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Political Analysis: San Diego’s Primary Election


This morning, we begin a series of political updates on the candidates and issues on San Diego's June primary ballot. First up, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis' uncontested bid for a third term. And, a look at the County Treasurer/Tax Collector and County Assessor races.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We are now almost exactly two months away from the June primary, and that means San Diego voters will soon be making big decisions about politicians and policies. Between now and primary day, June 8th, our weekly political update on These Days will focus on the races and issues on the ballot. KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner is with me to start this series of election shows. And good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Good morning, Maureen. And we start with some really hot races.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we’re covering them all, right?

PENNER: Yes, we are.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. So we begin with the San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who is running for reelection unopposed. So, Gloria, why are there no challengers for District Attorney Dumanis?

PENNER: Well, I don’t know the real reason but I suspect because she is a very powerful political person. And it really began with her relationship between – with former Sheriff Bill Kolender. It was a really friendly relationship, opened up all kinds of political doors for her, and, you know, many believe she’s going to run for San Diego mayor when Jerry Sanders is termed out, and that might only be a beginning. A run for State Attorney General could be in her future as well. She has a strong personality, she’s very likable to her friends and to her allies, and she works hard at cultivating relationships. She’s prominent in state politics. She has friends in Washington, D.C. And her endorsement is the most coveted endorsement in town. Nobody in politics or law enforcement wants to cross her. Right now, she’s fundraising for Richard Monroy in his campaign for judge. He’s seeking an open seat that’s vacated by Judge Coates, and he now serves as the ethics advisor in the DA’s office. And also to the public, she’s seen more as a crime fighter than a politician. She was the – she is elected by voters countywide and she has a much bigger stage than county supervisors.

CAVANAUGH: Well, even though she is running unopposed, she’s not popular with everyone. Hasn’t she been criticized for her crackdown on medical marijuana outlets in San Diego?

PENNER: Yeah, well, to give you a little bit of background, last September, KPBS reported that she announced raids on 14 medical marijuana operations and she accused the dispensaries of earning a profit and selling to anyone who came in the door, both of which do violate state law. She and Chief of Police Bill Lansdowne went on to say that they knew of no medical marijuana dispensaries in San Diego that were following the law. That’s a pretty strong statement. But in December, a jury in San Diego acquitted the manager of a local dispensary of marijuana possession and distribution charges. That was really a blow against her initiative. And then in March, Eugene Davidovich was acquitted after two weeks of trial, so that was twice in four months that juries have found that (sic) medical marijuana operators not guilty of drug charges even though she has aggressively pursued those dispensaries for not complying with Proposition 215.

CAVANAUGH: And DA Dumanis has drawn some other criticism in recent months on how her office has instituted blanket challenges against at least one judge, and a couple of other judges were also involved in those articles. The district attorney has defended herself of that criticism very vehemently even on this show. Remind us what some of the DA’s disputes with judges were about.

PENNER: Well, last November it was with Judge John Einhorn who presided over many high profile cases. Remember the Bird Rock Bandits trial, and Cynthia Sommer, and for about two months he was under this blanket challenge by the prosecutor’s office. That means any time a case is assigned for trial to Einhorn, or was because he’s no longer under the blanket challenge, prosecutors use a legal tactic called a preemptory challenge to block the case from going to the judge. And that challenge ended just days before Judge Harry Elias received the same treatment at the end of January. They said that he was biased because he harshly criticized – rather, he felt that there was a bias against him because he felt that he was being criticized by the prosecutors. Around the same time Judge Laurie (sic) Parsky – Parsky is a very famous name in San Diego, Jerry Parsky, a strong Republican, she also believed she was targeted by the DA. And Dumanis is not required by law to state a reason for alleging bias by these judges, has only addressed the Einhorn situation very briefly. She said this decision was made after careful consideration and thoughtful review over an extended period of time. It is a judgment call made in the best interest of our clients, the People of the State of California and the cases we are prosecuting.

CAVANAUGH: Now, conversely, Bonnie Dumanis is actually showing her support for some sitting judges, you mentioned one, and others who are actually facing challenges this year, which is an unusual thing for an incumbent judge. Tell us about that.

PENNER: It’s true. It’s a group of conservative Christians, including politicians and pastors and activists. They’re supporting a slate of candidates to challenge four local incumbent Superior Court judges. Three of them are family court judges, three are in the El Cajon court. And you’re right, it’s unusual for so many incumbents to be challenged election time. In fact, they’re usually challenged infrequently. They’re appointed by the governor. They serve for six years. The judges’ opposition has a website with endorsements and news stories about hot button issues such as prayer in schools and the protect marriage movement. You know, there’s no limit to the budget of Superior Court judges’ races, and if the challengers mount a big war chest, it will be interesting to see where the money comes from. Meanwhile, the sitting judges have this high profile supporter in Bonnie Dumanis and what she said is, we need to get prepared for a big fight. And she predicts the challengers will get organized, they’re going to raise money. And her conclusion is that it is a fight for the independence of the judiciary.

