San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis says the legal field is made up of specialists, with certain jobs requiring particular sets of skills and experience, as in the medical field.
As she campaigns for her fourth term in office, Dumanis says she’s still the right doctor for what ails San Diego.
“When you go in for heart surgery, do you want a cardiologist, someone that’s been doing it for their entire life, or do you want an orthopedic surgeon to come operate on your heart?” she asked at a meeting with the Daily Transcript editorial board this week.
“The difference here [in the campaign] is that I’ve been doing this for 30 years. He [challenger Bob Brewer] has been defending criminals for 30 years — nothing wrong with that — but it’s not the same as being a cardiologist.”
Brewer, who spent seven years as a prosecutor before beginning a private practice in 1982, and former deputy district attorney Terri Wyatt are challenging Dumanis in the June 3 primary. If no one gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will meet in a runoff in the November general election.
Dumanis said she’s proud of what her office has accomplished since she took over in 2003, touting a 94 percent conviction rate, but added there’s more work to do.
Last year, homicides were down 33 percent, Dumanis said, and San Diego is in the top three safest big cities in the West.
“We’re putting the bad guys away and keeping them off your streets, so that you’re safe,” she said. “We need to keep doing what we’re doing because it’s working.”
A native of Brockton, Mass., Dumanis came to San Diego nearly 40 years ago and started as a clerk/typist in the district attorney’s office. After graduating from Thomas Jefferson School of Law in 1976, she continued to work in the prosecutor’s office, eventually becoming deputy district attorney.
She later served as a judge from 1994 to 2002, helping start San Diego Superior Court’s drug court and domestic violence court programs.
As district attorney, she has focused her work on crime victims, especially those hurt by sexual predators.
In one of her most famous cases, she prosecuted the man accused of murdering Chelsea King and Amber Dubois. John Albert Gardner III pleaded guilty to both murders and received a life sentence without parole.
Dumanis, who helped write both Jessica’s Law — which requires GPS monitoring of sex offenders — and Chelsea’s Law — which mandates life sentences in cases of sex offenses against a child — said her latest focus will be to stop human trafficking.
“Human trafficking is nothing more than sexual predators,” she said. “Our kids 12 to 14 are being brutalized. We’ve got to stop it and treat those kids like victims and wrap ourselves around them.”
During the campaign, Dumanis has been criticized for going back on her 2007 promise to not endorse political candidates unless there are “unusual circumstances.”
She told the Transcript those circumstances relate to public safety.
“I have endorsed judicial candidates because I think the public looks to me and says, ‘You’re our district attorney, who's going to best serve us for public safety?' ” she said. “The same goes for sheriff, and the same goes for city attorney. I think it’s not politics, it’s leadership, and I am a strong leader.”
She said she learned a lot from her failed 2012 mayoral campaign and that her staff supports her run for the county’s top prosecutor.
“My deputy DAs and investigators supported me (for mayor), and I was there and present during the campaign,” she said, “and when I lost, there was a cheer that went out because they like having me as DA. They know how proud of them I am and how much I go to bat for them in every area.”
She described the lack of endorsements from law enforcement associations as a lack of support from unions. She said she has the backing of the leaders of law enforcement, including the attorney general, the sheriff and all of the police chiefs in San Diego County.
Dumanis has recently come under fire for allegedly calling then-Chula Vista Mayor Steve Padilla in 2005 to see if he’d be willing to fill a vacant council seat with one of her aides. She’s also being accused of starting a politically motivated investigation of then-Councilman Steve Castaneda after Padilla declined her request.
She said what triggered the Castaneda case was a South Bay activist, who contacted the DA’s office with some concerns, and a series of articles by U-T San Diego.
“Each case is viewed on its own,” she said. “I don’t direct cases. Deputy DAs that are experienced, and their supervisor, reviewed the facts and the evidence and made the determination to file charges.”
When asked if she made the call to Padilla, Dumanis said, “I’m not going to talk about that because that’s just a bunch of baloney.”
Dumanis said her plans for the office include adding to the family protection division, which handles child abuse, domestic violence and elder abuse cases. The division employs 45 attorneys; three more attorneys are expected to be hired to handle problems with assisted living.
Dumanis said she supports the legal use of medical marijuana and will prosecute those who sell recreational marijuana. She’s working with local law enforcement to craft the appropriate guidelines for San Diego.
“Law enforcement wants it just as much as anyone because they don’t know who to arrest and who not to arrest,” she said.
Dumanis said she wants to be viewed as “tough but fair, and compassionate to victims.”
“It’s a journey, not a destination. And we continue that journey by looking at and adjusting to crime trends and making people's lives a little bit better,” she said.