By Timothy Holmberg
I first met Summer Stephan one early morning as I schlepped into my 7am Rotary meeting. I had decided months ago to join Rotary for the good works at the core of their mission. They also specifically swore off political affiliations or allowing themselves to be used as a platform for the politically aspiring. We had officeholders speak to our group in the past, and all had heeded our organization’s prohibition on politicking at our meetings.
I expected the same of Stephan. I was wrong.
If I had a pen at my disposal to make tick marks, I could tell you how many times we were made aware of Stephan’s impending DA candidacy. She had come to us ostensibly to discuss the tragic growth of human trafficking (a tragedy to be sure) and how it had played out in our community. For the uninitiated, speakers are usually asked to tie their presentation to some actions that our group can undertake to make a difference. What I can tell you, is that at the conclusion of her presentation, it was clear that Stephan had no real guidance for how we might become involved other than a hot-line number that we could call if we saw a human being trafficked. It was also abundantly clear that her presentation had little to do with organizing the community response to human trafficking, and everything to do with pimping the issue to gain office (pun intended).
At this point, I was still unaware of the other candidate, Genevieve Jones-Wright, but was clear that I did not want someone who, even having been made aware of our need to stay away from campaigning, would abuse our forum to lay the groundwork for her DA bid.
The more research I did, the more I found in Stephan, a candidate willing to look past rules and ethics, to attain her goals. Her prosecution of the very attorney (who just happened to be) representing a man who was being prosecuted by Stephan in a marijuana dispensary case transformed me from being unwilling to support her, to someone who actively wanted to work against her candidacy. For those not steeped in legal norms, this act was astounding in what it says about Stephan’s willingness to not only aggressively prosecute, but to zealously throw ethics and even the law to the wind in her crusade for whatever she conceived of as justice.
As I watched Stephan’s candidacy unfold, and did my own research, what has emerged is a person who sees the world through highly polarized glasses. Unquestionable victims, and unrepentant, unmitigated perpetrators.
As I watched Stephan’s candidacy unfold, and did my own research, what has emerged is a person who sees the world through highly polarized glasses. Unquestionable victims, and unrepentant, unmitigated perpetrators. Those worth of empathy and compassion, and those worthy of a vengeful and authoritarian version of justice. At a debate, this “us versus them” conception of the law came into stark view. Stephan posed the question of why a public defender (Jones-Wright) would or could ever want to lead a DA’s office.
To Stephan, justice it would seem is achieved and the public protected, only through prosecution. Casting aside the racial dog whistle that is just below the surface of that question, Stephan seemed to genuinely be ignorant of the notion that justice could come from a public defender that saw the limitations of an incarceration society.
Again also, was the willingness to cast aside ethics, and disregard the community whom she will serve. Her campaign and supporters, virtually all of whom were from outside of the community the event was being held in, swarmed the debate taking up seats that rightfully belonged to Chula Vista residents. Residents who were left outside trying to overhear the debate. Stephan herself has observed her discomfort at public debates and one could only be left with the impression that her need for debate training wheels outweighed the community’s need to have access to the debate.
If we acknowledge systemic racial injustice, then we have to also acknowledge those who have, by their actions, contributed to its perpetuation, and that clearly fits Stephan’s expression of the office as Interim DA.
But what of Genevieve Jones-Wright? Is she some dangerous (racial code), inexperienced glam star who just wants attention and a title as Stephan’s campaign has characterized her?
I had the chance to sit for dinner with Jones-Wright, and she was none of those things. Jones-Wright has precisely what is missing from our current DA’s office. Namely an understanding that justice is the end goal, and does not always take the form of incarceration or prosecution. She intimately understands the relationship between the DA’s office and the police departments they work with. She understands that we cannot incarcerate our way out of homelessness, drug addiction, or the marijuana issue. More than that, she recognizes when the attempt to do that will wreak more destruction than the supposed crimes being prosecuted. She understands how uneven application of the law has done immense damage to minority communities who have been the target of disproportionate attention.
If we acknowledge systemic racial injustice, then we have to also acknowledge those who have, by their actions, contributed to its perpetuation, and that clearly fits Stephan’s expression of the office as Interim DA. Jones-Wright has extensive experience working both inside, and outside of the traditional legal system to seek genuine justice, and to assure that justice is serving the community’s needs rather than the other way around.
It also bears noting the Summer Stephan comes from a DA’s office under Bonnie Dumanis, tainted by politics and an air of corruption. Under Dumanis, politicians responsible for the near bankruptcy of San Diego have walked away from the mess. Worse yet, Dumanis herself is implicated in one of the most prominent campaign finance scandals to rock San Diego in decades. A scandal that Stephan refused to investigate. Payback? Her failure to recuse herself speaks volumes about how a Summer Stephan DA’s office would serve, or fail to serve the community. A community whose trust in our political system is at a historic low.
Change involves risk, we all know that. But the status quo involves risk too. It allows problems that plague our criminal justice system to go unanswered and fester to the point of an epidemic. This is the legacy of Dumanis. A legacy that could reach a tragic fruition under Summer Stephan should we empower her to carry her selective crusade to its obvious end. Stephan would cement the erosion of the public’s trust while using the law as a bludgeon that will disproportionately fall on the heads of minorities and the poor as it has now for decades.
Today, in this time, a public defender is precisely the eye needed in the DA’s office.
Timothy P. Holmberg is a former staff reporter for the Gay & Lesbian Times and has been published in Uptown News Magazine, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and the New York Times (opinion). The June 5th primary election will decide who is San Diego’s DA.