How Bonnie Dumanis Became San Diego's Most Powerful Politician
She is being recruited to run for mayor and state attorney general. Hers is the most coveted endorsement in town, and nobody in politics or law enforcement wants to cross her.
Part one of a five-part series.
Sheriff Bill Kolender walked into Thornton Hospital in La Jolla two years ago to visit District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ dying father. In one of the sheriff’s signature moves, he removed his silver-star lapel pin, leaned over Abe Dumanis and attached it to the beaming 82-year-old’s hospital gown.
“Don’t worry,” the sheriff told him. “I’m going to take care of your daughter.”
And he has. No matter that years ago Kolender endorsed Dumanis’ opponent, incumbent Paul Pfingst, in the 2002 election.
The immensely popular sheriff and the new district attorney went on to create a political and personal liaison like no other — one that has elevated Dumanis to the highest level of political power in San Diego County and could catapult her into the San Diego Mayor’s Office or beyond.
Kolender’s recent retirement means the woman who began her legal career as a typist in the office she now runs is arguably the county’s most adept and influential politician.
She has distinguished herself by sheer force of personality: She is a political animal who cultivates relationships with important and average people alike. She is prominent in state politics and has friends in Washington D.C. She is being recruited to run for mayor and state attorney general.
Hers is the most coveted endorsement in town, and nobody in politics or law enforcement wants to cross her.
She’s also benefited by circumstance: As a law enforcement official, voters see her more as a crime fighter than a politician. The star power of San Diego city council members has been diminished by talk of bankruptcy, severe budget cuts, corruption investigations and other scandals.
Dumanis is elected by voters countywide and has a bigger stage than county supervisors. And it will take a new sheriff at least a year to build momentum and popularity. That leaves Dumanis.
“Political power is something that people give you,” said John Kern, a political consultant who ran Dumanis’ campaigns. “People give it to you because they trust you, they trust your decisions, they trust your instincts. If Bonnie has political power, it’s because people regard her as someone they can trust with decisions.”
Dumanis has suffered some high-profile losses, made controversial decisions, alienated some supporters and used her considerable power in questionable ways.
Her office, for instance, won a conviction of Cynthia Sommer for murdering her Marine husband by arsenic poisoning. But Sommer was set free two years later after additional lab tests showed there was no arsenic in the husband’s body after all.
Later, Dumanis decided to prosecute San Diego police officer Frank White in an off-duty road-rage shooting. He was acquitted in two hours. She’s on the outs with law enforcement unions now. And, she demoted one of her deputies, Richard Monroy, after he advised her in front of other deputies not to pursue the White case.
In another questionable use of power, Dumanis urged the union representing her deputies not to endorse anyone in the 2010 sheriff’s race, even though she has endorsed candidate Bill Gore. The association was considering supporting Gore’s opponent and is still deciding on an endorsement.
And recently, without explanation, she instructed her office to boycott the Superior Court judge who presided over the Sommer trial. Defense attorneys see it as a move to intimidate the entire bench.
Yet she apparently has suffered little politically and at this stage seems likely to move seamlessly into a third term. She is up for re-election next year and so far has no opponent.
“I’m amazed she hasn’t drawn a substantial challenger because if you look historically at DAs in San Diego, when they get into the second or third term they usually have some baggage, some cases in public office they screw up,” said political consultant John Dadian. “In her last term Bonnie’s had some goofs. I’m surprised they haven’t hurt her at all. That’s testament to how politically strong she is.”
Maybe it’s the Kolender factor.
‘Dumander,’ the Two-Headed Political Animal
Dumanis and Kolender used to meet frequently for breakfast at Hob Nob Hill and other places to plot their moves in tandem. They discussed whom they planned to endorse jointly. They gossiped and laughed. Talked about law enforcement policies and issues. Traded advice.
Dumanis recalled one breakfast meeting before her first re-election campaign. She’d forgotten an official endorsement form, so she presented Kolender with a scrap of paper upon which she had hastily scribbled: “I, Bill Kolender, hereby endorse Bonnie Dumanis anytime, any place, anywhere, for anything.” He signed it; she still has it.
“Kolender is my hero. I just adore him,” she said during a recent interview.
Sheriff Bill Kolender (right) congratulates City Attorney Jan Goldsmith for unseating the incumbent on election night in November 2008.
The Republican power couple came to be known as “Dumander,” a term Dumanis finds funny and observers find fitting. Dumanis’ devotion endures. She has a bobblehead doll of Kolender on her desk (they were given out at his retirement bash). And a picture of him rotates on her home computer’s screen saver.
She is an unlikely rising star who has shattered stereotypes and glass ceilings. She was the nation’s first openly gay district attorney and the county’s first female and first Jewish district attorney. And she is a Republican, from the ultra-blue state of Massachusetts no less. The New York Times had to correct a 2002 election story about Dumanis after its reporter assumed she was a Democrat.
“I always joked that my parents had a harder time with me coming out as a Republican than as somebody who is gay. I think I’m the first Republican they’ve ever voted for,” Dumanis said.
