Ten-year District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis sailed through two previous elections without a challenger. Next year, she will face a living, breathing opponent – one who’s already making an impact in the race, eight months ahead of the primary.

Former prosecutor Bob Brewer formally announced his effort to unseat Dumanis on Wednesday night, and Deputy District Attorney Terri Wyatt has also made her bid official by filing paperwork with the county.

Though Dumanis maintains a high-profile list of endorsers, there are signs the political newcomers, particularly Brewer, could give her a serious challenge.

Here are a few reasons Dumanis should be prepared for a grueling race.

In more than a decade as district attorney, Dumanis has become one of the region’s most powerful politicians but that didn’t translate into a strong showing in the mayor’s race.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Dumanis came in fourth last June, drawing just 13 percent of the vote. That was despite years in the public eye and big endorsements, including former Mayor Jerry Sanders and the entire County Board of Supervisors.

Dumanis billed the votes against her as a sign that voters preferred her as district attorney.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that people are glad I’m staying the DA,” Dumanis told Voice of San Diego days after the mayoral primary. “I don’t take it as a loss, but as more of a re-election to DA.”

Dumanis’s failed mayoral bid and perceived politicking put more attention on her political positions and created an opening for a challenger.

Dumanis was elected in 2002 after narrowly defeating incumbent District Attorney Paul Pfingst. She hasn’t had an opponent since her election in 2002.

But since the last election, Dumanis’ mayoral bid and perceived political actions have provided easy bait for rivals.

For example, long before she decided to run for mayor, Dumanis said she’d stop endorsing political candidates. VOSD contributor Kelly Thornton wrote about that promise in 2010:

Dumanis made the pledge to stop endorsing at a 2007 press conference in which she announced the creation of a public integrity unit that would take on political corruption. She made an exception for judicial and public safety-related races, a category so broad she even included San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, since he makes police-related budget decisions.

A major law enforcement group later said it wasn’t endorsing Dumanis in the 2010 district attorney’s race. At the time, the local chapter president of Police Officers Research Association of California told VOSD that some of her prosecution decisions “seemed more politically motivated versus to serve justice.”

Dumanis, who ran unopposed in that race, easily kept her post. But in March 2011, just two months after being sworn into her third term as district attorney, Dumanis announced she’d run for mayor.

Brian Marvel of the San Diego Police Officers Association, which recently endorsed Brewer, said he and other union leaders saw that move as proof Dumanis wasn’t committed to the district attorney’s office.

“We had some issues regarding, ‘Do you want to be the DA or to be the mayor?’” Marvel said. “You really want the job to be the DA?”

Brewer has tried to harness that sentiment in his campaign. He’s said he won’t seek higher office or endorse political candidates. His campaign slogan emphasizes those positions: “Public safety … without politics.”

Wyatt also appears to hint at similar concerns on her campaign website.

“Be a leader who is present and committed to this office,” Wyatt wrote in a list of goals for the district attorney’s office. “Be a leader that does not increase or add stress to employees.”

Brewer has already racked up endorsements — and money.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

On Wednesday night, more than 350 San Diegans packed high-power real-estate executive Craig Irving‘s Point Loma home for Brewer’s campaign kickoff. Supporters openly acknowledged the tests ahead.

They’ll need to raise significant cash to spread the political novice’s name and message across a large county that’s repeatedly re-elected Dumanis. Not only will Brewer need to prove he’s the better choice for district attorney, but he’ll also need to introduce himself to voters with ads, mailers and major events.

Brewer hired well-known political consultant Tom Shepard, who helped catapult four of the last six San Diego mayors into office, to run his campaign.

Key endorsements may also help Brewer’s cause.

On Wednesday night, leaders of the city’s police union and the county sheriff’s deputies union hailed Brewer’s promises not to play politics and to deepen the office’s partnerships with law enforcement. Both are among 11 police unions – including, most recently, the statewide California Coalition of Law Enforcement Associations – that have already endorsed Brewer.

Brewer’s early fundraising efforts have been impressive, too.

County records show Brewer also outraised Dumanis in the first six months of this year, bringing in more than $281,000. (He loaned himself about $36,000.) Dumanis received about $213,300 during the same period.

Still, Brewer will need to raise far more in the next several months to pose a serious threat to Dumanis come Election Day.


But Dumanis has plenty of factors working in her favor.

County voters have known Dumanis for more than a decade and she’s a shrewd politician with countless supporters.  She’s also served in key posts that have given her national and statewide exposure, and makes frequent media appearances and cameos at community events, all of which give her big-time name recognition with voters.

And county voters have repeatedly shown they heavily favor incumbents.  Last year, county voters elected the first new county supervisor in almost 20 years.

Dumanis’ office also hasn’t seen major scandals on her watch, something that plagued her predecessor and contributed to her 2002 victory.

The district attorney’s race is still Dumanis’ to lose.

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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