San Diego’s longtime District Attorney goes full politician, facing her first contested election in a decade.
San Diego’s District Attorney is a bit of a trailblazer. In a way, Bonnie Dumanis is sort of a rags-to-riches story, going from secretarial work to attorney to judge, and in 2002 she was chosen by the electorate to become the top law enforcement official in all of San Diego County, beating Paul Pfingst to become the DA. And oh-by-the-way: She’s the first openly gay person to be elected District Attorney in the nation.
She’s been a relatively popular and prominent figure in San Diego ever since. She cruised to reelection in 2006 and again in 2010, running unopposed each time, making the 2012 mayoral election the first contested race she has participated in since first winning the DA’s office a decade ago. It speaks to the confidence the residents of San Diego County have in her. Other than a few hiccups here and there (one incident in particular), her tenure as District Attorney has been fairly controversy free. She has been a well known, well respected figure in San Diego, and now she’s running for Mayor.
And that’s basically her pitch in a nutshell: “You know me.” She carries the sort of name recognition and public persona that is incredibly difficult to achieve. Her reputation is certainly enviable as far as politicians go. She is a known entity. San Diego has trusted her explicitly for almost a decade.
Her tenure has been mostly apolitical. Really, though, the measure of a good DA should be someone who sticks to the law and does their job fighting crime without prejudice. Justice is blind, as they say, and everyone deserves to be treated equally under the law. That’s basically how she’s handled the job, and judging by the way no one’s seen fit to challenge her as DA, San Diego feels pretty comfortable about that too.
And yet being Mayor of the second largest city in the largest state in the Union is quite a bit different with an entirely different set of challenges than those presented to the District Attorney. Being mayor presents a whole new set of political tests that as DA she’s never really had to confront. While there are some politics involved with being the District Attorney, it’s mostly about judgment and following the law. We really don’t know nearly as much about Bonnie Dumanis’ politics as we do about the other three major candidates, because rightfully that’s not the role she played. And that’s what makes her one of the most intriguing candidates in this year’s mayoral race.
We do know Bonnie Dumanis. We trust her. But do we really know what kind of mayor she’d make?
Policy position wise—with some exceptions—she’s a moderate, right leaning politician (very refreshing for a declared Republican candidate in today’s environment). She supports Prop B, the pension plan overhaul written by her Republican opponent, Carl DeMaio. Her contention is that cities in general can simply no longer afford to continue to provide the same level of benefits. “I went to Houston for an LGBT conference. All the municipal leaders were in one room, and the number one topic of discussion was pension reform,” she said.
In the past, she said, “people took jobs in public service to get the security of retirement as opposed to taking the risk of making a lot of money.” But because of the current job market, she says governments no longer need to offer such retirement packages in order to compete with private sector employers. “We hired 20 lawyers last year (in the DA’s office), and 500 lawyers, most of them out of jobs, applied for that.”
“You can’t get in the private market right now that high salary, so you’re not sacrificing that” by choosing the public sector over the private sector, she said.
The initiative, she says, allows for the purchase of an annuity. “There are several big firms where the employees can pool their money and purchase an annuity that will give them a steady stream of income that can look like a defined benefit.” The city would put in up to 9.5%, and the employees themselves could put in more, and the risk would be shifted from the city to the employees themselves.
Even if the stock market were to collapse like it did in 2008, she says that these companies are strong enough to make it through a financial meltdown. So the risk for the employees is essentially minimal.
“Borrowing is not the answer. It will cost more money by borrowing than you will by doing this.”
She also notes that the pay freeze in the reform plan only applies to pensionable salaries. City workers would still be eligible for cash bonuses, which do not count against what gets paid out in pensions.
Dumanis also wants to be a reformer on education in San Diego. Her plan calls for the appointment of four additional school board members, bringing the total to nine. Those members would be chosen from a list provided by the presidents of SDSU, USD, the San Diego Community College District, the Chancellor of UCSD, and representatives chosen by a parent advisory group. The mayor would then choose from that list of names the four appointees for the school board.
Dumanis wants to be clear, though, that her plan does not constitute a mayoral takeover, but rather a way to get more people involved in the education system. She also wants to see the school district cut costs by switching from traditional text books to electronic text books, which she says are far less expensive, and create partnerships with private foundations to make sure that every student has internet access at home and either a netbook or tablet computer such as an iPad to use. This would also help to advance and enhance the San Diego Unified School District’s i21 Interactive Classroom program.
As the District Attorney, Dumanis has come under fire for the increased enforcement of marijuana laws, and the closure of the city’s marijuana dispensaries. That blame, she says, is misplaced. “The police investigate the crimes and then they come to us.” She says that it’s the US Attorney enforcing federal regulations and the City Attorney through nuisance abatement laws that have been more directly involved in the crackdown and not the DA’s office. “We have not been involved in this for quite some time.”