CAVANAUGH: Now before we leave this unopposed reelection race of Bonnie Dumanis’, tell us a little bit about how long DAs serve in San Diego traditionally. DA Dumanis is running for her third term.

PENNER: That’s correct, third four-year term. There are no term limits. She could stay in there for life if she wanted to and if she were reelected. Let me give you an example. The longest serving DA was Ed Miller who served as district attorney for 24 years and it wasn’t until the very famous Dale Akiki case, he was that 36-year-old man who was employed as a Naval supply worker and was accused by children at the church where he worked of abuse. But that was a very controversial trial. I won’t go into all the details.

CAVANAUGH: But he was acquitted.

PENNER: He was acquitted and Ed Miller was turned out of office after receiving only 11% of the popular vote after 24 years in office. And the person that – who preceded him, a guy named James Don Keller, also held the office for 24 years. So you can stay there forever.

CAVANAUGH: A long time. We move on now to two races that usually don’t generate many candidates but are active this year. First is for San Diego County Assessor/Recorder/Clerk. So, Gloria, what does the person do who holds this office?

PENNER: Just about what it says he does. The assessor appraises property in the county which is subject to taxation. The recorder/clerk issues marriage licenses, processes passport applications, files fictitious business names, keeps records of births and deaths and marriages, all the instruments pertaining to real property and other documents required by law. Our Assessor/Recorder/Clerk has a staff of almost 400 people and controls a budget of about $50 million a year, so it’s not peanuts, Maureen. And some folks feel that this is a technical kind of office that has no policymaking function and really should be appointed but that’s not enough passion to put it on the ballot so they’re elected.

CAVANAUGH: Well, David Butler is our present San Diego County Assessor. How did he get the job and who are his challengers on the primary ballot?

PENNER: Okay, well, David Butler was appointed by the board of supervisors last year after Greg Smith resigned in late 2008. Greg Smith had been in that office and he was very popular, a very personable, affable guy, and he was in that office for 25 years. And many thought that David Butler, who was his appointee, and the appointee of the board, would serve a partial term, step down, and then get his deputy, Jeff Olsen, appointed. So it would sort of be a progression from Greg to Dave to Jeff. But it seems that Dave Butler has decided to run for office. In an e-mail announcing his candidacy, he said I’ve decided to run for election for the office in June with the intention of serving at least one full term. So all those people who think that, yeah, if he got elected, he’s going to step down in the middle, he has pledged in an e-mail to serve one full term. But it is possible that Jeff Olson, who is challenging him and is the chief of Assessment Services might get enough votes to upset that applecart. We don’t know at this point. The spoiler might be somebody called Ernie Dronenburg. Now, I’ve known Ernie for years. He was a member of the Board of Equalization four or five times, if you’ve ever heard of the Board of Equalization. A lot of people don’t know what it does but you do have to get elected and it’s a multi-county kind of election. Ernie is a very conservative Republican. He’s listing himself on the ballot as the taxpayers’ advocate. You know, the question is, this is not Democrat versus Republican but there are some bloggers who are framing it this way: Butler is a Democrat and Dronenburg’s a Republican, so that’s the kind of race they’re seeing it as. The other person in the race is Howard Johnson. Howard has run before. He’s run for assessor before and he’s run for supervisor before, two years ago against Greg Cox. He’s a Navy vet, he’s retired, he’s disabled. Last time he ran, he said he was running because he was dissatisfied with what’s going on. I’ve sent him an e-mail, I’ve tried to get hold of him but there’s been no response. So we’ll see whether Howard Johnson is a vigorous candidate in the last few days.

CAVANAUGH: Well, the San Diego County Treasurer/Tax Collector Dan McAllister has served two four year terms. This is the first time he’s had a challenger, so who is running against him?

PENNER: Well, you’re right, and that challenger came out a little late but he came out after the press reported several issues having to do with the Tax Collector and – the Tax Assessor and the Tax Collector, sorry, Treasurer/Collector’s…


PENNER: …office. And his name is William Betts. William Betts is an auditor, an internal auditor for the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association and a former bank examiner for the State of California. And after these stories came out, what he said was I wanted to give the public an option. He said, I don’t feel that people who have negative activities in their offices should get a free ride. And what he was referring to were the news reports last month about an outside audit that found many problems within the county tax office and it wasn’t released until 11 months after the audit actually took place. So he said it’s to give the people a choice whether they want McAllister to continue in the office after the stories that have come out or whether they want to vote for someone else. Also, McAllister was one of those people at the county who decided to accept a pay raise. The DA said no. The sheriff said no. But both McAllister and the assessor said yes, and they both took the pay raises, which in a time when there are freezes and layoffs is not a very popular thing to do.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as I said, Gloria, we are going to be talking about policies and candidates every Wednesday from now until the June primary. And the next time, we will be discussing the role of labor in the upcoming San Diego elections.

PENNER: Well, that should really be hot. Thanks, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for coming in and speaking with us. Gloria Penner is, of course, KPBS political correspondent and host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. If you’d like to post comments to what you’ve heard, please go online, Coming up, we answer your questions and talk an awful lot about exotic pets. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

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