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January 31-February 6, 2007

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Dolores Carr

Photographs by Felipe Buitrago
Hard Choices: Marc Buller says 'change is a good thing,' though he knows he may lose his chief assistant job.

Carr in Command

Dolores Carr weathered a divisive campaign to become the county's first female DA. That was the easy part. Now she must deliver the changes she campaigned on in the face of a massive budget crisis and a tangled web of office politics.

By Vrinda Normand

INCOMING District Attorney Dolores Carr summoned everyone from her office earlier this month for a rare meeting. She even arranged for Superior Court to start later so attorneys from Gilroy to Palo Alto could attend the 8am gathering in the county building's auditorium.

Anxious chatter dissipated as several hundred men and women in suits filed into the room. Half of them were left standing in the aisles and in the back.

An unmistakable tension hung in the crisp morning air. At one point, the crowd was so still that the motion-sensor lights went off.

The biggest thing on everyone's minds: layoffs.

Carr has assumed an administration stuck in the middle of the county's budget crisis. Drastic cuts will have to be made in every department. In the next six months alone, the new district attorney must find a way to trim nearly $5 million from her office budget, which she already considers to be "bare bones." But Carr kept a smile on her face as she assured her employees that she will do everything she can to avoid pink slips.

That's not the only challenge facing the incoming DA, who defeated opponent Karyn Sinunu with an impressive 60 percent of the vote last November. The campaign divided prosecutors politically between those supporting former Chief Assistant Sinunu and those backing Carr, and now she must restore unity to a fragmented office. Sinunu remains an assistant DA overseeing criminal justice projects.

Winning over her critics will be tough, to say the least. After siding with last year's Mercury News series that criticized a "win-at-all-costs culture" in the office, Carr will have to gain the confidence of prosecutors who felt unjustly targeted by the Merc's often slanted series (see Metro's April 12, 2006, cover story, "D.A. Confidential.").

Now, as an insider, Carr is artfully redirecting her criticism.

"The reality is, the office's reputation has been tarnished by the Merc series," she told the crowd. "We need to assure the public that ethics and integrity are not problems for us."

To start, she plans to create an "ethics adviser" position for the deputy DAs to consult. She also wants to begin throwing an annual holiday party in order to boost morale.

"I want to hear your ideas," Carr told prosecutors at the meeting. "I want your honest opinion. Please don't wait for me to read about a problem in the newspaper."

A Star Is Born

Carr may have had to thaw some ice on the job, but the view from outside the office was a completely different story. A few days earlier, Carr had filled another room to capacity as she prepared to take the reins as the county's first female top prosecutor. Attorneys packed the ornate downtown San Jose Athletic Club like a rock concert, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, flowing out of doorways and onto balconies for the decidedly cheerier welcoming reception.

Laurie Smith, the first female sheriff, and Mary Greenwood, the first female public defender, lent words of encouragement at the event, which began to feel like a pro-woman rally in front of an audience dotted with local heavyweights like Chief of Correction Ed Flores, San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, Palo Alto Police Chief Lynn Johnson and County Supervisors Ken Yeager and Blanca Alvarado.

"I'm proud to say that law enforcement in Santa Clara County is being led by mothers," Sheriff Smith declared, inciting a hearty round of applause.

Carr picked up on the night's theme when she took the podium. "I'm glad to say there's no marble ceiling in Santa Clara County," she proclaimed and finished her speech with a coy request: "I hope we can all leave through both exits in an orderly manner so the fire marshal doesn't come and put me in the newspaper for the third day in a row."

For the moment, everyone laughed off the reference to her first embarrassing sting as district attorney. Earlier in the month, she had announced that her chief assistant would be Superior Court Judge Kevin Murphy. But she recanted only four days later when she discovered that state law prohibits a judge from accepting an appointment to public office before finishing his or her term. Murphy still has two more years to go on the bench.

The blip caused a bigger stir behind the scenes: bringing in an outsider as her number two would alter the office's high-level management structure. Current Chief Assistant Marc Buller, appointed by outgoing DA George Kennedy last year to replace Sinunu, would have to step aside.

In addition, the newest assistant DA, Rolanda Pierre-Dixon (who also happens to be one of Sinunu's strongest supporters), would be "released" from her position and sent back as a deputy DA with a lesser salary. Carr carefully avoids calling this move a "demotion" because Pierre-Dixon did nothing wrong—there's just not enough space in the budget for six top managers.

For the time being, Buller will remain chief assistant and Pierre-Dixon will keep her post. Carr says she may eventually look elsewhere for her second-in-command and prefers someone that will bring a "fresh perspective to the office."

Buller agrees that "change is a good thing" for the organization, although he believes the quality of the work they do now is very high and admits that he likes being chief assistant. "Whatever her decision, I'll support her," he says of Carr. "Either way, we're going to work well together."

Meanwhile, many deputy DAs and office staff still feel like they're in limbo. "People are a little apprehensive because we had the same boss for 16 years," says one inside source that wishes to remain anonymous, "We don't know what she's going to do."

Marc Buller

Hard Choices: Marc Buller says 'change is a good thing,' though he knows he may lose his chief assistant job.

In No Rush

The question is: does she? Carr's not ready to reveal very much. Since she moved into Kennedy's corner office with a sunny view of the county jail and courthouse, she's taken a step back to rethink her strategy.

"This really is a period for me of listening and learning," she says. "Any changes I make are going to be done carefully and thoughtfully. I'm not feeling in any rush."

Carr rests her folded hands on her stately wooden desk, her studded rings and bracelets catching light from the window behind her. From the gold pin on her stiff white collar to the confident glimmer in her blue eyes, she appears ready to face the obstacles that lie ahead.

"I've always defined myself as a person that has stepped up when I was needed or when I saw that I could make a difference," she says.