“I support the Compassionate Use Act,” Dumanis said. “I have friends who have had terminal diseases that have used it and it has provided them great relief.”
“What I don’t support is the selling and dealing in our neighborhoods.” She said that the law was changed to make it “murkier” with regards to collectives and cooperatives, but where the law draws the line, according to Dumanis, is in the sale of marijuana strictly for profit. “The law doesn’t provide for making money just selling marijuana.”
“In our office we have never prosecuted someone who was just a patient,” Dumanis insisted. The law as it exists on the books, she said, allows for individuals to obtain a medical recommendation for use, and for that individual or their doctor to be able to grow their own marijuana plants, which she says she supports.
Acknowledging a backlog in infrastructure projects within the San Diego city limits, like other candidates Dumanis suggests implementing a geographic information system mapping program to prioritize, coordinate, and track repair projects. In the first 100 days of a Dumanis administration, she says, she will implement a management system that has been adapted from the County that she has used in the DA’s office. The system creates accountability, performance measures, and includes a reward system that helps to create better efficiency and help get projects done faster.
There is money available now to do the work, she said, “they just can’t spend it because it’s clogged up in the bureaucracy. So we’re gonna cut through that red tape.”
“I’ve watched them fix a pothole, and then come back two weeks later and dig it up to fix the sewer line. You’ve now done duplicate work there.” “It’s a crappy system that needs to be fixed.” Better coordination with city and county agencies such as SANDAG, and private entities like SDG&E and the telecom companies who do their own digging in the same areas will help to cut down on costs, she said.
Since we were on the topic of capital improvements, I asked her about the Chargers’ stadium situation. She said she does not support using taxpayer money to help build it, but that she does support the idea of a sports and entertainment complex. The plan, though, must be a regional plan that includes other public entities in addition to the City of San Diego.
As a part of the efforts to bolster the technology industries that are growing in San Diego, Dumanis said that public transportation needs to be expanded into Sorrento Valley, and she would like to see the trolley extended to run to the airport.
And in case you were curious: No, she has not signed the Grover Norquist pledge.
The fact that she wasn’t at all aware of how Social Security would have to be factored into the Prop B pension reform plan was a little concerning. She indicated that she thought that the city would not have to pay into Social Security if San Diego switched to a 401k style plan, and that it was an either/or proposition. That does not appear to be the case. According to the website 401kfocus.com, 401k accounts and Social Security are entirely separate accounts, one having nothing to do with the other. It also states “it is important to realize that Social Security is not intended to provide for your entire retirement, but is meant to serve as a supplement to other income sources.”
Dumanis said that since she had never been in a position to deal with pensions before she had to consult with a number of experts on the matter, and that she was comfortable with Prop B. She said it remained to be determined, however, if the city would have to begin paying into Social Security for its workers or not (due to the defined benefits city workers are currently eligible for they are not eligible for Social Security). This factor could significantly increase the costs of Prop B, and yet no one seems to have an answer to that question.
She also scoffed at the notion that pay raises for city workers would be denied by the City Council and Mayor. Since under Prop B pensionable salaries would be frozen, and given the fact that city workers have been working under a pay freeze for the past five years due to the fiscal crisis the city is just crawling out of, that would make 10 years with not even a cost of living increase for city workers. Then again, that’s Carl DeMaio’s plan: Make it so onerous to work for the City of San Diego that it eventually drives everyone away and he can contract out those services to private companies.
While city workers would still be eligible for cash bonuses under Prop B, it is far from guaranteed that they would receive one. Dumanis indicated that should she be elected Mayor she would certainly work with the employee representatives, but that still places them at the mercy of the Mayor and City Council. Which would raise a whole other set of legal questions, since by law all salaries and benefits packages for public employees are supposed to be collectively bargained and cannot be left to the whims of the city government or the voters.
Her refusal to even consider refinancing the pension debt is a bit baffling as well; she says it would cost the city too much. If the city followed Bob Filner’s plan to refinance for 30 years, over the long term she’d be right. But if you follow her logic, no one would ever refinance their home to lower their mortgage payments. To take it a step further, no one but the ultra wealthy could even purchase a home, since taking out a mortgage would be considered far too expensive in the long run.
There are times when stretching the payments out over a longer period of time to free up funds in the short run makes perfect sense, and this is one of those times.
Dumanis was entirely personable and delightful to talk to. Yet she was still rather short on policy specifics. She has a lot of big, general ideas; some of them quite good, some of them not as good. She is right, too: We do know her, and we do trust her. We even like her. But we saw what happened the last time a judge became Mayor, and it didn’t turn out well. The question is did being the District Attorney adequately prepare her for the mayor’s office?
One thing is absolutely certain: San Diego could do worse than Bonnie Dumanis. A lot worse.