Powerful Ex-DA Volunteers to Be County Supervisor - Voice of San Diego

Politics UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Powerful Ex-DA Volunteers to Be County Supervisor

Less than a year after her retirement as district attorney, longtime political power player Bonnie Dumanis couldn’t resist another run for office – and another chance to make a difference.

bonnie dumanis san diego
Former District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis speaks at a county supervisor candidate forum. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The past few years, Bonnie Dumanis has faced a barrage of questions about her role in a campaign-finance scandal, her decision to retire two years into her fourth term as district attorney and her efforts to line up a successor.

She’s running for county supervisor anyway. She couldn’t resist.

The woman who was one of San Diego’s most powerful politicians wasn’t ready to retire – even after a bout with cancer and a double-knee replacement.

“I want to give back,” said Dumanis, who’s said she won’t take a salary if elected. “Just look at all the things we need to do.”

She said she decided she was the best candidate to help the county tackle the region’s homelessness, mental-health and substance-abuse challenges after years of grappling with them on the law-enforcement side. She believes she’s got the political juice and knowledge to push for change at a county long led by the same Republican board members.

Rumors that Dumanis, a Republican who served as district attorney for nearly 15 years, might seek to represent the county district that spans much of the city of San Diego began when she was still the county’s top prosecutor.

Then, last September, Dumanis confirmed she was going for it.

“I felt like this was a time in my life where I wanted to do something in my life, proactive rather than reactive,” Dumanis said. “Law enforcement tends to be reactive.”

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As district attorney, Dumanis was constantly in the headlines and at public gatherings even, as she jokes, when just a few people showed up.

She loved being a politician.

But Dumanis said she realized the district attorney’s office was wearing on her after she won her fourth term in 2014. Grisly criminal cases and the responsibility to grieving families could be overwhelming.

The race to keep the seat hadn’t been easy, either. As the campaign ramped up, federal prosecutors alleged José Susumo Azano Matsura, a Mexican citizen, had sunk nearly $215,000 in Dumanis’ failed 2012 bid for mayor. It’s illegal for foreign nationals to contribute to U.S. campaigns.

Even after Dumanis held onto her district attorney’s seat in June 2014, details on the scandal continued to drip out – as did headlines highlighting Dumanis’ misrepresentations of her relationship with Azano. Dumanis was never charged with a crime and has characterized herself as a victim in the case, but the questions continued.

Then Dumanis got some bad news in December 2015: She had breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy the following month and, for a time, endured radiation five days a week. She largely kept her health issues to herself but the scare gave her time to reflect.

She started to realize then, she now says, that she was ready to move on.

By October 2016, Dumanis acknowledged she was mulling whether to retire before her fourth term as DA ended. By the end of that year, Dumanis told DA’s office managers she envisioned Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan taking over the office and in January, Dumanis announced she wouldn’t seek another term.

Months before that, the San Diego Union-Tribune has reported, Stephan and Dumanis had a series of meetings with sitting supervisors who would later vote to make Stephan interim district attorney.

Word started to get out that Dumanis might be eyeing a supervisors seat, including in the district attorney’s office.

“It was a well-known rumor that she was running for county Board of Supervisors and that’s why she was leaving her office,” said now-retired Deputy District Attorney Brenda Daly.

By April, Dumanis confirmed in an email to district attorney’s office staffers that she was thinking about a run for supervisor and would soon resign. She retired last July, a year and a half before her term ended.

Some, including Daly, questioned Dumanis’ motives.

“I think she likes being what she feels to be a powerful person,” Daly said. “I think that’s where she gets her value from.”

Dumanis tested friends’ reactions as she considered her next move.

Many said they were surprised.

“As far as I know, we all had pretty much the same response: Why do you want to do that?” said Roberta Spoon, a longtime friend and city pension board member.

The response: “She has a lot of energy and she wants to be effective. She is not ready to retire and play golf.”

LGBT activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez, who regularly lunched with Dumanis, said he was shocked when Dumanis told him she was thinking of running for supervisor.

“I know I almost fell off my seat because she was the current district attorney,” said Murray-Ramirez, who didn’t recall exactly when Dumanis revealed it.

