirre’s political inspirations and represent his long-time commitment to issues of social justice.
While an undergrad at Arizona State University, where he studied political science 6-8 hours a day, Aguirre’s introduction to the ideals of American democratic governance was as a volunteer for Robert Kennedy’s campaign. He was also active in the effort to increase Native American enrollment at ASU. By the time Aguirre entered UC Berkeley’s Boalt School of Law, ideas of social justice were already at the forefront of his career decisions and community activism.
“As a result of the civil rights movement and the movements of the 60s, people became more aware of the injustices in the system. People were willing to do something about those injustices. The values of many students changed. Going to college was not just about making money, it was about change,” Aguirre said.
He recalls in a calm and matter-of-fact tone, “Also, with the war in Vietnam, much like Iraq, no one had a clear idea what we were doing. We were at war with the communists but on behalf of who?”
One critical outcome of the questioning of the Vietnam War and domestic inequalities was the effort to connect the interests of American people, or the masses, to governmental processes “and that’s what Robert Kennedy was trying to do,” Aguirre explains.
The ideology of social justice globally and locally became the backbone for his exceptional career as an attorney which involves 30 years as a federal prosecutor, fraud victim trial attorney, municipal law expert, and U.S. Senate investigator and public interest lawyer. Aguirre was also involved in the redistricting of the San Diego School District, which facilitated more fair representation of Latina/o communities.
At the end of a busy workweek, which entails his private practice and campaign activities for City Attorney, Aguirre met with La Prensa in his home office. La Prensa asked Mike Aguirre about his education and the events that made him a nationally admired trial lawyer and promising candidate for San Diego City Attorney. Here is what more he had to say:
La Prensa: How do you remain so optimistic about the pursuit of truly democratic governance?
Aguirre::I think that I was fortunate to have enough success to remain optimistic. Personally I have been able to experience all the good things in our system by being able to go to college, go to law school at Berkeley, and go to Harvard. So someone who didn’t really have a very good start was able to do that. Personally that has been very encouraging. And you know my son is doing very well at the University of Colorado and my daughter is now at Princeton. And then professionally, I think our system is in danger but it is still a just system. I’ve always felt that what’s right about us can correct what’s wrong about us. And I think that there is still more good than there is bad and you just need to make sure that we don’t forget that.
La Prensa: Can you speak a little more to that in terms of San Diego city politics and what you would try to do as City Attorney?
Aguirre: I want to be an attorney for all of San Diego and not merely appointed to carry out the wishes of the manager and city council. I want to make sure that in every decision that I participate in that decision is based on the perspective of what is in the long-term best interest of the people of San Diego. That means that when the people that work for the city government are looking for answers to bigger problems I want to provide those consistent with what the law is but always remembering that our focus is the public interest. Too often our city government has been more concerned about private companies and corporations and people who happen to have a lot of personal wealth at the expense of everybody else. For example, how can we guarantee tickets to the Chargers and do nothing about the challenges that our inner city businesses face? We can work the system and engage in policies that are so obviously unfair to everyone else.
La Prensa: How do you think that things like the Chargers ticket guarantee and Petco Park, which is another issue that you feel strongly about are able to happen?
Aguirre: In the case of both it was really a case of our elected officials not remembering who their primary constituents were. They forgot about their duty. And of course these companies are monopolies and they use monopoly power to pressure the city. And then the city didn’t use as good a negotiator. And so you have a combination of things but the bottom line is that they didn’t put the public interest ahead of the private interest. Our system often functions more like an oligarchy than a democracy.
La Prensa: Considering how well you did in the March primaries, how are you feeling about the November elections?
Aguirre: I think things are going really well. We have a broad cross section of support, democrats and republicans, all different ethnic groups. You know, one thing I’ve learned is never to take any group for granted. You know within the Latino community people might think, “well, you represented César Chávez and the Farm Workers Union when César died and you’ve been active in the Latino community for many years.” But even with all of that I repeatedly think to myself and I’m reminded all the time that you can’t take the Latino community for granted. You have to treat them just like any other group in the election in the sense that they deserve and should receive the same amount of attention. The temptation is to say, “I’m part of the family and so they should just remember to vote for me.” That is a mistake and I’ve never made that mistake. I’ve been very careful. Frankly, part of the reason that I am as successful as I am is that I’ve had the benefit of the overwhelming support from the Latino community.
La Prensa: Can you talk about 1 or 2 moment in your life where you felt like you had to make a major decision in your life? What did that involve and how did that change the course of your life?
Aguirre: I think one major decision was to come back to San Diego. I came back to San Diego after living in the Bay Area. I came back to San Diego after living in the Los Angeles area for a while. I came back to San Diego after living in Washington, D.C. And in each of those cases, I went for a specific reason. But ultimately I made the decision to make San Diego my home. I often wonder what it would have been like if I had gone back to the Bay Area because my political philosophy was a little more progressive than San Diego was in 1980. But here it’s been 24 years of improving the rights of everyday San Diegans and speaking out against the misuse of power on behalf of a small group of people who have had influence in San Diego for too long.
In some ways, San Diego is in the position that Baja and the rest of Mexico was when the PRI was in control for so many years. And after a while that control became so routine that a certain type of corruption set in and a certain type of reform was needed. And I think in some ways that is where San Diego is now. We need to sweep out the old and create a new administration.
La Prensa: Did you face particular challenges living in San Diego with more progressive ideals?
