By Mark R. Day
“There’s a big difference between being called a prosecutor and a politician,” says Robert Brewer, a candidate for San Diego County District Attorney in the upcoming June primary. “You need to run for office, but you need to be as apolitical and non-partisan as possible once you get in office.”
Brewer, accompanied by his wife, Irma Gonzalez, spoke to Mark R. Day of La Prensa at the Jones Day law office in Carmel Valley where he works as a trial lawyer and litigator. Before that he served as a deputy district attorney and federal prosecutor in Los Angeles.
Brewer was born in Hartford, Connecticut and raised in upstate New York. He attended St. Lawrence College on an ROTC scholarship and upon graduation spent four years in the U.S. Army, serving in Germany and Vietnam. He studied law at the University of San Diego.
He met his wife, Irma, when both served as prosecutors in Los Angeles. Gonzalez’ mother was from Baja California, and her father, a native of Nogales, Arizona. Gonzalez, who also served as a Superior Court Judge, was the first Hispanic federal court judge in U.S. history. She currently works in private practice as a mediator and arbitrator.
MD: What got you interested in running for district attorney in San Diego?
Brewer: Once you become a prosecutor, you always watch what the local prosecutors do. Quite frankly, the tipping point for me was when Bonnie Dumanis announced, right after she was elected D.A. in 2010, that she was going to run for mayor. I found that to be outrageous for a sitting prosecutor who was just sworn in to then become a total politician, and to run for another job. I assumed that when she lost the mayor’s race, that she would leave the DA’s office, but she didn’t. She told people she was going to run again in 2012. When I heard she was gong to run yet again for D.A. unopposed, I told my wife she was going to have an opponent in 2014.
MD: Bonnie Dumanis has the reputation of politicizing the D.A.’s office What can you tell us about her handling of the investigations of the Chula Vista City Council, specifically that of councilman Steve Castaneda in 2008?
Brewer: KPBS recently reported that Steve Padilla, the former mayor of Chula Vista, said he received a phone all from Bonnie Dumanis, asking him to replace a recently departed city council person with one of her employees, Jesse Navarro. Steve said he wasn’t going to do that. Very soon after that Dumanis started investigating the whole city council, serving them with subpoenas. She went after Steve Castaneda, and now we find out that Pat O’Toole, the prosecutor of Steve Castaneda, said he never knew about her call to Steve Padilla. He said had he known about that, he would have recused the D.A.’s office from the case. It was a very weak case and Mr. Castaneda was not convicted.
MD: And the upshot was that Steve Castaneda’s career was ruined?
Brewer: Absolutely, it was ruined. He had a pretty bright future in Chula Vista politics. Not only did it ruin Castaneda’s career, it cost the city of Chula vista about $600,000 because they had to indemnify all of the city councilmen who had to hire lawyers to respond to the subpoenas, and they had to pay Mr. Carlos the lawyer that defended Steve Castaneda.
It was a huge hit against the taxpayers.
MD: Bonnie Dumanis has been called the most influential politician in San Diego County, indeed a “kingmaker.” Do you agree with that?
Brewer: The Voice of San Diego has called her that. That is a terrible classification for a prosecutor. There is a big difference between being called a prosecutor and a politician. Yes, you have to run for office. But you should be as apolitical and nonpartisan as possible, because you are making decisions that affect people’s lives.
MD: You have to be impartial?
Brewer: Yes, you have to be impartial. And as the prosecutor, you have to police the politicians. And Bonnie, by running for mayor, in my opinion, crossed the line. She became a total politician. She created alliances with other politicians. She endorsed them, and they endorsed her. And now she has to police them. And politicians have a whole set of rules that apply to them that don’t apply to the ordinary citizen. They have to make disclosures on fundraising, on relationships. The have to make disclosures if they have an interest in a company that the city is going to do business with. All these things have to be policed by the district attorney.
MD: Can you give any examples of this?
Brewer: One example of this was that her office was unable to investigate Bob Filner when the allegations of state crimes were levied against him by various women. They accused him of sexual battery and sexual assault. Those are both state crimes. Yet because she ran against Filner in the primary, and she endorsed Carl Demaio against him, and her bias was so strong that she had to recuse her office from investigating Filner.
MD: Did this preoccupation with politics have some effect on her day to day duties as D.A.?
Brewer: Of course it did. You can’t run for an office for 17 months and also run an office of 25 prosecutors and 125 investigators at the same time. She says she did a great job. I totally disagree with that. If you study organizational leadership, she sent a terrible message when she said she was running for mayor.
MD: Can you comment on the campaign finance scandal that has rocked San Diego in recently years? Jose Susumo Azano, a Mexican businessman, and former policeman Ernesto Encinas, contributed questionable funds to several candidates, including Bonnie Dumanis.
