The County Board of Supervisors has a decision on its hands.
Greg Walden, a former deputy district attorney who retired after over 30 years in the office, is looking to become interim district attorney. Bonnie Dumanis, the current DA, announced last month that she’ll resign her seat in July, leaving the Board of Supervisors to appoint a temporary successor until the 2018 election.
Earlier this week, Adam Gordon, a former deputy district attorney who’s now in private practice, also applied for the position. Both Gordon and Walden have pledged not to run in the 2018 election.
They join Chief Deputy District Attorney Summer Stephan, who is seeking the appointment and is already running for the seat in 2018. She’s collected a powerful list of bipartisan endorsements, including most of the county’s law enforcement and prosecutorial leaders.
But it’s the support of Dumanis that is giving people pause, and which drew Walden and Gordon into the fray. Stephan, meanwhile, said the concerns are nothing but trumped-up political machinations.
Earlier this year, Dumanis reportedly told supporters of her “succession plan,” in which she would resign early so the supervisors could appoint her chosen successor, who could then run in 2018 as an incumbent. Incumbency is a powerful advantage in down-ticket, low-information races.
Walden said he was troubled by what seemed like a “coronation” of the next DA.
“I don’t think one person should be able to choose who the next DA should be, and that’s what appears to be in play right now,” he said. “I would have thought that if the DA doesn’t want to finish out her term, that we have an assistant DA who could handle the job until the next election. (Assistant DA) Jesse Rodriguez would do an excellent job – this seems to be a manipulation of the process going on. They’re taking away the opportunity for the people of San Diego to vote on who their next DA should be.”
Walden said his relationship with Dumanis before he retired was cordial and professional. He declined to comment on Stephan’s qualifications. He previously criticized the union that represents county prosecutors and its political action committee for endorsing Stephan just a week after Dumanis announced her resignation, before anyone else had announced a run.
“Hopefully the County Board of Supervisors will have enough information with this application, they’ll go out into the legal community and vet the candidates,” he said. “I think it’s important that they have a choice.”
Gordon said his aversion to appointing a supervisor who could then run for re-election as an incumbent isn’t political – he’s a Republican, like Dumanis, Stephan and all of the county supervisors.
“The moral principal behind this is having the voters be the ones to decide, because incumbency is so strong,” he said. “That’s a first principle.”
He also said whoever serves as the interim DA shouldn’t be distracted by running for re-election.
“The interim DA needs to be focused on doing the job,” Gordon said.
Stephan, though, called the argument typical politics and said the idea that appointing her to the office would bypass voters is “illusory” and a “red herring” because in her time in the office, two incumbent DAs have lost re-election bids: Paul Pfingst to Dumanis, in 2002, and Ed Miller to Pfingst in 1994. Miller had held the office for over two decades before being voted out.
Gordon said there’s a key difference. Voters could hold Pfingst and Miller accountable for their years-long records.
“These are situations where you have an extended period to evaluate somebody,” he said. “It’s not a situation where someone comes into office, with the power of incumbency, and they don’t have a sufficient enough record to be evaluated by voters.”
Stephan said she never asked Dumanis to step aside early, and didn’t want her to. She decided to run because her colleagues and people she’s worked with in the community asked her to.
“What choice do I have? If I believe I’m the best candidate to run, do I then just decide, oh I’m not going to put in an application? For a year and a half, the office would be run by a less qualified person. If I’ve already said to the public, I’m the most qualified, it would be inconsistent and unfair to my office to step away from it.”
Stephan already benefits from a high profile in the DA’s office. Earlier this week, prosecutors and law enforcement officials from around the county announced federal charges from a crackdown on gangs in San Diego. Acting U.S. Attorney Alana Robinson took top billing at the press conference, with Stephan right next to her and Dumanis nowhere in sight.
If Gordon or Walden thinks they’d be a better DA than her, Stephan said they should run.
“If they think they’re better for the job, this is what democracy is about,” she said. “Come out and face me.”