Local and national leader Margaret “Midge” Costanza, 77, died last month at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest. Uptown News asked Bonnie Dumanis, San Diego County District Attorney, to reflect on the life of her good friend and work associate.
When Midge Costanza walked into a room, she didn’t just light it up – she electrified it. And when Midge spoke to a group of people, she had them in the palm of her hand from start to finish. Everyone who met Midge was charmed right away by her quick wit, big heart and fearless dedication to the causes she believed in. On March 23, Midge passed away and we truly lost a national treasure.
With Midge’s passing we also lost a good friend to many communities – the women’s community, the Hillcrest community, the gay community, the Italian-American community, the civil rights community, the animal-lovers community and the Coral Tree community where she lived. Midge embraced a lot of different San Diego neighborhoods and causes. She was open-minded and open-hearted. There isn’t any person she met who didn’t develop a special fondness for her.
Politics was her lifeblood and if you were lucky enough to engage her in a debate about the hot issue of the day, you better fasten your seat belt. As a former assistant to President Jimmy Carter, she was an unabashed liberal Democrat and proud of it. But that didn’t stop her from befriending Republicans (including me) and receiving their respect in return. Midge and my dad, also a lifelong Democrat, loved to talk politics together.
Because of Midge’s impressive experience in public service and her incredible public speaking talent, I asked her to join the District Attorney’s Office in 2005 as a community liaison. She hit the ground running and seemed to have boundless energy. Her focus in our office was elder abuse, identity theft and other community outreach.
She created our Citizens Academy, where people learned about the many elements of the criminal justice system. She led the committee that developed our Consumer Protection Days, which taught older adults and others about fraud and scams and how to avoid being victims. She also started our Women’s Advisory Council, which focuses on criminal justice issues that relate to women.
Midge coached some of our younger prosecutors on public speaking, helping them hone their presentation skills in the courtroom. After work, she mentored people running for elected office with her own candidate’s school. She also created the Midge Costanza Institute for Politics and Public Policy to engage all people in a healthy discussion from all perspectives on public policy issues.
How popular was Midge Costanza as a speaker? When people learned that Midge was on our staff, they stopped requesting me to attend their meetings and asked for her! That was fine with me because I also preferred to hear her speak. Nobody was better at getting an audience to sit up and listen.
Midge and I were also close friends. I can’t count the times she brought Denise and me some of her favorite dishes from the Whole Foods near her condo complex. And we were frequent guests at her Hillcrest home, playing with her dog, Nipsey, and surrounded by the cats she rescued.
Almost every weekend Midge would join my parents and me and a small group of friends for lunch or dinner. We always knew the time would be filled with laughter and thought-provoking discussions. We celebrated birthdays and anniversaries with this same group. She went to Monterey with us when Denise and I married in 2008.
A few months ago, Midge hosted a memorable party with her good friend, comedienne Lily Tomlin. Lily spent an hour chatting and being in photos with people Midge had invited and the banter between the two of them was magical. It was a special night.
In the days leading up to Midge’s death and since then, I have learned even more about how amazing and beloved this wonderful woman was. She received voicemails, e-mails and letters from people all over the country who felt a unique bond to her.
One of the last phone calls Midge received was from Jimmy Carter, who said Rosalynn and he had her in their prayers. President Carter told Midge how much she had meant to the country and to so many, many people. Few of us can say they have touched so many lives in such a memorable and important way. Midge did. And she did it her way.
Midge made her mark on history by being the first woman assistant to the president of the United States. She made her mark on our country by giving disenfranchised groups a powerful voice. And she made her mark on San Diego and my life in the last several years of her life by just being “Midge.”
We’re all going to miss that feisty bundle of energy. The room just got a little darker now that she’s gone.
A memorial for Midge Costanza will be held at 2 p.m. Sat., April 24, at the Town & Country Resort Hotel. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that donations be made to the Midge Costanza Institute for Politics and Public Policy. Checks can be made out to the “Midge Costanza Institute,” P.O. Box 15523, San Diego, CA 92175.