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It’s a scenario ripe with political possibility: An incumbent district attorney says he won’t run again, and some of his top managers are on the verge of retiring — leaving a bevy of vacant positions that have been proven vote-getters for prosecutors who want to be DA. Sure, the election is 3 1/2 years away, the incumbent could change his mind and run again, and he’s been relatively silent about which candidate will win his managerial plums. Nevertheless, the situation is tailor-made for ambitious candidates. That’s the political chess match unfolding in Santa Clara County, where DA George Kennedy has said he won’t run for another term in 2006 and some of his top managers are heading for the exits. Snagging one of the those management gigs could be crucial for inside candidates interested in the DA’s race. A top management job can help get votes– a case in point is nearby Contra Costa County, where voters just promoted Robert Kochly to district attorney from his perch as No. 2 in the office. The lesson hasn’t been lost on Santa Clara prosecutors. Many say the internal campaigning has already begun. Two office insiders — Assistant DA Marc Buller and Deputy DA James Shore — have already indicated that they’re considering a run for the top spot, though many say it’s too early to say for sure who will enter the race. “Within the next five years, you will see a significant change in the assistants,” said Buller. “We have a lot of capable people who are going to want to fill that position. Beyond that, I don’t know if they have any other ambitions.” Buller already has a management platform from which to campaign. He was promoted the last time an assistant’s job was open in 1998. And Shore has a high-profile extracurricular assignment: president of the Government Attorneys Association, the bargaining unit for Santa Clara County prosecutors and public defenders. Shore, who is now prosecuting welfare fraud cases, draws support from other veteran prosecutors because of his successful campaign to get county attorneys an anticipated 30 percent pay raise over the next two years. Shore was also instrumental in prodding Gov. Gray Davis to increase state retirement benefits in the fall and set up a political action committee for California prosecutors, which endorsed candidates in the 2002 elections. “He is a very effective union leader,” said one deputy DA. “He’s gotten the office a raise, and that’s going to go over really well. He has been working on public safety retirement for us and the public defender, and that’s always a really popular thing for him to be doing.” Buller, who oversaw misdemeanor prosecution as a supervising DA for several years and still manages the team as an assistant, may draw support from younger members of the office. “People coming into the office as misdemeanor attorneys are going to have a formative experience in that job. The fact that he is their boss at that crucial time is going to stay with them,” a deputy DA said. Like Shore, Buller also served as the GAA’s president in the mid-1990s. “The old timers — the people who have been in the office for a while — remember him as the guy who didn’t get them a raise. I think there is some residual resentment,” a deputy prosecutor said. Though Buller and Shore are being mentioned prominently, a crop of potential candidates may emerge from the field of applicants for the only management position currently open. In December, 38-year office veteran Assistant DA David Davies retired, creating the first management vacancy in five years. Chief Assistant DA Paula Kuty, who is overseeing the hiring process, says Davies confirmed that the replacement will come from inside the office. Despite a budget-induced hiring freeze, the DA’s office just received permission from the Board of Supervisors to fill Davies’ spot, keeping the management team at full staff with six assistants. Each assistant position manages about 40 attorneys. “We haven’t filled an assistant position since 1998,” Kuty said. “People have been around five years, and people will be interested.” Names circulating for the job include supervising DAs Stephen Gibbons, Michael Gaffey, David Howe and David Tomkins. Gibbons — a 14-year office veteran — may be the most obvious choice. Until recently, he was a member of Kennedy’s management team as the assistant DA managing the family support division. The division, however, was severed from the district attorney’s office in the summer. Instead of staying with family support, Gibbons, 46, chose to stay with the DA’s office, stepping back down to the rank of deputy. He is now supervising the fraud unit. Gaffey, 46, supervises the DA’s business service; Howe, 43, heads the misdemeanor team; and Tomkins, 46, supervises the gang and economic crimes unit. So far, the hopefuls are staying mum about their prospects. “Things progress the way they are going to progress,” Tomkins said. Even if they don’t get Davies’ job, other management openings are likely before the election. Two other assistants — Alvin Weger and Thomas Fahrenholz, who both started on the same day in March 1972 — may also be nearing retirement. “My guess is there will be significant management changes in the next five years,” Fahrenholz said. “I’ve been in a leadership position since 1988. If we were looking at a mass exodus of management 10 years ago, I would have been worried. But I think there are a lot of good, young people who could move up. I am not worried about the office. I think it’s in good hands.” Management may not be the only place where potential candidates lurk. A few Santa Clara County Superior Court judges are rumored to be eyeing the office, and some point to former San Jose City Councilman-turned-deputy DA David Pandori as a possible contender. Pandori, who joined the office four years ago, was on the council for eight years and served as an aide to former San Jose Mayor Tom McHenry. For his part, Pandori said it was “way too early to be speculating” about the next DA’s race and said the assistant position would be more about merit than politics. And one other wild card could be played: Despite telling voters in 2002 he was seeking just one more term, Kennedy may decide he wants to hang onto his job, office insiders say. Even if he doesn’t, his management decisions will go a long way toward divining whom he’ll back as a successor. So far, though, Kennedy is staying silent. He declined to go on record for this story to talk about potential candidates.

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