San Diego Union-Tribune -  January 5, 2003

Bonnie Dumanis, the U.S.'s first lesbian District Attorney, to be sworn in today

By John Wilkens


Brockton is a tough no-nonsense Massachusetts town 20 miles south of Boston. They used to make shoes in Brockton. Two champion boxers, Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler, grew up there. So did Bonnie Dumanis, San Diego's new district attorney, a battler of a different sort. "All my life," she said in the distinctive accent of her hometown, "I've figured out a way to do what I wanted to do, despite the boundaries."

Now she's poised to make history. When she takes office tomorrow, she will be the county's first female district attorney.  And the first gay one, not just in San Diego but the entire nation. Yet those are just labels, and the people who know Dumanis say it's not labels that define her so much as her ability to transcend them. You pigeonhole her at your own peril. At first blush, her narrow victory in November seems unlikely, even stunning, considering the county's conservative standing.  How did a 51-year-old Jewish lesbian once hospitalized for mental illness beat Paul Pfingst, a polished two-term incumbent and family man whose office had just won a widely publicized murder case? And how did she do it, in these in-your-face times, with a campaign that was almost touchy-feely at its core, full of talk about ethics and integrity and having everybody get along? She and her supporters did it by funneling widespread discontent within Pfingst's office into a campaign that featured her considerable people skills. They went out and talked with as many voters as possible about what she had to offer. "She's an incredible campaigner," said Mark Pettine, a veteran prosecutor who ran against Dumanis in the primary, helped her in the runoff against Pfingst and now will be one of her top assistants.

"Everywhere she went, people would come up and say, 'Oh, she's just like my mother,' or 'She's just like my aunt,' or 'She's just like my sister.'  Once they meet her, people really like her." That all started in Brockton, in a neighborhood where people felt safe enough to keep their doors unlocked and the kids ran around until the street lights came on and a girl could grow up believing she could overcome anything. Abe Dumanis was a truck driver for 30 years who sometimes parked his rig in front of the house, a cool thing to the neighbor kids and a source of reflected glory for his two daughters. Ann Dumanis spent 20 years working for a government program that assists poor women and children. She became known as someone who gets in line behind you at the market and is your friend by the time you've paid for your groceries. "We're simple people," Ann said. They lived on the top floor of a two-story dwelling and together they raised the family in a household Bonnie remembers for its laughter and tolerance. Very religious as a child, Dumanis thought she'd grow up to be a rabbi. It bothered her when her father didn't go regularly to temple. She complained one day to her mother. "She told me to look around at some of the people who went to temple but were always getting into trouble outside it," Dumanis said. "She told me the life you lead is more important than the window dressing around it." Dumanis said it's a lesson she heeded as she joined and ran numerous groups at school and the temple, developing a reputation that still stands as an "organizational junkie" who can bring various factions together.

"Part of me is fascinated by something that is new," she said, explaining her penchant to heap a lot of activity on her plate. "I tend to jump in with both feet and try to absorb as much as I can." Even when she was busy - or maybe because of it - Dumanis always had a practical side.  When it came time to go to college, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she followed her mother's advice and decided to be a teacher.  She studied sociology because she figured it would be the easiest major. Then tragedy struck. During Dumanis' junior year, her sister was killed in an explosion while working at a fireworks factory in New Jersey. The person deemed responsible was put on trial for manslaughter. Dumanis won't talk publicly about the details, a stance that extends to other parts of her life, too, as she wrestles with what it means to be a public figure. "I think some parts of my life should remain off limits," she said. "I just want people to leave my sister alone." In a roundabout way, her sister's death helped bring Dumanis to San Diego.

When she graduated from college, her plan to become a teacher hit a hurdle - no jobs - so she decided to go to law school instead. One of the places that accepted her was Western State University School of Law in San Diego. She had never been to California, but San Diego was far away from Brockton, a place then of painful memories. She packed her red Dodge sedan and drove west. It would be handy to say that Dumanis became interested in criminal law, developed a thirst for justice, because of what happened to her sister. Her story, far less dramatic, is again a testament to her practical nature. When she arrived here, she took a job as a clerk with the welfare department while she attended school. Pondering what kind of attorney to be, she figured since she was already working for county government she'd start there. She chose the District Attorney's Office, working first as a clerk, then an investigative assistant and finally, in 1978, a deputy district attorney.

Seven years into her career, she was haunted again by her sister.  In what she calls a "delayed reaction to grief," she tried to kill herself. She was hospitalized for five weeks and treated for depression. "I'm not ashamed of it, but I wouldn't wish it on anybody," she said. The experience, she believes, gave her the ability to weather anything. "What I learned is that you should deal with the feelings that arise. I had shut myself off from the feelings for so long they had to surface at some point - and they did." There was another lesson. "You shouldn't make judgments about people because you don't know where they've been and what they've gone through," she said. Dumanis settled into a career that flew mostly below the media's radar. She briefly headed the San Diego Metropolitan Homicide Task Force, a largely secretive group that had mixed results investigating the unsolved murders of more than 40 women, mostly prostitutes and transients.

