Saturday, July 23, 2005 | From behind, one can hardly tell Nicole Capretz from her candidate. She strikes a lanky figure like Councilwoman Donna Frye, and lets her golden tresses fall even longer than the lemony mop of the surf shop owner who almost became San Diego’s mayor last year.

At community events, people ask if the two are related.

They may as well be. As manager of the Donna Frye for Mayor Campaign, Capretz says she’s also keeping up a career-long dedication to progress.

“For us it’s like a family of people who are down for the cause,” she said. “[Frye] is more like a vehicle for this vision of government that people trust and actually believe in.”

As head of the campaign, she begins and ends her 15-hour days in a one-on-one conversation with the candidate, and often personally drives the environmentalist – in a sky-blue gas/electric hybrid – to community events and forums.

Her position as campaign manager commits Capretz to a grueling spate of weeks frantically scheduling, phoning, schlepping and driving – trying, inevitably in vain, to be in as many places at one time as possible. Then she has to carry in the lawn signs.

Each campaign plays the game differently according to their goals and circumstances. Some are driven by huge staffs of volunteers, employers or consultants, making the campaign manager a general overseeing a vast corps. Other campaigns operate in the hands of a small group with overlapping responsibilities, the campaign manager functioning as an all-around maverick of scheduling, strategy and stress.

Traditionally, they’re one of the closest people to the candidates. Instead of working for the Sanders campaign, Aundene Huggs says she works for the man himself. Carpetz was also one of Frye’s senior policy staff in the Council office.

Although their duties vary, the managers’ role is inherently unglamorous. Capretz said it isn’t what she was born for. But the 35-year-old can hardly complain. At least she’s getting paid.

Cynthia Vicknair won’t receive any compensation from Pat Shea for six weeks of her full-time services, though she’s made a good living as a hired gun for, among others, former Mayor Dick Murphy.

Instead of spending the summer in Italy, Vicknair came back to help run Shea’s bankruptcy-focused campaign, partly to atone for her role in Murphy’s 2001 election.

“We looked at the field of candidates and thought, there isn’t one person here prepared to solve the problem,” said Vicknair. “Because it’s a six-week period of time, it makes it reasonable for us.”

She’s running the Shea campaign with the help of Bob Schumann and John Hoy, two veteran San Diego Republican political strategists charged with selling what some have whispered is an impossible campaign promise: a court-administered Chapter 9 municipal restructuring.

“Our message is a lot tougher, it’s a lot more sophisticated,” said Vicknair, who speaks with a veteran’s cool assurance about decades of San Diego politics. At debates, the blonde 54 year-old critiques the action under her breath like a subdued sports radio commentator.

Her campaign is targeting almost exclusively voters who are conservative, well-educated and who tend to be very reliable – a much fought-over bloc in an election where some are predicting low turnout.

“People either like bankruptcy or don’t like bankruptcy. The step we’re focusing on is connecting Pat Shea’s name with bankruptcy,” she said.

There are no lawn signs for the candidate who earned a J.D. and an M.B.A. concurrently from Harvard. The Shea office is a single room rented in the office of Schuman & Hoy, its consultants. The campaign has only two full-time employees and one phone line. Yet Vicknair is confident.

“People who are going to vote in this election are very engaged,” she said. “They understand how serious the city’s problems are.”

Jerry Sanders is known for his smile, and he wants his support to be just as wide.

“I would say we’re targeting all of them,” said Aundene Hugg, his campaign manager, when asked which voting blocs she was after.

Her effort is armed and ready for the task. The roughly $350,000 budget of the Sanders campaign buys materials that the Frye and Shea campaigns – with budgets of roughly $150,000 each – just can’t match.

The Sanders campaign headquarters looks like a sign-making factory with thousands of the meticulously-stapled red, white and blue nameplates stockpiled and ready to go – but only, says Huggs, to people who want them.

She oversees a relatively massive, traditional effort: evening phone-banking, cross-town weekend grocery store visits, drive-time radio ads, $120,000 worth of television spots for the final week and more Web site ads than she can remember.

“You could work 24 hours a day, and you would still never get half of what you could done,” said the University of California, San Diego graduate, who took leave from a life in Reno to work for the San Diego police officer under whom she once interned.

Like its candidate, the Sanders campaign looks like exactly what one would expect.

Its spacious offices in Banker’s Hill are squeaky-clean and attentively managed, the walls draped in patriotic paper decorations and their ubiquitous campaign signs. The maze of desks and offices is filled with an army of people associated with the campaign: volunteers of all ages, both full-time paid staff members and a cadre of analysts and advisers, including professional strategists Tom Shepard and Scott Maloni.

Their “team approach” to running things is congruent with the broad base of support Sanders is hoping to get. Target everyone with a message designed for broad appeal, and watch the votes come in – that’s the Sanders strategy in a nutshell.

For all, the life of a campaign manager is hard and fast, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Steve Francis campaign did not respond for an interview request by deadline.

Please contact Ian Port directly at

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