Jeff Adachi was a complicated man.

He was the state’s only elected public defender, a position he held since 2002. It was a job he was going to hold until he decided he didn’t want to do it or higher powers intervened, and the latter occurred Friday night: Adachi died unexpectedly at just 59 years of age. Some time after having dinner in North Beach, Adachi purportedly experienced shortness of breath and stopped breathing. He was revived by emergency personnel and transported to CPMC Buchanan, but doctors there were not able to save him.

Adachi is, sadly, not the first trailblazing Asian American San Francisco lawyer and politician to die too soon from an apparent heart attack: Mayor Ed Lee expired in December, 2017, at just 65. Lee’s legacy is tangible: It’s the skyline; it’s the economy; it’s the affordable housing he well and truly did shepherd into being; it’s the manifestations, for good or ill but, most of all, for real, of vast tech wealth sloshing about this city like a king tide.

But Adachi’s legacy is harder to detect. And that’s because it lives in the people society makes a point of not seeing. The marginal people. The oppressed. The homeless. The accused. The undocumented. The railroaded. The cash-poor men and women rotting in jail, unable to afford bail. The innocent. The guilty. The incredibly guilty.

But it’s not about the merits of the case. It’s about defending the public.

Jeff Adachi defended the hell out of the public.

And he’d have defended it more, if we’d let him. Four years ago, I asked Adachi when he’d be recognized for his efforts to combat another problem society makes a point of not seeing: fiscal and pension reform.

He laughed at that question, ruefully. That quest cost him.

His answer: “After I’m dead.”  

Public Defender Jeff Adachi defends his department to the Board of Supervisors

To watch Jeff Adachi in court was akin to seeing Barry Bonds, in his prime, dig in on a 3-1 count with runners on. Adachi was aggressive. He was a showman. He was a man who, for all the world, seemed to be put on this earth to do what he was doing.

It is hard to overstate the number of lives he touched here in San Francisco. The men and women freed from incarceration by his office’s unusually aggressive approach to public defense could probably pass his casket from 850 Bryant to Colma by hand.

But it goes further than that. Coverage of the San Francisco Police Department’s “Textgate” scandal — a cadre of officers nabbed exchanging horrifically racist messages — often overlooks that these messages were only unearthed because of successful federal corruption probe of the police department. And that probe only came to pass because Adachi posted videos onto YouTube of cops barging into residential hotels sans warrants or consent like some manner of Stasi.

Putting these videos where they could be seen by anyone and everyone was indicative of Adachi’s relationship with the powers that be in this city. San Francisco is, for lack of a better term, run like a cartel. The term “City Family” is applied unashamedly. Adachi was on the periphery of this family — the Skynyrd-blasting cousin driving the Cougar, if you will.

Elected officials complained to me about Adachi bringing along a documentary cameraman when he appeared to request funds for immigration attorneys to bolster his office. The theatricality that marked Adachi’s courtroom demeanor did not cease outside the Hall of Justice. This grated upon his “City Family” colleagues. But, last year, Adachi secured $1.9 million for immigration lawyers. His legal team enabled scores of immigrants to leave incarceration and be reunited with their families.

Ask them how they feel about Adachi bringing a cameraman to City Hall.

Adachi more than doubled the budget of the Public Defender’s office in his tenure there. He fought for those dollars: Adachi refused mayoral mandates to cut his operating expenses, claiming that he’d be forced to farm out cases to private attorneys, which would be more expensive — and an audit backed him up. When Mayor Gavin Newsom’s pet project, the Community Justice Court, was initiated without any funding sequestered for public defenders to staff it, Adachi — every bit the lawyer and the politician — staffed it himself.   

Jeff Adachi had a transformative effect on the public defender’s office. Far from the “dump truck” reputation affixed to overworked, underpaid, questionably competent public defenders throughout the nation, Adachi’s office was not afraid to litigate. This office is composed of elite defense attorneys. It is a national beacon.

With so many undeserving politicians attempting to touch the hem of the garment of the Black Lives Matter movement, you’d think someone like Adachi — who didn’t just talk social justice, but lived it and helped bring it about — would have been a natural for higher office in this city.

But, never forget, this is San Francisco.

Jeff Adachi at the Hall of Justice. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

In 2011, San Francisco funneled $423 million into funding its pension obligations. This was, at the time, viewed as a staggering sum and an ominous warning of dire times to come. It helped spur Adachi, already a pension crusader, into the 2011 mayoral race.

He did not win. He did not place. He did not show. 

Let the record show that, in the most recent year on record, the city pushed $552 million into pensions. In the year before that, it spent $527 million. And in the year before that it spent $593 million. And this comes after so-called “pension reform” passed by the people of San Francisco — pension reform sharpened and rendered more acceptable to voters because of Jeff Adachi’s strident advocacy for more extreme solutions. These were the consensus measures, voters were assured, that would withstand legal challenges, unlike the crazy propositions put forth by Jeff Adachi.

They didn’t.

So, Adachi wasn’t so wrong a decade ago when he warned that structural fiscal problems were getting worse and worse and needed to be addressed. Meanwhile, the vast quantities of money deluging this city and mitigating the burden of contributing to San Francisco’s pension obligations are inducing crushing societal pressures of their own.

These are pressures that Adachi, who served the city’s have-nots, was all too aware of.

Nevertheless, his Ahab-like obsession with pension reform left him a reviled figure among organized labor in this city. That’s a problem if you’re a left-leaning politician. Jeff Adachi certainly wasn’t getting a dime from downtown, tech, or real-estate, meaning his scarlet letter among the unions left him with nowhere to turn.

A progressive politician like Adachi with impeccable, forward-thinking social justice credentials ought to have been a prime candidate for leadership here. But, instead, he was a pariah.

Because that’s how San Francisco rolls.

The legal team led by Francisco Ugarte, center, seen here with public defender Jeff Adachi, in July 2018 successfully briefed every would-be deportee on the docket. Photo: Joe Rivano Barros.

Jeff Adachi was a complicated man.

His personal and professional lives were not without tumult. His ethical convictions did not put him on the easiest of paths. Adachi’s views on social justice were ahead of the curve. As for his views on fiscal reform, his prophecy was correct — and came too soon.

His laurels in this matter will have to come after his death. There’s no other way of it now.

Adachi’s successor will be named by Mayor London Breed. We’ll all vote on this sooner rather than later. There are ever so many political storylines at play here, but that’s a matter for another day. Today we remember. Today we think. About Jeff Adachi — and the city he served.

“I share the same shock all of you must feel in learning this news,” Adachi’s No. 2 in the public defender’s office, Matt Gonzalez, wrote to the staff Friday night. “Jeff leaves a tremendous legacy as a devoted public servant who worked tirelessly to advance the cause of justice.”

“We always take for granted that we will be here tomorrow. Jeff’s sudden death is a reminder that we should cherish all the time we have.”  

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi called for a state investigation into police practices during an April 13, 2016 press conference at City Hall. Photo by Laura Waxmann.