Bonnie Dumanis at the La Jolla Woman’s Club: San Diego District Attorney says backup plans are tools for success

San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis is a woman with a plan. Several, in fact.

As the second speaker in the La Jolla Woman’s Club “Women in Leadership” series June 3, she told the more than 75 people gathered that having plans A, B, C and D has been paramount to her path to leadership.

The series, which launched with City Council President Sherri Lightner in April, is part of the Woman’s Club’s revitalized mission to provide community events that focus on careers for women by highlighting the various ways local leaders got to where they are.

Dumanis’ path started with her family. “My dad was the biggest feminist I ever met in my life,” she said. “He told me from the beginning there is nothing I can’t do because I’m a woman — it was never even a question.”

Growing up Brockton, Massachusetts, Dumanis engaged in sports and youth groups, where she learned about teamwork early on. Leadership, she said, came naturally to her. And with her family for support, she said she knew the sky was the limit for her career choices.

However, not everyone Dumanis came across in life shared her father’s beliefs. “When I went to college in 1969, I wanted to be a rabbi. But at that time, they didn’t let women be rabbis,” she said. “So I went for plan B, and thought I would become a teacher. But by 1973 when I graduated, there were no teaching jobs.”

So she went for plan C and volunteered for VISTA (aka AmeriCorps) as a legal aid. “When I couldn’t find a job and had been volunteering there for a year, I thought, ‘these guys are lawyers, maybe I could do that, too.’ ” She applied to 25 law schools, but with less than stellar SAT scores, Dumanis said she was only accepted to three. One of them was Western State University College of Law, now Thomas Jefferson School of Law, in San Diego.

“When I got into law school, I joined the Lawyers Club of San Diego. Most of the female members focused on women’s equality within the law and the opportunities for women who wanted to be lawyers,” she said. Noting that the year was 1974, she added that when the Bar Association would meet, women were not allowed in the building. “They were allowed to be lawyers, but they weren’t allowed at any Bar Association meetings,” she said. “Betty Boone (one of the founding members of the Lawyers Club of San Diego) would climb the fire escape to get to the meetings.”

In need of a job, Dumanis applied to be a junior clerk typist in the county office. From there, she was promoted to intermediate clerk typist and then to investigative assistant (a position now known as a paralegal).

Dumanis received her law degree in 1976, and served as a Deputy District Attorney for 12 years, the majority of which she spent in the child support and juvenile divisions. “When I started, there were six women prosecutors, now we have well over 150,” she said.

Her next “plan A” was to become a Superior Court judge, but lacking “political clout,” she was not selected. Instead of giving up, she sought appointment as a Superior Court Referee, which she got in 1990.

From her post, she ran for Municipal Court Judge in 1994, this time with more success. After four years of service, she successfully ran for Superior Court Judge.

Dumanis said during her time as a judge, her proudest moments were the establishment of one of the first drug court systems in San Diego — graduates of which still call to let her know they are clean and sober — and instituting the domestic violence court system.

In 2003, she was elected District Attorney, giving her mother something to laugh about. “She said, ‘why would you become an attorney, you’re already a judge!’ ” Dumanis said. In times of difficulty, she said, she relied heavily on friends, family and faith. “Not so much my mom, because she worries, but I would talk to my friends and my spouse, Denise.”

She also afforded herself opportunities for self-care, she said. “Sometimes I would just go in my room, not check my e-mail or phone, and just chill out watching TV.”

The next generation

Although new generations see female candidates for President of the United States, and other high-ranking positions, Dumanis argues the battle is not yet won. “There are two women that have announced they are running for president in 2016 (Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina), but what do you hear about them? It’s what she’s wearing or how her hair is,” she said, adding the thing she’s heard most about “in my entire career,” is how she looks as a blonde.

“So many of the young women I see don’t realize how bad it was, how much better it’s gotten, but how much more they still have to do. We have made great strides, but when you look at it, we are woefully underrepresented as CEOs, elected officials and in other leadership positions.

Some of these battles women are fighting now are ones we fought 40 years ago. Last I checked, women make 82-cents for every $1 a man makes. Those who’ve been there need to share those experiences so the next generation can pick up the torch.”

One member of the next generation in attendance was Destiny Peralez, who arrived with her sister, mother and grandmother. “I’m going to graduate from UC Riverside and it was nice to see someone who has gone through the same thing ... not knowing exactly what they wanted to do but still finding the right place for them, and seeing I can do whatever that may be as a woman.”

Her mother, Balmatie Ramlochan, said she liked the advice to have at least one backup plan. “Ms. Dumanis reminded me that I’m going to get where I need to be by having plans A, B, C and D,” Ramlochan said. “And I may have to rearrange the order based on what happens in life, but I’ll get there.”