Early Leadership

Carr became a leader early in her career working for the district attorney's office. When the prosecutors hadn't gotten raises for a couple of years, she decided she had "to do something or stop complaining." So she ran for president of the government attorneys union and lobbied for better wages. She and her colleagues eventually became the highest-paid DAs in California.

During that time, Carr also gained experience unifying two groups of people in her personal life.

She met Lt. John Carr in 1987 when she was a new deputy district attorney and he was a robbery detective for the San Jose Police Department. They ended up working on the same case and started having coffee together.

It turns out they were both single and divorced with two kids. Her daughter Pam and son Chris were just 6 and 3 years old. His son John Jr. and daughter Ann were 17 and 15.

"We had good chemistry," John Carr says of Dolores. He was impressed by her intelligence and charmed by her positive attitude. Their related professions in law enforcement made for great conversations.

But the two took things very slowly for the sake of their children, who had already been through a difficult separation. If they were going to meld their families, they were going to do it carefully and thoughtfully.

"We stuck to coffee for a long time," John remembers. He didn't take Dolores on a proper date until five months later when they dined at Scott's and saw a musical in downtown San Jose.

Another six months passed before they introduced their children. Luckily, the significant age differences nixed the chance of sibling rivalry, and instead, John says, the older kids "spoiled the crap out of" the younger ones with gifts and attention.

They began creating a balanced partnership while juggling sports games and dance recitals. After their first joint-family dinner, John washed the dishes while Dolores got her younger children ready for bed.

Grueling Campaign

When they married in 1991, he worked the night shift at the Police Department so he could be with the kids in the late afternoons when they got home from school. She took over in the early mornings before starting her day job at the county.

Their strong commitment to their family got them through it. Now that they're "empty-nesters," the same dedication has helped them through Carr's grueling campaign for district attorney. John became her right-hand man, driving her to events so she could make calls and watching the clock so she got in and out at the right time.

He says he struggled when Sinunu questioned his wife's ability to be independent while married to a police officer.

"I didn't like the premise of the argument," John says. "The reality is that the DA and police are intended to work with each other. Saying that relationship is a conflict flies in the face of common sense."

He was also offended that someone would suggest his wife wasn't independent.

"But that's politics," he says with a shrug, "You have no control over what the other side is going to do."

The good news is John actually ended up losing weight after the stream of election parties.

"If you don't watch yourself," he jokes, "you'll gain 1,000 pounds and end up eating everything that Costco makes."

Judge Carr

When Carr became a judge in 2000, her ambition and achievement grew quickly. She accepted a demanding position in Family Court and became a supervising judge within two years.

"She was extraordinarily thoughtful about cases," says former Family Court director Steve Baron. Deciding on child custody and parental rights, he adds, is a heavy responsibility that few people are "emotionally equipped" for.

John Carr says he used to sit in on hearings that his wife presided over. "She had such great skill with people," he noticed. "She gave them the reality without bludgeoning them with the sword of righteousness."

As a judge, Carr also went beyond her caseload and strove to improve the way Family Court functioned.

"We weren't getting what I thought we needed for the families," she says, "So I thought, "Well, I need to go out and make something happen."

She scouted for grant money to create social support programs for families with problems like substance abuse and domestic violence. In 2002 she helped launch the Family Treatment Court for drug and alcohol recovering parents—only the second program of its kind in California.

Then she pushed for more state funding and got a team of social workers dedicated to helping high-risk people going through Family Court.

"That's the difference between her and other people," Baron says about Carr. "They say, 'That's not my job.' But she says, 'What can we do about it?"

It was her vision and energy that created positive change, which is why Baron is optimistic that she can do the same in the district attorney's office.

"I'll tell you one thing that's for sure: the status quo will never be good enough for her," he points out. "She's always looking for a way to do things a little bit better."

DA Harmony?

At the same time, Carr acknowledges the strengths of Kennedy's legacy, such as the new crime lab that will be completed in 2008.

She is hesitant in referring to her plans as major changes; rather, she describes a way of smoothing over the difficulties stemming from the past couple of years. For example, she hopes to thaw office tensions after the divisive election by being very open and accessible. She'll show herself in the halls more and visit branch offices.

Buller says the first meeting she called at the county building auditorium packed the highest attendance that he's seen in 23 years. "Everyone appreciated her doing that," he says. "It set the tone for a good administration."

Carr also wants to be more visible outside of the office. A few weeks ago she attended a public forum at the East Side Union High School District about San Jose policing. "I'm interested in making sure the community knows what we do and how to get their questions answered," she says.

Her relationship-building won't end there. Carr hopes to repair the relationship between the district attorney and the public defender by ironing out kinks in the discovery process. The system that channels legal evidence from prosecutors to public defenders, she explains, sometimes lags due to lack of communication. And of course, there's still Sinunu. Carr now supervises the woman who, only a few months ago, was her toughest critic and political competitor. Being a judge for six years, she says, has prepared her to deal with sticky situations like this.

"I think it's hard as a human being not to have feelings about what people have said about me on the campaign trail," she admits, but adds that sitting on the bench taught her how to "set my personal feelings aside, be professional and do what I think needs to be done."

For her part, Sinunu seems to be taking the whole thing pretty well. "We all share the same goal," she says. "We want to do criminal justice in a fair and ethical way. Dolores wants that too, and we're going to help her carry out her mission."

If the harmony between Carr and Sinunu holds, it will be a good omen for the new district attorney's effort to unify the office.

Carr acknowledges that it will take time and patience to gain the trust of those around her.

"The most important thing I can do," she explains, "is come in and say, "Look, we have some challenges. It's been a rough couple of years, but we're all here to do the same mission—justice in Santa Clara County. We have these budget issues but I'm here to support you. We need to move forward together."

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