June 5 2013 11:03 AM

For the first time, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has a challenger

Robert Brewer plans to formally announce his run for district attorney this fall.
Photo by Kelly Davis
In the 2012 mayoral race, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis seemed to have the least at stake. If she lost, she got to keep her job, while her opponents—San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio, U.S. Rep. Bob Filner and state Assemblymember Nathan Fletcher—had to give up their seats in order to run.

Dumanis came in fourth in the June primary and took the loss to mean that voters prefer her as DA. In an email to supporters earlier this year, she said the mayor's race helped sharpen her focus. "Today, I'm more committed than ever to serving the People of San Diego County as their District Attorney," she wrote.

But, Dumanis' failed mayoral bid could be the thing that ends her tenure as the county's top prosecutor.

"Any time you run for another race and lose, the political landscape changes and you look vulnerable," says Republican political consultant John Dadian.

Last month, San Diego attorney Robert Brewer opened a campaign committee to explore a run for DA; when he makes a formal announcement this fall, he'll be Dumanis' first opponent since she beat incumbent Paul Pfingst in 2002.

"No one telegraphed that it's time for a new DA better than Bonnie Dumanis when she ran for mayor," Brewer said in an interview at the Carmel Valley office of law firm Jones Day, where he's a partner.

Brewer might lack name recognition—far better known is his wife, federal judge Irma Gonzalez—but he showed he was serious about challenging Dumanis when he hired veteran political consultant Tom Shepard to run his campaign. Doing so "immediately puts him in the ballgame, as far as credibility," Dadian says. "He hired one of the best, if not the best consultant in the region."

Brewer's also got a compelling backstory. A decorated Army captain who served in Vietnam, he earned a law degree from USD before moving to Los Angeles and working for the L.A. County DA's office and then the U.S. Attorney's office, where he prosecuted Polish spy Marian Zacharski. The beginning of a 2009 profile in Super Lawyers magazine summed up Brewer's more interesting cases: "Hijacking! Espionage! Hitmen! Bank robberies!"

Brewer went into private practice in 1987, co-founding the firm Chapin & Brewer, and moved to the other side of the legal aisle, defending former Del Mar Mayor Nancy Hoover—the girlfriend and business partner of Madoffesque swindler J. David Dominelli—in what became the longest federal jury trial in San Diego history. The majority of his legal career, however, has been civil litigation.

Brewer says he's running for DA for two reasons: He started out as a prosecutor and wants to return to being a prosecutor. And, he's spent the last several months meeting with current and former deputy DAs, law-enforcement personnel and judges. What he says he's learned: Folks ain't happy with Dumanis.

"There's a real problem of leadership in that office. I'm going to fix that," he says.

On his website, Brewer's posted an open letter to DA employees that points to grievances he's heard: lack of prosecutorial discretion; promotions based on friendship and loyalty, not longevity and talent; and the DA's foray into politics, both in endorsing candidates and running for mayor.

"I will not run for any other office," Brewer writes. "I would never use such an important public safety position as a stepping stone to further personal political ambitions."

In an interview with CityBeat, Dumanis said she ran for mayor because she thought it was the right thing to do at that time. Whether she'd run for a fourth DA term if she lost wasn't on her mind.

"I was doing one thing at a time," she said. "I think my focus at that time was on running for mayor. I had no presumptions on what was going to happen."

In 2010, reporter Kelly Thornton wrote a series of stories about Dumanis for Voice of San Diego, describing the DA as the county's most powerful politician. "Hers is the most coveted endorsement in town," Thornton wrote, "and nobody in politics or law enforcement wants to cross her."

Brewer has homed in on this. His campaign slogan is "public safety without politics," and by this he means: no endorsements, ever.

"She's endorsed assessors, she's endorsed treasurers, she endorsed a city councilman in Del Mar," he says. "She's endorsed over seven different people for judge. What I'm going to do is what she said she was going to do in 2007. I'm not going to endorse anybody for anything."

In 2007, when Dumanis announced the formation of a Public Integrity Unit, whose job would be to prosecute corrupt public officials, she vowed that she wouldn't make endorsements except in "unusual circumstances" in order to steer clear of allegations of bias.

Now, she says "unusual circumstances" means positions that are tied to public safety.

"People want to know, as the district attorney, what I think about who is going to make a good judge, who's going to make a good sheriff, and I will continue to do that," she says. "It is the role of the district attorney to weigh in on these things."

Last week, Brewer secured the support of one of San Diego's more high-profile Democrats, former San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye, who echoed Brewer's disdain for Dumanis' endorsements. He's also, rather coyly, courted support from Dumanis' biggest opponents: a medical-marijuana community that's angry over the DA's prosecution of patients and collective operators who thought they were following state law.

"Please support and like my new Facebook page," Dumanis tweeted on May 2.

"Do you have a ‘Dislike' button as well," someone tweeting as @sdmarijuana responded.

Brewer jumped in, writing "The dislike button's here" and linking to his own Facebook page.

In 1997, Brewer was diagnosed with Agent Orange-related non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He went through six months of powerful chemotherapy and three months of radiation. He didn't turn to medical marijuana—Prop. 215 wasn't yet a year old—but the experience informed his views on marijuana's medical benefits.

"There is a legitimate use for medical marijuana as stated in Prop. 215, and here we are, 17 years after that was passed, and we still have significant problems in applying the law, and that's very unfortunate."

Brewer said that, if elected, he'd work with law enforcement and city governments to establish local guidelines.

"I'll do everything I can to get specific clarification," he says. He points to 2008 guidelines by then- California Attorney General Jerry Brown that laid out how collectives and co-ops can operate legally.

Dumanis says she doesn't yet consider Brewer an opponent—"As far as I'm concerned, nobody has formally declared," she says. Nevertheless, her campaign's held a number of fundraisers. One this week included current and former LGBT elected officials Toni Atkins, Christine Kehoe, Todd Gloria and Dave Roberts. Last month, Sheriff Bill Gore joined political power brokers like restaurateur Dan Shea, former Port Commissioner Steve Cushman and former Chamber of Commerce chair Vince Mudd in raising money for Dumanis.

Dumanis is a Republican. Brewer's an independent who was once a Republican. The office is nonpartisan.

"The bottom line for Brewer is raising the cash to build his name ID and making the case for change while not being overly negative," says Democratic political consultant Chris Crotty.

Brewer says he's been raising money, but just a little more discretely than Dumanis. Campaign fundraising reports are due June 30; Brewer says his totals will show there's "no doubt" he's a viable candidate.

Email kellyd@sdcitybeat.com or follow her on Twitter at @citybeatkelly.


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