Murray-Ramirez said he tried to talk Dumanis out of a run in the months that followed. He didn’t want Dumanis’ reputation marred in a tough supervisors’ race.

“I encouraged her to enjoy life. But she said something really interesting,” Murray-Ramirez said. “She said she really enjoyed being a public servant and making a difference, and I could tell that she was really passionate about it.”

Murray-Ramirez, who supports Dumanis’ Democratic opponent Nathan Fletcher, said Dumanis told him others were prodding her to run.

Republicans considered Dumanis, a center-right Republican the New York Times once accidentally dubbed a Democrat, an appealing candidate in a district with 24 percent more registered Democrats than Republicans.

She has said she doesn’t support President Donald Trump and even joked on VOSD’s podcast about whether Trump might respond to her comments on the show.

“You think I’ll get a tweet from Mr. Trump?” Dumanis said.

At one point, former longtime campaign consultant Jen Tierney said, she and Dumanis sat down and made a list of pros and cons about a run for supervisor.

Tierney said Dumanis talked most passionately about her belief that she could help bring disparate groups together to better combat San Diego’s homelessness crisis.

“I think she feels she can do that, maybe in a way others can’t,” said Tierney, noting the relationships and coalitions Dumanis built in her years as a district attorney and judge.

In the end, Dumanis decided to go for it.

But Tierney, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist who worked on both Dumanis’ district attorney and mayoral campaigns, didn’t join her. Instead, Dumanis hired Jason Roe, a Republican consultant based in San Diego.

Her campaign was, at least initially, sluggish.

Dumanis hasn’t campaigned as aggressively as her Democratic opponents, though she has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, pulling in less than only Nathan Fletcher.

Earlier this year, she faced controversy when the Union-Tribune reported that attorneys for Dumanis reached out to officials with San Diego County’s pension fund to discuss how getting elected might affect the annual $269,000 pension she receives as former district attorney.

News stories documented pension officials’ discussions with law firm Best, Best & Krieger, which argued Dumanis could take a salary on the Board of Supervisors — totaling at least $172,450 — and keep her pension payments flowing.

VOSD later revealed Dumanis had already been double-dipping, a practice largely banned by 2013 reforms, by collecting a separate $29,318-a-year judicial pension in her final two years as DA. The 2013 changes hadn’t applied to government workers whose pension checks and salaries come from agencies covered by different pension systems, an exemption that Dumanis fit into.

Dumanis reiterated that she has no plans to take a salary if she’s elected supervisor.

Dumanis has since rolled out endorsements, a plan to bolster mental-health services that’s largely focused on addressing gaps she saw after years in law enforcement and a more in-depth blueprint on ways to address the regional housing crisis.

She’s also drawn attention with her commitment to encourage the county to spend more of the county’s $2 billion reserve account that long-sitting Republican supervisors have prided themselves on.

The conclusion among political insiders is that Dumanis’ relatively low-key campaign is a reflection of her hope to glide through a June 5 primary race largely dominated by bickering between Democrats and then to ramp up ahead of the November election.

Dumanis’ approach has left some less than impressed.

The Union-Tribune editorial board, which had endorsed Dumanis in past bids for district attorney, described her as “surprisingly underwhelming” as a candidate for supervisor and wrote that she “showed little grasp” of major issues such as housing and marijuana.

Dumanis bats back that criticism. She boasts of longtime working relationships with sitting supervisors and key officials across the region that she thinks will help drive policy changes, and working knowledge of the county’s complex budget and approaches to mental health and substance abuse.

She acknowledged she has had to spend more time getting up to speed on issues like housing development and land use that didn’t cross her desk before.

And she says she’s more excited about the county supervisor’s seat than the mayor’s office spot she sought in 2012. She said she’s more comfortable with issues the county is focused on.

“My mother used to say to me, ‘You’ve gotta stop having people tell you what to say because I feel like you’re not being yourself’ and I was much more cautious because I had to sort of grasp more of the issues,” Dumanis said, reflecting on her disappointing 2012 mayoral bid. “This (time), she said, ‘When I see you talking and everything, I can see your passion.’”

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