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City Attorney Candidate Defends Support From City's Chief Legal Foe

To many, Cory Briggs’ endorsement of Gil Cabrera for city attorney is an issue because Briggs makes his living collecting legal fees from lawsuits against the city. Why would he want someone to win who would only make it harder for him to make a living?

Attorney Cory Briggs is among the city’s most frequent legal foes. City Attorney candidate Mara Elliott said her opponent Gil Cabrera should have turned down his endorsement.

Cabrera, a former chairman of the city’s Ethics Commission, did not do that. In fact, he’s proud of the endorsement and says his collegial relationship with the city’s most disruptive lawyer will benefit the city once they’re on opposite sides of the table.

In the time since the endorsement, Briggs’ role in the city has only grown. He’s pushing a far-reaching November ballot initiative to raise hotel taxes and remake Mission Valley and East Village while potentially helping the Chargers stay in San Diego with a new convention center-stadium downtown.

So his endorsement of Cabrera has emerged as the biggest criticism of the candidate. And it will follow him into a runoff election if he makes it. Voters will winnow the field of five candidates in June to just two who will compete in November. Cabrera and Port Commissioner Rafael Castellanos are the best funded and have begun releasing television commercials. Cabrera, though, is not shy about his relationship with Briggs.

Elliott, who’s currently a deputy city attorney, said it should trouble voters that Cabrera is unapologetic about his relationship with Briggs. Briggs isn’t interested in solving problems, she said, he’s just looking to collect legal fees with questionable lawsuits.

“The city attorney’s job is to protect taxpayer dollars, and Briggs is an impediment to progressing as a city,” she said.

Briggs sues the city often, challenging everything from the city’s convention center expansion (he won) to a lease extension for a Mission Bay hotel (he lost) to a Jack in the Box construction permit (he lost).

Often following his losses, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s office sends taunting press releases announcing a victory against its rival.

Briggs endorsed Cabrera in July, the same month he and environmental attorney Marco Gonzalez, who often sues the city, held a fundraiser for his campaign. Briggs donated the max-allowed $1,050 to Cabrera; Gonzalez chipped in another $650. (Elliott doesn’t find Gonzalez’s support objectionable; unlike Briggs, she said, he’s willing to negotiate issues with the city before filing suit.)

“Gil asked for my endorsement and said, ‘You understand my goal is to put you out of business,’” Briggs said. “I told him, ‘Godspeed.’”

Cabrera and Briggs met about 10 years ago. Cabrera was chairman of the city’s Ethics Commission; former City Councilwoman Donna Frye introduced them.

They both think their relationship will benefit the city. They think it’ll make it easier to solve problems before they go to court.

“If I tell Cory he’s full of it on an issue, he knows it’s not personal or that I disagree with everything he says,” Cabrera said. “I think he’ll be more inclined to consider my viewpoints than someone who always tells him he’s full of it.”

“He doesn’t play any of this personal shit, the way other people in town do,” Briggs said. “The guy isn’t afraid to sit down with his opposition. He wants to represent his client and solve problems.”

Elliott won the endorsement of the union that represents deputy city attorneys. She said Briggs’ support of Cabrera came up when the union was deliberating who to endorse.

“It goes back to values,” she said. “The public doesn’t know us. They look at endorsements to know who we are. Wearing that endorsement as a badge of honor – it strikes me as wrong because of the role [Briggs] has played in San Diego.”

The city attorneys union, meanwhile, is itself often in an adversarial position with the city, either in labor-contract negotiations or – if those negotiations go poorly – in court.

Cabrera and Briggs say they don’t have much of a professional relationship.

They’ve never been involved in the same case – either on the same side, or as opponents. Their familiarity with each other as lawyers is limited to what they’ve done publicly, and talking shop over beers.

One area their paths have crossed is on the convention center. Cabrera is on the board of the San Diego Convention Center Corporation, which runs the center. Briggs successfully killed a convention center expansion plan that relied on a novel maneuver to raise taxes without voter approval.

Recently, Cabrera broke with many of the hotel owners and tourism officials who have insisted on expanding the convention center at its existing waterfront location. Cabrera said it would be fine to pursue an expansion at a separate, less controversial location.

Stopping a waterfront expansion is one of Briggs’ longtime priorities and one of the goals of his November ballot initiative. Cabrera endorsed the idea of a separate expansion, but stopped short of explicitly endorsing Briggs’ means of achieving it.

To many, Briggs’ endorsement of Cabrera is an issue because he makes his living collecting legal fees from lawsuits against the city.

Why would he want someone to win who would only make it harder for him to make a living?

Briggs and Cabrera got into an exchange on social media recently in which they declared that that was the case. Cabrera said he intended to put Briggs out of business. Briggs said he was counting on it.

Conservative strategist Ryan Clumpner, who is running Deputy District Attorney Robert Hickey’s campaign for city attorney, couldn’t stomach it.

“Guys, you don’t have to keep hawking these tortured explanations of your support,” he wrote.

In an interview, Briggs said it should not be so hard to believe.

“I’m not worried about business, because there are other agencies that are just as bad as the city,” he said. “Well, that’s not true. There are other bad agencies, but the city makes my life easy. It’s sad how easy they make it.”

And Cabrera said he simply takes Briggs at his word: He sues because he wants the city to follow the law.

“He does what he does because he thinks something is incorrect – and obviously he has made a lot of money doing that. To me, good for you if you can make money doing what you believe,” Cabrera said.

He also said he doesn’t always agree with Briggs, but it’s worth remembering that Briggs sometimes wins.

Cabrera pointed to Briggs’ lawsuits over the way the city borrows money for new infrastructure projects as evidence of their disagreements. Cabrera called it “a fairly settled issue in the law for some time.”

He also thought it was ironic that Briggs, in his own November ballot initiative, was relying on a legally novel mechanism to fund a joint convention center-stadium project.

“He always says the city should follow the well-lit path of precedent, and here he is not doing that,” Cabrera said.

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