Deputy Public Defender Willie Mincey honors his departed boss, Jeff Adachi, at Monday's City Hall memorial. Photo by Joe Eskenazi

The public turned up in droves today at City Hall. They overflowed the main chamber and packed the upper tiers two or three deep; thank God the sound system was top-notch, because it was very hard to see. There were suits and t-shirts and wingtips and Jordans worn by the powerful and powerless: The only element that matched was grief. They were all on hand to offer one final salutation to Jeff Adachi.

Adachi, the city’s elected public defender since 2002 and a seemingly indefatigable presence in city life, died suddenly on Feb. 22 at just 59 years of age. Today’s public memorial, in addition to being a catharsis and a tribute to a man who had a transformative effect on this city’s public defender’s office and the scores of thousands of lives it touches each year, served as a political milestone. If it was described as gauche to begin delving into who will be handed the reins in Adachi’s absence prior to the memorial — well, now that’s come and gone.

Messages for Mayor London Breed’s office regarding a timeline for her to name a successor have not yet been returned.

In her somber speech today, Breed remembered meeting Adachi when she was a 15-year-old checking up on a friend in trouble, and Adachi was the friend’s young public defender, seated at the friend’s great-grandma’s table and doing his life’s work.  

“Jeff understood making a difference in people’s lives wasn’t just about fighting for them in the courtroom,” the mayor noted. “He knew the work started in the community.”

Adachi’s community work, his countless hours spent at countless great-grandmas’ tables, was, the mayor emphasized, the key to his greatness. Whenever Breed needed help or someone she knew needed help, she’d call Adachi. And he returned the calls.

In short: He showed up. He did the constituent service.

“Jeff was my friend and it’s always hard to lose a friend,” continued Breed. “But even more than that, Jeff was a champion for my community. Through all the years I knew him, he never lost the spirit of the man I met when I was 15, walking through the roughest neighborhoods, going where he needed to go. Because that was where the people were who needed him the most.”

Adachi was a Japanese American who loved movies and directed several of his own. And, perhaps fittingly, it did today feel as if there was something of a Rashomon situation embedded into his memorial, with speakers retelling their own versions of Adachi — and, ultimately, describing their desires for how this office may continue to function in his absence.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi, whose advocacy for his department during budget season was legendary, pleads his case to the Board of Supervisors.

If Mayor Breed, who will name Adachi’s successor, chose to emphasize his stalwart community service, Adachi’s own hand-picked No. 2 and would-be successor, Matt Gonzalez, emphasized other aspects of Adachi’s philosophy — regarding not just how a public defender’s office should function, but society itself.

“To understand Jeff, you have to understand he was a storyteller. Not just at trials. He also wanted to tell the story of what public defenders do,” said Gonzalez, who was received with several noticeable ovations from the crowd.

“There is a romantic notion that we represent innocent poor people who cannot afford an attorney. And that’s part of it. But Jeff represented the hard cases: People who caused serious injury or even loss of life. … The cases where people say, ‘How could you represent those people?’ To answer this question, Jeff believed you had to understand the context. You had to think about the lack of opportunity the accused might have experienced, the adversity and trauma they had to deal with. You do that analysis and your opinion starts to shift.”

Adachi, Gonzalez continued, “would ask, ‘Where was society when this young person needed help? Where were we when they didn’t have lunch money or their family was breaking up?’” As such, “You and I bear responsibility as we live our lives of comfort, and it’s about our collective failure to protect the victims and the accused.”

Well, that took everyone to an interesting place. But a goodly portion of those present were already there.

“The public defenders in this room,” Gonzalez went on, “know what I’m talking about.” They did. There were quite a few of them present, with many wearing Adachi funereal T-shirts over their suits or dresses. They nodded throughout Gonzalez’s speech — they did know what he was talking about.

“You go to jail to meet someone accused of a crime. You physically touch them, breathe the same air, get to a point of empathy. … Jeff believed that having empathy for the accused did not betray victims, for whom we must also grieve. And Jeff walked into court as certain as his opponents were not that our system needs to change. It always bothered me that the system is premised on the entry of a not-guilty plea. I think more pleas should be available. A plea for shared blame. Or, how about, ‘Your Honor, the defense pleads systematic failure.’”

And that line — that concept, that vision — went over very, very well.

City Hall was already starting to fill up half an hour or so before Jeff Adachi’s memorial. Photo by Joe Eskenazi.

Matt Gonzalez knew Adachi for 28 years. London Breed knew him for 29. Adachi was a complex man who packed several lifetimes of accomplishment into a truncated 59 years; his two grieving friends may have simply chosen to accentuate different elements of the same man.

Or, considering the power dynamics at play here, perhaps something else was at play as well. Because, while Gonzalez has many admirers and supporters, my reporting indicates that the mayor is not exactly one of them.

Gonzalez was, from 2000 to 2004, the supervisor for District 5. Breed, a lifelong D5 resident, was his constituent. The mayor today emphasized community outreach and responsiveness as Adachi’s paramount characteristic; he returned her calls and he returned everyone’s calls. And yet, as a supervisor, Gonzalez was not known as being overly responsive to constituents.

He didn’t always return those calls. He has never been Breed’s personal friend nor her political ally.

And yet he was Adachi’s handpicked No. 2 and has had a huge hand in running the office for years — which, when you think about it, is also part of Adachi’s legacy. Gonzalez’s speech today was not only a tribute to his friend and departed boss, it also demonstrated a deep fluency with Adachi’s worldview. The fervency with which his speech was received by the public defenders in the crowd made made it clear that Gonzalez has the backing to continue fighting for this worldview — insofar as one can put faith in an emotionally charged plebiscite, he clearly has buy-in from the office.

On the backs of the shirts worn today by Adachi’s former lieutenants, a sentence is printed: “His fight lives on through us.”

That’s true. It was laid bare today, once again, just how broad and all-encompassing “his fight” was. And whomever next leads this office will need to know this — and live this. 

And fight.  

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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. Well written.

    Lack of comments may address other issues.

    Mayor Breed will chose someone who fits her vision of how San Francisco should be led.