In 24 hours’ time, we’re going to have a new mayor. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be crowded. Perhaps 1,000 people are expected to show up at 11 a.m. on a working day and watch London Breed’s swearing-in. It’ll be outdoors. Bring a hat.
Life is complicated. San Francisco is complicated. The mayor’s race was complicated. But for a woman who grew up in poverty in the shadow of the golden dome of City Hall — as Breed did — to matriculate to Room 200 is a pretty momentous thing. This is one woman’s version of the American dream.
So, it’s a great story. And it’s a story we heard a lot of in the recent past — and figure to keep hearing. Back in January, veteran political consultants told me the mayoral race would be the least substantive and most “story-driven election we’ve ever seen. Stories are going to matter so much more than they usually do.”
That was true. And not just in the mayor’s race.
And, with only a few short months until the next election season commences, there’s no reason we can’t have another story-driven election. Or elections, plural. (Or, to an extent, story-driven government).
Tomorrow, barring unforeseen lunacy, we will be on scene at City Hall with everyone else, writing up the big story. Today, however, let’s take a peek ahead at another forthcoming political race that could, all too easily, veer into the story-driven realm. And that’s the race for District Attorney — an official whose policies and performance loom large in a town that prides itself on open-mindedness and liberalism.
When ambitious LAPD up-and-comer George Gascón was attending classes in his spare time at Western State University College of Law — an unremarkable, shoebox-shaped structure in Fullerton — it was not yet an accredited institution. He earned his J.D. when he was in his early 40s, and is now one of two district attorneys to be honored in the school’s hall of fame.
This was an improbable turn of events. The childhood refugee of Castro’s Cuba was a Los Angeles Police Department lifer before taking chief jobs in Mesa, Ariz., then San Francisco in 2009, and — most improbably of all — being tapped for San Francisco DA in 2011 by Mayor Gavin Newsom, after only 18 months atop the SFPD.
This was a bizarre move, but was politically savvy for all sides. While Gascón was assailed by the SFPD’s old boys for ostensibly using the department as a stepping stone, he immediately became the incumbent in an elected position rather than serving at the pleasure of incoming Mayor Ed Lee (who would give the old boys much of what they desired, including the promotion of Chief Greg Suhr). And, for outgoing mayor Newsom, it was a flashy, attention-grabbing pick. And a strategic one: Gascón was viewed as a safe political bet, who was unobjectionable to both the city’s centrists and its lefties.
And that proved true in 2011, when he easily bested two challengers, and in 2015, when he ran unopposed. But in 2019, the incumbent figures to face formidable competition. Former Police Commissioner Suzy Loftus — an erstwhile prosecutor in the District Attorney and Attorney General’s offices currently working in the Sheriff’s Department — will all but certainly carry the enthusiastic backing of her former boss, Sen. Kamala Harris, as well as that of Mayor Breed. She is a competent and likable candidate — a mother of three and a city native who deeply understands this town. Joe Alioto Veronese, another former police commissioner, is also in the running. To call him a city native is an understatement: He is the grandson of Mayor Joe Alioto and the son of former Board President and journeyman mayoral candidate Angela Alioto (who praises him as “very smart”).
A lot can happen by November 2019 — in fact, a lot will happen by November 2019 — which is why it’s easy to foresee a complicated race and nuanced career records and achievements being boiled down to a few simple themes and storylines. Deep policy analysis is hard. But reporting on the cadre of protesters who plan to turn every public appearance by Gascón into a circus is easy.
“The mission is make his life hell,” explains Ilyich Sato, aka Equipto, a rapper, former hunger striker, and police accountability activist. “To make him uncomfortable in every public appearance. The community feels he has blood on his hands and is not doing his job. He can jail these killer cops that have murdered unarmed children.”
Equipto et al. took their toll on Lee and Suhr — and have already put this latest mission into motion, disrupting a June panel on police accountability at which the DA was slated to speak, forcing its cancelation.
Among the dozens of audience members who trudged, unsatisfied, out of Grace Cathedral that night was Matt Gonzalez, the chief attorney in the Public Defender’s office and the onetime standard-bearer of this city’s progressive movement. “I consider George,” he said, “to be the most progressive DA we’ve ever had.”
At first blush, this is a counter-intuitive statement — especially coming from the man who has a plaque on the wall for thumping Gascón’s office in the successful defense of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, the undocumented immigrant who shot Kate Steinle dead on Pier 14 (a stinging loss that could certainly hinder Gascón’s re-election campaign among voters who don’t consider themselves left-leaning).
But, when you think about it, it’s not so ludicrous a claim. Gascón wiped thousands of pot convictions off the books; was a co-author of Prop. 47, which reclassified drug possession and low-level property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors; has agitated against Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents harassing foreigners in state courthouses; has pushed diversionary programs such as Young Adult Court; has come out against building a new jail, advocating instead for mental health programs; and, for what it’s worth, publicly referred to President Donald Trump as a “madman.”
But he has declined to charge any of the litany of cops who’ve shot people — predominantly people of color — in this city. He has spent a great deal of time and money contracting use-of-force experts and creating lengthy reports and even videogame-like, computer-animated videos explaining why he could not reasonably bring charges — steps that, to the supporters of the slain men, felt more like the work of a defense attorney than a prosecutor.
“It’s a dilemma,” bemoans Father Richard Smith, a Mission District Episcopal priest and police violence activist. “Ideally we’d have a DA who is a champion of progressive legislation bringing about the kinds of systemic changes we need so police won’t kill people in the first place who also presses charges against police who kill people. George is good on the first front. But on the other …” His voice trails off.
Neither Loftus nor Veronese is of the cuff-’em-and-stuff-’em mindset, but neither is attempting to outflank the incumbent from the left either. Smith is well aware that a monomaniacal focus on police shootings at the expense of literally everything else could well result in an ostensibly less progressive DA next time around. So is Gonzalez. And, so is Equipto. But he doesn’t care.
“My perspective is abolition. I’m not in this to look for a better DA,” he says. “I want to get rid of them, one by one. We’ll put pressure on the next one to do their job.”
The real failure of our DA, contends Smith, is that when faced with a decision between what’s right and what’s legal, he chooses the latter. But that’s how it works when you’re sworn to uphold the legal system; Gascón may well have oversold himself as a reformer, because he is — for good or ill —constrained by the law and cannot simply take unwinnable cases to trial because “it’s right.” The additional money and manpower he’s sunk into investigating police shootings has, so far, only resulted in more detailed excuses about why he can’t file charges. That’s frustrating. But one man’s righteous crusade is another man’s malicious prosecution.
Police, in fact, are the beneficiaries of spectacularly accommodating laws regarding use of force. Local district attorneys cannot investigate the troublesome patterns and practices of local police departments — only the feds or state attorney general can do that. And, per this state’s Police Officers Bill of Rights, cops’ disciplinary and misconduct records are not only sealed, but must be periodically destroyed.
Had last month’s Grace Cathedral panel not been disrupted, audience members would have learned that Gascón is apparently the only law-enforcement official in the state backing a bill that could, finally, chip away at cops’ ability to use deadly force with near impunity.
But that would require explaining, and, as the old political adage goes, when you’re explaining, you’re losing. Especially when you’re attempting an explanation over a high-decibel demonstration. Especially when you’re attempting to counter righteous anger with unsatisfying logic for the benefit of an understaffed Fourth Estate or an overworked public.
District Attorney George Gascón does not deserve any deference from voters. No incumbent does. What he does deserve, and what every candidate for this race deserves, is a full analysis of his or her policies and career records.
Anything else would be a pretty lousy story.