The Wisdom of the Benchby Tina B. Eshel January 2, 2015
Bonnie Dumanis is more than the nation’s first openly gay District Attorney. She’s San Diego County’s first female and first Jewish person to sit at the head of the local judicial system. On top of all those firsts, Dumanis is a highflying political personality sitting in the driver’s seat of a nonpartisan position who, even as a registered Republican, finds allies, appreciators, and detractors among a broad spectrum of people from Democrats to community leaders to law enforcement.
Trailblazer that she is, Dumanis has, by necessity, become comfortable with criticism since getting the DA job in 2003. Critics contend that Dumanis wields her office’s power in inappropriate ways, ways that don’t always sit well with those on the receiving end of her decisions.
In our interview, we bypassed the gossip to get to the core of the woman behind the legal and political machinations. After all, ask anyone in a position of leadership and she’ll tell you that condemnation comes with the terrain. I found her to be refreshingly candid, comfortable and at times even vulnerable.
We start at the beginning. Dumanis comes from a working class family. Her father put his dreams on hold to take care of his brood. A truck driver by day and musician when time permitted, he was “surrounded” by women in their home and set an example that “everybody was equal to him,” Dumanis says.
“My father was the biggest feminist around.”
From him, Dumanis learned that she could do whatever she wanted and she held that belief even when she graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and couldn’t find a teaching job, her first career choice.
“I had no plans to be a lawyer. None. Zippo.”
With no work in education, Dumanis headed to San Diego where she found employment as a law clerk while she went to law school at night. She graduated from Thomas Jefferson School of Law in 1976 and spent the next 12 years as a Deputy District Attorney before being appointed to the Municipal Court as a judge.
Nearly 40 years later, she still sounds a bit surprised that a Jewish woman from a working class neighborhood on the other side of the country (Brockton, Mass.) commands a job in the corner office on the top floor of a downtown skyscraper with a view of one of the finest coastlines in the world.
Passionate about public service, Dumanis offers that it’s still the best job in town, even with the critics and public outcry. As she put it, “How the public has treated us of late hasn’t been kind.” There’s no animosity in her voice. Her eyes twinkle and she’s ready for the next question – the glass ceiling.
“There are gender obstacles in every path,” she says, adding, “the real world is different than how my dad painted it.”
Dumanis is aware that there is a tradition of women who came before her and broke down barriers that she has continued to blast through. She says that younger women today appear to take for granted the rights that were earned through the sweat and tears of others.
Her take is that when it comes to women’s issues, “it’s a constant battle with extremism taking over,” which means that today’s generation must continue the legacy of empowering women to achieve their full potential.
“My advice is to not let anyone hold you back,” she says. “Follow your passion and don’t give up.”
As the interview winds down, I ask what’s next for Dumanis when she eventually leaves the DA’s office. She looks out the window that mirrors the expansive view she says she’s always taken in her professional endeavors.
“In 10 years, maybe I’ll make my mother proud and go back to school online to become a rabbi,” she muses. “In many ways, being a judge was like being a rabbi,” I don’t question her on this. I’m too busy imagining Rabbi Dumanis at the pulpit.