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The concept doesn’t tug at voters’ emotions the way pensions or streets or big projects do. Yet it’s the way pensions get cut, roads get repaved and big projects get built.

Mayors have to run a city, and the job became more bureaucratic eight years ago when San Diego voters put employees under the direct control of the mayor rather than a professional city manager.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis contends that this kind of experience sets her apart from her three opponents in the mayor’s race. She has a point.

For the past nine years, she’s been the region’s top prosecutor, which put her in charge of 1,000 employees, a $155 million budget and direct involvement with the kinds of government civil service rules that she’d interact with as mayor. Everyone else in the race has spent their careers in elected office as legislators.

Dumanis has made this distinction the central tenet of her campaign.

“Legislators get people together to talk about things, to have a conversation, to have a listening tour,” Dumanis said. “We do things as executives. That’s my trademark.”

To understand the significance of management to the city’s immediate future look no further than pensions, streets and the Convention Center expansion.

If voters approve Proposition B, the pension initiative, in June it could save $1 billion or nothing over the next three decades. The savings depends entirely on how it’s implemented.

While the city still needs to spend more money to keep its roads from getting worse, an overly bureaucratic process has kept millions of repair dollars in city coffers instead of the streets.

And no decision in the $550 million Convention Center expansion debate engendered as much harsh rhetoric or fallout than a change to center management that pit two powerful interest groups against each other.

To be sure, each of Dumanis’ opponents has an argument for why they transcend their lack of government executive experience. City Councilman Carl DeMaio notes that he ran two companies, which specialized in measuring performance in government and business. Congressman Bob Filner contends his three decades of experience in various elected offices means he understands how government bureaucracy works. Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher points to his time in the Marines and history as a consensus-builder.

But current Mayor Jerry Sanders, the first to serve a full term with the city bureaucracy under mayoral control, said none of that compares to Dumanis’ experience. It’s a big part of the reason he endorsed her.

“The Mayor’s Office isn’t a training ground,” Sanders said.

As district attorney, Dumanis pointed to her creation of a new promotion system, which helped resolve civil service complaints when she took office. She revamped the department’s hiring procedures. When she learned the amount of sick leave taken by her employees, she held a $1,000 drawing for those who held off on using it.

“We were able to lower our rate of absenteeism and have people be more productive,” she said.

Dumanis released a management plan for the city in March. But it didn’t make much noise. Critics noted that it was essentially a word-for-word copy of San Diego County’s plan. Dumanis contends that was the point. She said the county’s system works and she won’t know how to reform the city’s bureaucracy until she gets into office and spends time with departments and the outside groups that interact with City Hall.

But the difficulty Dumanis and her supporters have had in communicating her experience’s significance could be one of the major reasons why her campaign hasn’t taken off. Our Scott Lewis has noted that DeMaio and Fletcher, “wake up, look in the mirror and think about what they’re going to do to become mayor that day.” And Filner has the simplest sell: Tell voters in a plurality Democratic city that he’s the only Democrat running. (His new ad makes the point plainly.)

A government experience platform isn’t the sexiest. But Dumanis’ ability to make a late run in the campaign could depend in part on how much she’s able to convince voters that it matters.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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