The quick endorsements Mayor Jerry Sanders and Councilman Kevin Faulconer gave to District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ mayoral bid demonstrate why we called her the county’s most powerful politician: Things like this go her way.

I still am having trouble understanding why Sanders and Faulconer have so breezily absorbed Dumanis’ opposition to an initiative they’ve described as a historic plan: To switch all new employees over to a 401(k) style retirement system.

Dumanis’ stated reason for opposing the measure is because it includes firefighters.

As she told us when she announced her decision to oppose the measure:

I am a strong supporter of pension reform. However, it is my core belief that those who put their lives at risk daily in the line of duty should have a secure pension.

Sanders and Faulconer do not disagree with this. Look at Faulconer’s comments from early March:

• If you are willing to take a bullet, rush into a burning building, or dive into dangerous waters, you deserve a benefit that credits your courage.

• I want to ensure that San Diego is able to continue to recruit and retain the most qualified police officers, fire fighters, and lifeguards.

• If San Diego is the only city in the state not to offer a pension we will become a training ground for public safety employees, who will leave after we invest in training them.

But here’s the thing: Faulconer and the mayor abandoned this passionate belief — at least for firefighters and lifeguards. They did it to appease Councilman Carl DeMaio, the Lincoln Club and the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. It was an agreement to unite. The only concession they got from DeMaio was that he would spare police, for now.

Faulconer and Sanders obviously thought making a deal with DeMaio, etc., was crucial. In fact, members of the business community who lined up behind them forced that realization.

DeMaio, Faulconer and Sanders were positively giddy about the agreement. They used words like “historic,” “groundbreaking,” “definitive,” and they gushed that they had finally put a stake in the heart of the vampire that had been sucking San Diego dry: the pension crisis.

Dumanis apparently thinks it was a bad decision. Is she saying she would have kept the fight going with DeMaio?

It’s unclear. She definitely doesn’t want to come off as a pension-lover, however. From the Union-Tribune June 8:

“I’m a strong supporter of pension reform. … The benefits as they are now are unaffordable,” she said. “We need to change them, but with respect to the initiative I certainly support the idea that we have to change the pension system for employees to something like the 401(k) system.”

So how would she have succeeded in protecting firefighters when the mayor and Faulconer didn’t? Is she just not as afraid of DeMaio and the business groups that demanded a deal? Is she saying they’re pansies who gave up on their principles?

Well, either that, or she’s trying to have it both ways.

The mayor and Faulconer say her stance is no big deal. “Pension reform is an important issue,” Faulconer told our Liam Dillon. “But it’s just one issue.”

Just one issue? What happened to historic and groundbreaking?

Faulconer, in fact, felt the deal was important enough to drop his requirement that it exclude firefighters and lifeguards despite all of his concerns. Why doesn’t he expect Dumanis to do that too?

The truth is they’re conceding Dumanis is just in a tough spot. She’s not trying to torpedo their most treasured deal and they know that.

She’s trying to be on their side while also dealing with an uncomfortable reality. Look again at her quote: “The benefits as they are now are unaffordable.”

Dumanis herself enjoys benefits like that. In fact, her pension will be derived from a far more generous formula than anything new city employees get. The county, her employer, has a pension liability that dwarfs the city’s.

So are her benefits unaffordable? Should lawyers and prosecutors she will fund at the City Attorney’s Office not get the benefits she is getting? Does she really believe they shouldn’t? Why did she? Councilman Carl DeMaio refused to enroll in the city’s pension system. I’m not saying he’s better because of that, it’s just a cleaner position to defend if you want to get rid of pensions.

Dumanis would be much better off arguing that new employees already are getting a much-reduced pension, the new plan is a distraction, and she would focus on capping and reducing current costs. Or something similar.

The fact is, she’s going to need a more confident explanation. If she insists on arguing that public employee pensions are unaffordable and undeserved for everyone except those who face down bullets and fire, then her rivals will relentlessly ask voters why that doesn’t apply to her own career and employees.

And if she continues to say it’s only her concern for firefighters that fuels her opposition, then she’s saying that the politicians who also felt that way, and who are endorsing her now, simply don’t know how to get the job done.

What does that say, then, about their endorsements?

You can contact me directly at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!): twitter.com/vosdscott.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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