Her election was so close — she won by just 3,500 votes out of more than half a million cast — that it was a long 10 days before she knew the official outcome. Still, she did it with a broad spectrum of support, even from allies among Democrats and the medical marijuana community.
‘I’m Just Bonnie’
During her never-dull tenure she has had some courtroom and legislative victories and helped create some innovative programs. Dumanis cites Megan’s Law, a statewide crackdown on sex offenders, and her model program to help non-violent criminals adapt to life back in society, as some of her greatest accomplishments in office.
The model program, known as SB 618, has reduced the recidivism rate to 14 percent among the first batch of program participants — compared to the 70 percent average statewide, Dumanis said. She proudly hosted the first ceremony for graduates in October.
She’s got likeability — a warm public persona and an endearing aw-shucks humility that appeals to voters, law enforcement officials, community leaders and subordinates alike.
“I’m just Bonnie,” she said, in her thick New England accent. “I’m just a regular person. What you see is what you get. I say dumb things sometimes. I say what’s on my mind, you know, and it is what it is.”
But she’s a force behind the scenes.
Many of the scores of people interviewed for this series — elected officials, deputy district attorneys, judges, office seekers, ex-public officials, community leaders, defense attorneys, college professors, cops and Sheriff’s deputies, friends and ex-friends — wanted to remain anonymous for fear of offending Dumanis and jeopardizing their careers, standing in the community or electability.
“She is the biggest political power in San Diego, now that Kolender is gone,” said a high-ranking law enforcement official who fits in the above categories. “Her endorsement was second only to Kolender. You don’t want to cross her.”
So far, Dumanis has raised about $50,000 for a 2010 race against no one.
A Leading Name for Mayor in 2012
She is considering a run for higher office, possibly San Diego mayor in 2012 when there will be no incumbent as another ally, Jerry Sanders, is termed out.
She’d be an early favorite, though the field might be crowded with recognizable names like U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, state Sen. Christine Kehoe, and City Councilmen Carl DeMaio and Kevin Faulconer.
Dumanis, during a recent interview, insisted she was devoted to the District Attorney’s Office with no plans to depart for another high-profile job. When pressed, she would not commit to finishing her third term, which would be interrupted midway should she decide to run for mayor in 2012.
“I would not leave this position, ever, if I thought it was in jeopardy and I didn’t have someone that could take on the role and do it. I don’t need a higher job. I don’t need another office,” she said.
Still, she would not rule out a run. “Never say never. I’m not gonna even go there, OK? 2012 is a long way off. I’m not going to decide anything until the time comes to make a decision.”
“She’s never talked to me about it,” Sanders said recently. “I think she’d be an excellent mayor should she choose to do that. I think she’d be pretty crazy to do that.”
‘I’m a Complex Person’
How a Jewish lesbian from Massachusetts who was raised by staunch Democrats came to be a Republican, Dumanis can’t say. She couldn’t point to any one thing that influenced her.
“I’m a complex person. I don’t like to be put in sort of boxes and stuff. I do remember how I was a Goldwater girl in high school — my parents thought that was pretty strange.
“I think what it reflects is I’m really more of an independent thinker,” Dumanis said. “I make decisions based on the information I have and the stands that are important. Being Republican in the way that it was sort of less government, fiscal responsibility, individual responsibility, how can you argue with that? And those are the things that are important to me, and law and order.”
Dumanis, a native of Brockton, Mass., started her legal career as a junior clerk typist in the DA’s office under Ed Miller, after she discovered that she couldn’t follow her true career wish — being a rabbi — because women weren’t allowed.
She earned her law degree in 1976 from Thomas Jefferson School of Law and became a deputy district attorney. Her first high-profile assignment was to travel to the Philippines and bring “Rolodex Madam” Karen Wilkening to justice.
Wilkening, whose Rolodex of clients intrigued authorities and residents alike as a serial killer targeted prostitutes, had fled to avoid pimping charges. Dumanis was one of the few people who got to see names in the Rolodex, and she pronounced them unhelpful in the murder investigation. And hasn’t said a word about it, at least publicly, since.
She became a Municipal and Superior Court judge and was elected DA in 2002.
According to her Facebook page, Dumanis’ favorite television shows include Law & Order and Grey’s Anatomy, CNN and FOX News. She’s a bookworm and loves thrillers. Her favorite authors include Joseph Wambaugh, a San Diego-based writer who contributed to her latest re-election campaign, plus Patricia Cornwell and Ken Follett. She likes jazz and ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll and her favorite quotation is from Deuteronomy 16:20: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
She prefers to be called by her first name. Even when she was a judge, defendants would call her “Judge Bonnie.” She said she gets a kick out of her celebrity status in the county, and likes it when strangers recognize her.
She and Kolender are alike that way. Dumanis fondly recalled Kolender’s cameo in her father’s final days. The way the nurses made over him. The way he made her father feel important.
“He’s very endearing,” she said of Kolender. “If people compare me to Kolender, I can’t think of a greater compliment.”
Coming Monday | She’s Got Power and She’s Willing to Use It: DA Bonnie Dumanis’ endorsement is golden, but how and when she’s used it has caused complications.
Please contact Kelly Thornton directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.