Almost every conservative in town wants Bob Hickey to be San Diego’s next city attorney.
Almost. A notable exception is his boss, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.
Hickey has the support of Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Sherriff Bill Gore and every Republican on the City Council. Last week a horde of law enforcement officials added their names to his endorsement list. But the man’s boss since 2003 remains conspicuously absent.
In fact, she is actively opposing him behind the scenes.
Two sources familiar with the situation, who asked not to be named to avoid repercussions from the DA, told us Dumanis reprimanded a local Republican elected official who endorsed Hickey. She was upset the official even considered supporting her employee.
“Her feelings on this are not quiet,” one of the sources said. “It’s finally getting out there, but it isn’t new.”
Hickey and Dumanis have a history of tension.
In 2012, Hickey was president of the union for deputy district attorneys and rejected a $100,000 donation offer that would have boosted Dumanis’ then-active mayoral bid. The offer came from a Mexican national who was later indicted for illegal political donations.
After Dumanis won, she demoted Hickey without explanation. The DA’s office has said only that reassignments are routine and done in the best interests of the office.
But both Hickey and a former supervisor at the district attorney’s office say his demotion wasn’t based on performance. Hickey says he was assured of such by top Dumanis deputies.
If true, it raises suspicions the move was personal or political.
Dumanis and her political consultant, Jennifer Tierney, ignored multiple requests for comment. They did provide a written statement on why she hasn’t endorsed her employee, and the only Republican in the race:
“There are several strong candidates running for City Attorney who are continuing to go through the public vetting process. The DA hasn’t endorsed anyone at this time; however, as the campaign unfolds she may revisit a potential endorsement.”
Dumanis supporter Nicole Murray-Ramirez said Dumanis has made her opinion on the race known to those close to her.
“Other strong Bonnie Dumanis supporters and I know exactly how she feels about each of the four city attorney candidates,” said Murray-Ramirez, who wouldn’t elaborate on what those feelings are.
While Dumanis is keeping her views on the race quiet, she’s had plenty of public issues with Hickey over her failed mayoral run and successful re-election bid.
During both races, Hickey was the president of the Deputy District Attorneys Association, the union for the office’s 300 attorneys. He didn’t endorse anyone in the 2014 district attorney race – not his boss, nor her opponent Bob Brewer, who hired Hickey in private practice. Hickey considers Brewer a mentor and friend.
Hickey also pushed for the union to hold a member-wide vote for its endorsement, rather than limiting the vote to board members, as some Dumanis supporters had wished. Then he tried to cap how much the union’s political action committee could spend on Dumanis’ behalf in the primary, hoping to reserve some for the general election. He also referred complaints to the DA’s human resources division after union members said they felt strong-armed into supporting Dumanis.
When Dumanis locked up the office for another four years, Hickey was demoted from his management position along with two deputy district attorneys who had officially supported Brewer, as U-T San Diego reported at the time.
In an interview with Voice of San Diego, Hickey said top Dumanis deputies told him the demotion had nothing to do with performance.
“The final thing I would say on it is, from the day Bonnie became the district attorney until today, she has trusted me with the most important cases the district handles: murder cases,” Hickey said. “So, there you have it.”
The situation puts Hickey in a difficult position as he makes his case for city attorney. Hickey argues the city attorney’s office needs a prosecutor, especially since voters approved Proposition 47, which made many former felonies into misdemeanors.
Eventually, one of his Democratic challengers will ask: If the city needs a prosecutor, why hasn’t he earned the endorsement of the county’s top prosecutor and his boss of 12 years? And is there a reason he was demoted that should be shared with voters now that he’s pursuing elected office?
Hickey said he respects that Dumanis is in a tough spot with endorsements and pointed to support from other law enforcement organizations as evidence of his qualifications. Whatever iciness there is between them wouldn’t affect his performance as city attorney, he said.
“It’s not a problem now while I’m working for (the district attorney) on a murder case in the South Bay; I can’t imagine it being a problem then,” he said.
Outgoing Republican City Attorney Jan Goldsmith also hasn’t endorsed one of his employees – Chief Deputy City Attorney Mara Elliott, a Democrat – but that would be a rare cross-party endorsement.
Some of Hickey’s closest supporters attributed Dumanis’ non-endorsement to Hickey’s own neutrality in her 2014 race.
Julie Korsmeyer, Hickey’s former supervisor and former chief deputy over the office’s gangs division, said Hickey has been one of the best-performing attorneys in the office from the first day of his career, and his demotion couldn’t be merit-based.
“That’s not debatable,” she said. “You’ll find no one, even on the defense side, who disputes that.”
Instead, she said, it had to do with his time heading the deputy DAs union, and his non-endorsement in 2014.
“That’s a more sensitive subject,” she said. “I think you have some resentment there, but this is where I’m speculating.”
However, Hickey’s demotion definitely would have sent a message to other employees, Korsmeyer said.
“The other district attorneys observe those things and make their own conclusions,” she said.
Brian Marvel, head of the San Diego Police Department’s union, said the issue seems to stem from the perception that Hickey took Brewer’s side in the last election.
“From an outsider looking in, you could probably take it that away, that it’s probably personal, or that there’s some politics involved in it,” he said. “It’s a political office: Some politicians endorse some folks, and others don’t.”
Yet taking the decisions to be purely political only makes the stand-off more confounding. Dumanis’ resistance to Hickey’s candidacy seems to cut against her own self-interests.
It would reflect well on her office to have a deputy district attorney rise the ranks and eventually win the second highest office in the city. More significantly, it would put someone in the city attorney’s office who has an established relationship with all her deputy attorneys.
“I lived through the (former City Attorney) Mike Aguirre years, and there was such animosity between our offices because of the perception on our part that he was not doing the job as legally defined,” Korsmeyer said. “That was very different for us, and we had a very difficult time with it; contrast that between having a former district attorney in that position, and it would be a huge improvement from our perspective.”
But Tony Krvaric, head of the local Republican Party, which supports Hickey and has supported Dumanis in all of her re-election bids, rejected the entire premise. He said he’s heard nothing at all of any issues between Dumanis and Hickey, even those reported during and following her 2014 re-election.
“It sounds like you’ve been watching too much ‘Game of Thrones,’” he said.