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Sunday's startling endorsement by the Union-Tribune of Democrat Mike Aguirre for San Diego city attorney seems to have turned conventional wisdom on its head. But there is a big reason behind the U-T's seeming madness, according to newspaper insiders: the death of publisher Helen Copley. This March, just before the city's primary election, the U-T disdained Democrat Aguirre, long the bane of GOP billionaire Alex Spanos, who was Copley's favorite football team owner. "Unfortunately, Aguirre, feasting on popular dissatisfaction with city government, is the front-runner," fumed the paper's editorialists. "Aguirre would wind up costing the city money rather than saving it money. At a recent candidates' forum, Aguirre said he would sue City Council members if they met in closed session against his advice. That's a good example of his failure to understand the city attorney's real responsibilities."

On Sunday, the paper swung 180 degrees: "Aguirre promises to be a spur for open government. One of the reasons the city is in this mess is that the mayor and council have conducted far too much of the people's business behind closed doors, suppressing bad news and sidestepping public scrutiny as serious problems have festered." Observers note that the U-T's sea change, one of the biggest flip-flops in local political history, follows the August demise of 81-year-old Helen Copley. Though the paper has said that its traditional right-of-center spin would continue under her son David, the Aguirre endorsement suggests otherwise. Aguirre's foe is Leslie Devaney, a born-again Christian and a conservative GOP stalwart like her boss, termed-out incumbent Casey Gwinn. Though Republican, David Copley, 52, quietly gave $5000 to left-leaning gubernatorial candidate Arianna Huffington, even as his mother's paper was endorsing Republican movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger. And Copley is far less a fan of the gridiron than of Tiffany lamps and the Manhattan theater scene; he's also the world's biggest collector of Christo, the artist famous for wrapping buildings in fabric shrouds. Others note that ideology isn't all that's at work: over the past 15 years, Copley has had more than his share of brushes with the law, including three drunk-driving cases gingerly handled by the city attorney. With Aguirre seen as the likely victor, the thinking goes, Copley is assured that he has a decent chance of being on the right side of the new incumbent.

Paying off The date was October 20, 1998, shortly before the Padres played the New York Yankees in the World Series. Then-San Diego port commission chairman David Malcolm and Mayor Susan Golding took the microphone at a press conference called to announce that Malcolm had arranged for the port district to provide $21 million for the new downtown baseball stadium proposed by Padres owner John Moores. The money was in addition to the hundreds of millions that the city had agreed to give to the wealthy tycoon from Texas who lived in Rancho Santa Fe. In 2000, the deal was challenged in court by former port commissioner Harvey Furgatch. He charged that the transfer of money from the port to the city was an illegal gift of public funds made as a favor by Malcolm to his pal Golding. Since then, two local judges have attempted to thwart Furgatch's suit on technicalities, but each time the state appellate court has reversed them and sent it back for trial, which is now expected to happen early next year, according to Stan Zubel, Furgatch's attorney.

Meanwhile, Zubel notes, the port has already paid at least $16 million of the $21 million to the city and has become proud owner of the so-called "Tailgate Park," which the Padres control as part of their deal with the city. The port is only making about 3 percent a year from the deal, Zubel says; that cash is going into an escrow account pending resolution of the Furgatch challenge. Meanwhile, in January 2002, Malcolm, once the high-flying friend of such powerful politicos as ex-assembly speaker and San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, pleaded guilty to felony conflict-of-interest charges involving his financial relationship with Duke Energy, the big power company that was seeking to take over the port-owned power plant on the waterfront in Chula Vista. Malcolm subsequently sued the port district over the Duke matter, alleging that he had been provided bad legal advice by port attorney David Chapman. That case is set for trial this fall. But Malcolm -- who paid $260,000 in fines and costs, did 80 days in a so-called work furlough program, and is still on three years' probation for his felony conviction -- is still making some pretty big deals. The well-wired real estate man and mortgage broker just purchased a condo in downtown's posh Meridian tower, home to such local political luminaries as attorney John Davies, a close advisor to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and ex-governor Pete Wilson, among other top Republicans. Who sold Malcolm the well-appointed digs? None other than Jennifer Ann Moores, daughter of the Padres' owner. According to a deed recorded on September 14, Malcolm and wife Annie forked over $3.1 million for the swanky unit.

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