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Ms. District Attorney


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Judge Bonnie Dumanis takes the oath as San Diego’s district attorney this month after what was the costliest (the candidates, combined, spent well over $1 million) and, many believe, one of the more bitterly contested local campaigns ever. Dumanis disputes the contention the race was bitter. The media, she says, made it divisive and contentious. But more than a month after the ballots were counted, the man Dumanis defeated, incumbent D.A. Paul Pfingst, still hadn’t called to concede or congratulate her.

And while important issues were debated over the course of a year, much of the attention during the campaign centered on matters of mental instability, anti-Semitism, sexual orientation, vindictiveness, favoritism and political cover-ups.

Returning from a Caribbean vacation in December after her narrow victory over Pfingst, Dumanis sat with San Diego Magazine for a post-mortem on the campaign and a look ahead. She also talked a bit about her childhood, her family (the death of a sister led to an episode of severe depression), her weaknesses (a craving for mud pies) and her strengths (she regards her reputation as a workaholic as both strength and weakness).

Born in Massachusetts—“I still pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd,” she says—Dumanis received her undergraduate degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. After studying language for a year in France, she won her law degree from California Western University School of Law. She was elected to the Municipal Court bench in 1994 and the Superior Court in 1998.

In her scant leisure time, she reads (on her Caribbean vacation, it was management books) and watches TV reruns of—go figure—Law & Order. “The beauty of getting older,” says Dumanis, who turned 50 last year, “is that you can see them over and over again, and you don’t remember.”

Dumanis, who’s Jewish, is the Republican daughter of Democrat parents. She lives in Hillcrest with her companion of six years, former journalist Denise Nelesen, a gerontologist who’s communications director for Aging & Independence Services, a county agency that helps the aging and disabled find resources and protects the elderly from abuse.

Despite waging an exhausting, year-long campaign for district attorney, Dumanis says she was probably the calmest of anyone in her camp. It was a win-win situation, because if she had lost, she would continue as a judge—a job she loved, she says. “So I really couldn’t lose. When I embarked on the campaign, it was almost like when you’re dating. It wasn’t because I was lonely and really needed a relationship. It was more like people came to me and asked me to do it. And I am passionate about public service—I mean, my whole career has been in public service.”

“When I embarked on the campaign, it was almost like when you’re dating. It wasn’t because I was lonely and really needed a relationship. It was more like people came to me and asked me to do it.”
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