In 1990, she was appointed Juvenile Court referee.  Four years later, she was elected to the Municipal Court bench. In 1998, she was elected Superior Court judge. Behind the scenes, she was building a name as an evenhanded team player. She helped set up alternative courts for drug and domestic violence offenders. "She was a tough judge, but a fair judge," said Mary Ellen Attridge, a local defense attorney who supported her for district attorney.  "I always felt comfortable with her ability to weigh mitigating factors in all kinds of situations and reach a just outcome." When Dumanis was working in Juvenile Court, where she sometimes found herself sentencing criminals she described as "pure evil," she said she tried to keep things in perspective by volunteering to evaluate Eagle Scout projects. "I wanted to see kids who were doing good, too," she said. She thinks that kind of balancing act will serve her well as district attorney. "People are always trying to pigeonhole me," she said.  "They see me as conservative on some issues, very liberal on others. The fact that I'm gay and a Republican boggles some people's minds. But I just like to look at things from every angle." It's one of the reasons she included a defense lawyer, Gerald Blank, on her transition team. They became friends nearly 20 years ago after being on opposite sides of a case involving the shooting of a Border Patrol agent. "She understands that after listening to all points of view she can make a better decision," said Blank, who supported her campaign.

Dumanis also has a reputation for loyalty - to people and to stuff. She still has childhood friends.  Lately she's been fretting about whether to get rid of her white van with 150,000 miles on it. She saves pens.  She has a couple dozen of them, including some pricey ones from Tiffany and Montblanc, which she keeps in a box and doesn't use because she's afraid she'll lose them. Dumanis lives in Hillcrest with Denise Nelesen, her domestic partner of about six years. Nelesen is a licensed counselor who works for the county and writes a regular column on seniors' issues for the Union-Tribune. At home, they like to walk their golden retriever, Jake, and socialize at local restaurants (mud pie is a favorite dessert). Neither cooks much. They also enjoy traveling.  Dumanis once took a five-week bicycling tour of Europe and has been to China. When she has the time, she is fond of gangster movies, detective novels and TV shows such as "Law and Order" and "Murder, She Wrote." Dumanis is big on family, too, and fiercely protective.  She calls her mother every night and visits her parents almost every weekend at their home in Rancho Bernardo. Dumanis moved her folks, who are in their 70s, from Brockton to San Diego about eight years ago. She was afraid she was too far away to help if something went wrong. Ask Dumanis about her heroes and she mentions her parents first. Ask them about her and her mother says, "I was proud of her from the day she was born." On the parents' dining table one recent night was a plant sent to them by some of the deputy district attorneys who put their careers on the line by campaigning against their boss and for Dumanis. "Thanks for having Bonnie," the card read, "And thanks for encouraging her." Publicly, anyway, people in the legal community have been saying nice things about Dumanis since the election.  So many of them use the same warm-and-fuzzy words to describe her - kind, caring, honest - you almost expect to hear John Tesh music swelling in the background. But starting tomorrow, the job is hers, and people will be paying attention to what she does, not what she says.

They will be watching the first time she has to decide whether to seek the death penalty or charge a juvenile as an adult or prosecute a police officer. During the campaign, she was criticized for having a lackluster record with little experience handling major cases.  "A lightweight" is the way some in the courthouse describe her, although they wouldn't be quoted by name.  Members of a county grand jury that blasted the Juvenile Court while Dumanis was a referee there in the early '90s still shake their heads at a couple of her decisions. She acknowledges there are people who question her toughness and management ability.  They wonder how well a nice woman with a fondness for brightly colored suits can do in the frequently macho, monochromatic world of law enforcement. "I don't see that being caring is inconsistent with being tough on crime," Dumanis said.  "Sometimes being caring means being tough on people. You have to hold them accountable for their behavior."

When she was judge, she had a lithograph on the wall in her chambers that quoted from Deuteronomy: "Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue." To her, "Justice means aggressively prosecuting the people who commit crimes - and making sure the innocent aren't unjustly prosecuted." The latter part of that comment resonates in San Diego, where her two predecessors lost their jobs in part because of botched prosecutions, cases with the names Wade, Akiki, Crowe. "No matter how hard you try, you'll probably wind up sometimes prosecuting an innocent person," Dumanis said.  "But the key is what you do when you find out that it's happened.  Human nature is to deny, deny, deny, then try to defend the actions surrounding it." She's already had a taste of that.  Shortly after her victory, she sent a fund-raising letter to attorneys all over town, including those in the District Attorney's Office. Some viewed it as extortion of her future employees. Dumanis admitted she initially got mad at the criticism, which included an editorial cartoon in the Union-Tribune depicting her as a Salvation Army Santa, ringing a bell for contributions. "I got defensive about it, but then I said, 'You know what?  We made a mistake. And we should fix it.'"  She apologized, said she didn't intend to solicit staff members and promised to return any new donations from them. At a subsequent event to pay off her $60,000 campaign debt, she brought the newspaper cartoon to life, walking out in a Santa hat and ringing a bell.  The place roared with laughter. And then true to her practical Brockton upbringing, she passed the hat.