Brewer: It is a terrible black eye to law enforcement, to ethics and to the way things are supposed to be done. When you look at the chronology, Mr. Susumo made a $100,000 contribution to Dumanis’ independent expenditures in early May, 2012. On May 23, City Beat issued a story that he was the man behind the $100,000 contribution to her. Yet she claimed, “I don’t know anything about it. It’s an independent expenditure.”
Let me tell you something. When you are a chief law enforcement officer, and you are running for mayor at the same time, and you didn’t hear about the source of the money? And it was in the news? Something is wrong. The first thing she should have done was to conduct an independent investigation to find out who this man was. She would have found out he was a Mexican national, not a citizen, and this was an illegal contribution.
MD: You say you want to be a leader in the fight against sex trafficking. Bonnie Dumanis did not support Proposition 35, which increases penalties against sex traffickers. Why not?
Brewer: Proposition 35 is a microcosm of Bonnie Dumanis’ politics. It brought a lot of attention to law enforcement. I don’t know why Bonnie Dumanis didn’t support it. It increased penalties for sex traffickers. It caused perpetrators of victims of sex human trafficking to register as sex offenders. It mandated training, and money for prosecution. It passed with 81 per cent of the popular vote. And she did not support it. Fast forward to today. She is making human trafficking the cornerstone of her campaign to be reelected. She now knows that this is something she needs to be advocating.
Where was she in 2012? Maybe she was too busy running for mayor.
MD: In North Count San Diego, many believe that the incumbent has failed to protect Latinos and other people of color involved in cases of police abuse, particularly from sheriff deputies. The traffic checkpoints aimed at immigrants in Escondido are another issue. Yet law enforcement is giving you a strong backing. Will you be more even handed in these matters than Bonnie Dumanis?
Brewer: I am going to enforce the law, and that has nothing to do with Latinos, Asians, or anyone else. If the police are violating the law, I am going to take a hard look at it. I’ve heard these complaints about traffic stops done for no other reason that going after immigrants. Profiling is illegal. The police backing me is not a quid pro quo for looking the other way for their activities. And they have never asked for that. They are looking for leadership in the district attorney’s office. When Bonnie Dumanis ran for her third term in 2010, 22 police agencies in this county refused to endorse her.
The reason was that they were sick and tired of her being so political. They want dedicated leadership and that’s what they will get with me. I will be very watchful of these allegations of brutality or unfair application of the law.
MD: You have heavily criticized your opponent. But can you succinctly lay our your own plans for the district attorney’s office if you are elected?
Brewer: Number one, I am going to eliminate politics from the district attorney’s office. There will be no endorsements of any politicians. I will never run for any other office. Mine will be a transparent, open office. We will work closely with the police. We will have extensive communications with various communities, and with the police, to determine what types of enforcement, policies and task forces we need to put together.
I am also going to focus on elder abuse. I am going to focus on child abuse. I am going to focus on human trafficking, and public integrity. I am also going to take a hard look at gangs, especially the most violent gang members, and aggressively prosecute them. And, I will work with community groups on the lesser members of gangs, the hangers on, those who are there because of lack of discipline and guidance. We will work with them with diversion programs and things like that. I will give a new look to the D.A.’s office. It’s time for a change. This is not a political stepping stone for me. It’s the only office I aspire to.
MD: Finally, Bonnie Dumanis has built up a powerful political machine during her years in office. She has powerful allies and a substantial popular following. Are you up to the task of defeating her and establishing a new look for the D.A.’s office?
Brewer: I am doing everything I can. I have some passionate supporters, and people are working very hard. No one owns an elected office. She thinks she does. And she thinks she is entitled to be re-elected, even though she didn’t even want to be the D.A. for two years. There are a lot people who think it’s time for a change. I will bring new energy, new discipline, and a new focus to the race.
There is no question that it’s an uphill battle, that the incumbent has the upper hand. But when you look at the number of law enforcement groups that support me, that sends a very powerful message. And that’s something people listen to.
MD: Irma, do you have anything to add?
Irma Gonzalez: Yes, Bob is very passionate about this. A lot of people are asking: “Why are you doing this at this time of your life, when people normally retire.” This is something he has wanted to do for many years, and he wants to do it—and it’s right time in this country’s history. Bob and I both know Bonnie, and we respect her years of service. But I know Bob as a leader, as a prosecutor and as a wonderful person. And he does work night and day, seven days a week. So I believe this is a very important decision.
Mark R. Day is a journalist and filmmaker. He lives in Vista, CA. firstname.lastname@example.org