Jeff Adachi, 1959-2019. Photo by Joe Eskenazi

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.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Dear Joe,

    Thanks for reminding everyone of Jeff Adachi’s contributions to a better San Francisco. A good and decent man who fought like hell for the most marginalized.

  2. Jeff was shaped by the social injustices we all saw growing up. I was a childhood friend of his and knew him personally. The one pivotal case I remember which all of us were involved with back in our college days was the “Free Chol Soo Lee” case. This case involved the framing by the SFPD of a Korean immigrant for numerous unsolved murders in SF Chinatown by gang violence. Mr. Lee was finally freed from death row at San Quentin. Afterwards, Jeff indicated to me he became interested in pursuing a career in law. None of us knew back then he would rise to become the most influential public defender in the nation. We all miss you. May you rest in peace my brother.

  3. Jeff attended the yearly Cesar Chavez Labor breakfast in recent years and always received warm welcome and applause when his attendance was announced. I was there. Real labor leaders know he championed civils rights which are labor rights. This pension iisue was about fiscal responsibility. Rest in peace.

  4. Jeff Adachi presided over a golden age of public defense in San Francisco. Former mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez will become acting public defender, but I have heard that the mayor intends to appoint an interim public defender until the November election. Those who were around before Adachi became public defender may remember when the long-time public defender Brown was transferred to the PUC to make room for a political operative who proceeded to fire some of the most experienced staff in that office. Adachi’s sudden and unexpected death is disturbing. As the author reports, Adachi had enemies, and (unlike the late Mayor Lee) he did not seem to be in the kind of physical condition that would forseeably result in an early death from heart disease. “Heart attack” is of course the standard explanation when someone dies suddenly of no apparent cause. Gonzalez has been with that office for a long time and is a decent person, but I simply don’t trust this mayor. Should we be concerned?

    1. Nazcalito, addressing your concern about the circumstances, I checked out Jeff Adachi’s facebook page tonite. He made an entry on Feb 13 of a cartooned man with a statement overhead, “I’m so tired” – a week and a half before this happened. Being really tired can be a symptom of heart problems.

    2. As an employee of the PD’s office, I am deeply concerned about who will be appointed interim PD. It should be Matt. Matt knows the office inside and out. It would be the most seamless transition for us, and we are all struggling with our grief. The last thing we need is someone from the outside to come in and fragment our fragile state or even the appointment of someone from our office that doesn’t have the intimate knowledge of the big picture. The thing I fear the most is that Matt has gotten so much public criticism for the “Kate Steinle case” (really the Garcia-Zarate case) that the mayor will be too afraid to appoint him.

      When Kimiko Burton took over before Adachi was elected, not only did she fire a lot of people, a lot of people left. The tone of the office changed. You can’t imagine how important it is , as a PD, that you have a safe haven from the hostility. We are often the subject of public scorn; we fight with judges, DAs and cops – and often even our clients. Having a peaceful and safe environment of trust is vital to the functioning of the office. I hope she does the right thing. And not just for the office – but for the community. A disruption at our office has wide-spread consequences.

  5. Very sad today! I thought Jeff Adachi was AMAZING – a role model for life! His passionate commitment for justice, his competence, his social awareness – wherever he was, anyone could come up to him and he would notice you and talk with you! He facilitated outdoor public discussions following summer Mime Troupe shows in the park that focused on civil rights. I last saw him a couple months ago and asked him what he was working on, and he said he was into making films. I feel really sad also about the films we will not get to watch about various social justice issues. May all of us be inspired to be better people as a result of having witnessed his life, his contributions, and his way of being there for everyone.

    1. Agreed – very well written.
      With a fascinating segue into the heart of political darkness.

      Serious and meaningful fiscal/pension reform in this town?
      The true definition of a quixotic quest.
      Kudos for the progressive effort though.
      Thank you.

  6. I’d like to know where all the affordable housing supposedly provided by the late Ed Lee is located in San Francisco. I can’t find any.

      1. 1000 units under construction 20 years after the displacement of thousands of households began in earnest and has not abated.

        Remember those math problems about the bath tub that is draining faster than it is filling? Yeah, that.

        1. Marcos —

          I’ve written a lot about Ed Lee. You can find all the articles without leaving your chair. What he did, or did not do, to address gentrification is a major element of his legacy. But there are also actual people living in the actual homes that his office pushed through. That’s not a counterbalance, but it is part of the same legacy.

          1. I know, Joe, you’re the best in the biz in town, your work makes Redmond look like the tabloid hack he is.

            But not everyone reading this knows the back story.

            Ed Lee had to be pressured by the complacent Mission poverty nonprofits which twiddled their thumbs for years to dedicate the funds for affordable housing in the Missiomn.

            Campos was inert on the matter to preserve his Schrödinger options.

            90 luxury condo projects on his watch approved without a peep by him or the nonprofits dwarf 1000 units of affordable.

            Campos’ response to Feinstein’s performance on Friday to the Sunshine youth?

            “I’ve never supported her,” not “I will lead the DCCC to condemn her and call for her resignation.”

  7. Great article! His leadership was second to none. As a student in law school I was always amazed to be in his presence and later, would dip into any courtroom that he was arguing in. He was the real Batman of San Francisco!

  8. Good article. I once called Mr. Adachi about a Problem matter & he picked up his Office phone himself, very abrupt in manner. He did seem very stressed & tense & short & Type A not as in “A-dachi”, but as in Type A personality style…intense, abrupt, activated, fast, unilateral thinking, fiery), not good heart & blood pressure predictors. May he now rest & remain in peace ??

  9. Great man who did incredible things with the Public Defender’s Office but you got the pension thing all wrong. Instead of making politicians make tough decisions and fully fund the pension obligations that they themselves negotiated, Adachi gave right wing ideology the progressive cover to screw over hard working public employees. Folks that pick up human waste or drive your bus. When wonder why it is so hard for the city to recruit and hire competent staff, this is one of the reasons.

    1. Your comment is complete garbage. You could have held your trash for 24 hours after this true gentleman passed away.

    2. Yep, Adachi was an astounding public defender who set the standard.

      But it is not true to say that he was shunned by the economic powers that be. Teaming up with conservative billionaire Mortiz to cut health and pension benefits for public employees only reinforced the neoliberal consensus that is being shattered now, the consensus that says that government must take care of the billionaires and most vulnerable leaving everyone else to fend for themselves while costs rise and wages remain stagnant.

      That was but a momentary deviation out of his lane where he excelled and cemented his legacy as a model public servant.

      Hopefully Breed will acknowledge the will of the voters and appoint Gonzalez as PD .

      1. Adachi tried to address spiking pension costs, because they were siphoning money from the general fund. He was brave, as always, when he did that.