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In 2010, we declared District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis the most powerful politician in San Diego. And a couple years later, observers of the 2012 race for mayor – and Dumanis’ dismal showing in it – mocked us for the declaration.
How powerful could she be if she couldn’t do better than fourth place in a four-way race?
The news that Dumanis is stepping down this July from her perch as lead prosecutor for the county of San Diego is showing once more, though, how powerful she remains.
Her influence is on full display as the pieces fall into place for her chosen successor to stroll into the DA’s office with the least amount of hassle with voters as possible.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan is the only major candidate running for the job.
Now, with Dumanis’ decision to step down, the county’s five supervisors will have to choose an interim replacement.
Stephan is set to get that appointment and thus run as an incumbent in the 2018 election.
This is precisely the “smooth transition” Dumanis described to allies, as reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune earlier this year.
Technically, the county supervisors could appoint anyone. But political insiders believe entertaining the possibility they won’t choose Stephan is naïve.
Regardless, county supervisors will accept applications for the temporary post all next month.
“We don’t know what the Board of Supervisors’ plans are for filling the vacancy, so it would be premature to comment,” said Jason Roe, Stephan’s political consultant.
Resigning early to give your preferred successor a leg up on an upcoming election is the same approach Dumanis’ good friend, the late Sheriff Bill Kolender, took. His chosen successor, Sheriff Bill Gore, remains sheriff today.
If the Board of Supervisors appoints Stephan, it’s nearly certain she’d go on to win in 2018, said Tom Shepard, a longtime political consultant who has run Gore’s campaigns, as well as Bob Brewer’s challenge to Dumanis in 2014.
“For these countywide positions, the power of incumbency – or even semi-incumbency – is a huge advantage,” he said. “It’s nearly impossible to raise enough money to run an aggressive campaign in a jurisdiction this large, so to put ‘district attorney’ under your name, even if it would say ‘appointed’ in parenthesis, is nearly insurmountable.”
Shepherd said there’s nothing illegal about Dumanis stepping down early and tapping a preferred replacement, “but if you’re someone who thinks this has been an overly politicized office and thinks it’s time for fresh blood, this goes a long way toward making that change impossible.”
Meanwhile, Dumanis is considering joining the same board in charge of tapping her successor. In her statement announcing her resignation Thursday, Dumanis said she was still mulling a run for the County Board of Supervisors.
“To be clear, I have not decided if I will be a candidate or not. I believe my experience, and the critical role that the board plays in public safety and policy issues, would make me an effective member,” Dumanis said in the statement. “However, I do not want to create any conflict with, or distraction from the important work of the District Attorney’s Office. Therefore, I feel it’s appropriate for me to resign at this time as I explore my potential candidacy.”
To make the web even more tangled, the local Democratic Party called on the Board of Supervisors to launch an investigation into Dumanis’ ties to an ongoing public corruption scandal.
Shepard believes the DAs race isn’t quite over precisely because of that scandal, despite the overwhelming advantage Stephan would have running as a semi-incumbent.
“The disadvantage of being the hand-picked successor is, you inherit the baggage the incumbent has,” he said. “She’s not in a position to criticize her boss. But unless there’s a groundswell of concern over those issues, it’s hard to see any other candidate having a chance.”
If you need a refresher on what decisions the DA actually makes, check out this guide. In the meantime, here are a few things to know about Stephan, San Diego’s likely next district attorney.
Stephan filed paperwork in January declaring her candidacy for DA in 2018. Since then she’s gotten a jaw-dropping list of endorsements not just from law enforcement unions that have worked with Dumanis for years but also prominent Democrats like U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas and Mara Elliott, the newly elected liberal city attorney for San Diego.
Stephan has enlisted Roe, the architect of Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s victories. Her 2018 campaign paperwork lists April Boling, a Republican campaign veteran, as treasurer.
She’s already been endorsed by Faulconer, Gore and several other local officials and law enforcement groups.
Remember, though, that the position of DA is technically considered nonpartisan.
The murder of 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe in Escondido in 1998 is one of those cases that still fascinates true crime enthusiasts to this day. A big part of that is because of how the prosecution of the case, led in part by Stephan, played out.
Stephan led the prosecution of Crowe’s teenage brother and two of his friends for the murder. She referred to the three defendants as “evil,” and the perpetrators of “cold-blooded murder,” according to the Union-Tribune. At one point, she speculated the murder had been part of a fantasy role-playing game the boys were taking part in, the Washington Post reported at the time.
The case hinged on a confession wrung out of 14-year-old Michael Crowe after “two marathon interrogations” in which Escondido police detectives fed him details of the murder and lied about the evidence implicating his guilt.
But before the case reached a jury, a discovery changed everything: Crowe’s blood had been found on the shirt of a transient who was in the area the night she was murdered, someone whom defense attorneys insisted all along had been the killer.
Even in dismissing the case, Stephan’s team laid out its evidence against the teen boys and said they reserved the right to charge them again.
The case was eventually turned over to the state attorney general.
The transient, Richard Tuite, was convicted of the murder, but the conviction was eventually tossed out. On a retrial, he was acquitted and released in 2013.
Stephan, as well as Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, has played an outsize role in making fighting human trafficking a priority for state and local officials.
Stephan is chief deputy DA for the Sex Crimes and Human Trafficking Division, serves on a number of committees related to trafficking and has advocated for state legislation that addresses trafficking issues.