Aguirre: I think it was hard because what I tended to get were the clients that no one else would represent the cases that ended up being the hardest cases. In a way it worked to my advantage because I took the hardest cases and I learned how to work on those cases successfully and I was able to recover over $280 million for victims of fraud. And so in a way, I was able to create a positive reputation with people who desperately needed representation.
La Prensa: What kinds of things did you do in terms of finding a way to win those cases?
Aguirre: One of the things I did was I studied very carefully a person by the name of Herbert Stern who is a great trial practitioner and I learned why successful trial lawyers do the things that they do. I studied that and I continue to study that on a daily basis. I worked very hard to get better. So as the years went by I started to get larger and larger cases and then eventually people started coming to me and they didn’t care about the politics too much. And also, there was a change. San Diego is a much more progressive community than it was 24 years ago.
La Prensa: What advice do you have for young Latinas/os who have similar ideals, similar goals, and want to pursue a traditional education or some kind of private practice?
Aguirre: I think it’s really important to find out what they are good at and to believe that they can be successful by doing what they’re good at. I think the most important thing is to figure out what they really want to do that they are good at. A lot of people get bogged down doing things that they are not good at and they are not happy in their lives. The other thing is to get out of San Diego as much as they can for their education. Go some place else and see the world from a different perspective. It’s good to move through Southwestern College and go to San Diego State but then if you can get beyond that even if it’s to Los Angeles or better yet Northern California or back east and at least get some additional perspective so that you can grow and see that there is a lot more to the world. If you put together an education that gives you an expanded perspective and you try focus on that which you are really good at, I think that is a winning combination.
La Prensa: You went to Harvard for a master’s in public administration after Boalt. When you were at Harvard, is this what you imagined for yourself? Did you have intentions to run for city politics?
Aguirre: That is exactly why I went to Harvard because I could tell in working in government as an attorney that it was good to be an attorney but it wasn’t enough. There is a whole area of expertise having to do with the formulation of policy. In the case of the city attorney’s office or any prosecutor in management, if you decide well we’re going to prosecute more environmental cases or we need to do something about domestic violence when you make those types of decisions those are really policy decisions. Any agency that enforces the law has to know the ways and means for determining optimum results involving regression analysis, management you know there are over 300 people in the city attorney’s office, public management. So it added a great deal to my education.
There are three basic things that I do: As a certified fraud examiner I use auditing, investigation, criminology and law. As a public administrator I use the tools of decision analysis, public administration and management. And then as a lawyer I use the tools of lawyer research and advocacy.
La Prensa: Do you think that throughout your years of activism and private practice that you have changed as a person in some way?
Aguirre: Oh, I think so. I think that to be educated means to arrive at the point of view that you want to make more of yourself everyday. You act and reflect. It means that you want to get stronger. You want to try to get smarter. Everyday is a learning process, a growing process. I think it has helped me to improve as a professional in ways so that I can get more accomplished. I very much look at people like Franklin Roosevelt and I constantly read what he wrote and I try to understand the way he did things. Because as you get out to do things even if it’s in your own way by drawing on others it allows you to adopt what FDR, for example, learned and how he did things to your situation. I look for parallels and lessons that I can draw upon.
La Prensa: Have there been moments in your life that you felt you had to regroup and rebuild that support you had around you?
Aguirre: Sometimes when you get involved in something really controversial, you’ll notice that even if your doing the right thing, a lot of times people will pick up on the stigma that your adversaries are trying to put out. Even now I will find that I meet people that I’ve never even met before and they will have certain stereotypes and you realize that the media has such a huge influence. Every once in a while you really do need to regroup and sometimes you need to walk away and clear the air and just sort of take some time off.
La Prensa: What have been some of those stereotypes, regarding what issues in particular?
Aguirre: I’ve heard people say, “you’re political,” or “you’re insincere.” In other words, there is an effort to discredit. But the good thing is that because now I have followed a very consistent line of attack on these problems I find that a lot of people really believe in me now. They see now that I was trying to do the right thing and looking down the road. The turn of events has proven that some of the things that I was warning about and talking about turned out in fact to be true. And the people that were saying the opposite have now been exposed as not being truthful. And I’ll say that about the Charger’s ticket guarantee, about the financing for Petco ballpark, and the pension plan. Be sure that when you are doing what’s right, don’t let people discourage you. There are battles worth fighting like the education of our kids, discrimination, and environmental pollution that we need to stand up for no matter what.
La Prensa: What are your top goals as city attorney?
Aguirre: The number goal is to restore the financial good name of the City of San Diego. I want to do that by restoring the city attorney’s office to what voters created it to be, which is a fair legal representative of all of San Diego. And I want to create a team of all-star attorneys to protect the interests of the public.
La Prensa: Do you foresee obstacles toward those ends?
Aguirre: I foresee nothing but obstacles. How do you get people to rededicate themselves? How do you get the right group of attorneys? How do you get the government interests to try and think more broadly for the public’s interests? How do we make the transition from what we have now to a better city attorney’s office?
While Mike Aguirre acknowledges these challenges, he says his immediate focus is on the November election. Runner of 19 marathons, Aguirre would not project whether or not he will run for city attorney for yet a second term if he indeed wins in November. “That’s like asking someone in the middle of a marathon to think of their next marathon. Everyone that runs a marathon says to themselves when they hit mile 19 or twenty, ‘I will never run another marathon in my life.’ And then some how you forget and you do it all over again.” The people of San Diego might expect to see Aguirre running marathons as well as for political office for a long time to come.