Over the past several months, City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Mayor London Breed have apparently devised a chocolate-and-peanut butter solution that solved both of their problems.
She had a persistent vacancy atop the scandal-plagued Public Utilities Commission after longtime former head Harlan Kelly resigned in December and is facing federal bribery charges. Herrera had nearly two decades in a job that he had, privately, concluded he would soon step away from — and some of his career highlights included battles with utilities giant PG&E.
So, voila: Breed nominated Herrera today to take over the PUC, where he’ll be able to cross swords with PG&E to his heart’s content. And, depending on whom she nominates to be his successor, she could trigger herself a Russian doll-like series of future appointments or special elections that would alter several local, and even federal, political contests.
Also: The city attorney’s office is engaged in an ongoing probe of city corruption. The next leader of that office will be a mayoral appointee.
Should Herrera pass muster with the PUC’s appointed commission — where the body’s president, Sophie Maxwell, is a longtime ally — he would also likely be due a major pay raise.
Along with head of the MTA, PUC chief is one of only two positions in San Francisco city government that comes with a long-term contract. As such, these are two of the most well-compensated jobs in a well-compensated city.
Assuming Herrera gets the post, that contract would need to be negotiated. But, in 2019, Kelly took home about $470,000 in salary and benefits, about $150,000 more than Herrera currently earns.
Herrera told Mission Local today that money was not a factor: “My son, he’s off in college. My wife and I have a very nice life.”
But he also acknowledged that, while well-compensated, “you’re right, I have left money on the table throughout the years. … If money was the driver for me, I’d have left this job a long time ago.”
Herrera, who took office in 2001 — and unsuccessfully ran against “caretaker” Ed Lee for mayor in 2011 — said that he’d already reached the conclusion he would not run again for City Attorney in 2023. He’d shared this decision with “not many; my wife.” The City Attorney is only 58 years old, and he figured to be looking for the next thing within two years.
So, when this opportunity came along, it was attractive: The hefty new payday, if not a driving factor, definitely didn’t hurt. And Herrera’s pension will be based upon his PUC salary, not his City Attorney earnings.
But also attractive for Herrera is an opportunity to push the city’s public power aspirations while confronting PG&E. Herrera seems eager to do this.
“PG&E needs to be a hell of a lot less difficult when it comes to hooking up city projects, affordable housing and the like,” he said. “We’ve had disputes with them before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on rates all the time. There are a load of issues we have with PG&E.”
Herrera added that “we have been out there taking the lead on issues of municipalization.”
For Breed, the appointment puts a seasoned city government veteran atop one of San Francisco’s most consequential and wealthy departments. But, depending upon whom she names to replace him — and whom she may name to replace that person, and so on — it also sets up a potential series of cascading appointments, which could loom large in city and regional politics.
This is especially so if the City Attorney appointee is an elected official (and, with the need to be able to run against and beat a well-known opponent, that’s a decent possibility). That could alter the trajectory of a number of political races, serving as a major factor in who will be in a position to succeed Rep. Nancy Pelosi, or Breed herself.
“There are a lot of attorneys,” summed up one longtime City Hall official. “And not that many jobs.”
Sen. Scott Wiener, who worked for years in Herrera’s office, said he is not seeking to succeed his former boss.
“I am not pursuing the City Attorney appointment,” Wiener said. “I am not done being a legislator and am in the middle of multi-year work around housing and mental health and criminal justice reform. … It’d be a great honor, but the timing is not right for me.”
Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, a former deputy city attorney in Oakland, said that he had not heard about the potential appointment from anyone “in a position to affect the outcome.” When asked if he’d take it if requested, he replied “Today is Dennis Herrera’s day. I’m not going to comment on that.”
Assemblyman David Chiu’s name has also come up as a potential successor — and, as a veteran Asian American local politician who has already proven he can beat a well-known left-leaning candidate in a citywide race, he would be a logical choice.
“I haven’t had time to give today’s news the consideration it deserves,” Chiu said to Mission Local via text. “Throughout my career, I’ve always considered where I can best serve the city I love, and will continue to do that.”
The process of approving Herrera’s appointment could take weeks or even months; it’s only after that is finalized that the appointment to fill him need be publicized.
Whomever Breed taps for the job will be expected to lead an office that has had only one leader per generation. Prior to Herrera’s nearly 20-year term, Louise Renne served as City Attorney for 16 years.
There is a cinematic element to the last few rounds of federally uncovered and prosecuted San Francisco corruption; the affidavits ought to be smeared with popcorn grease stains. The latest edition has its fair share of movie-ready moments, what with wiretaps of erstwhile Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru being feted in China with “some stone”…
The clouds swirling around Harlan Kelly finally let loose today as FBI agents raided his home before the U.S. Attorney’s office charged the Public Utilities Commission general manager in an alleged long-running bribery scheme. Today’s charges stem from a purported illegal arrangement with contractor and permit expediter Walter Wong, the Zelig-like avatar of San Francisco…
It’s an office that has established a reputation as one of the nation’s premier public law firms, with victories in marriage equity and a slew of successful lawsuits against the Trump administration, to name a few laurels.
The next City Attorney will have to run a citywide election and stave off a left-leaning opponent. Jane Kim was in a meeting and could not return our call at the present while former Deputy City Attorney David Campos said he would indeed consider a run.
“This is an office that has a long history of being an independent voice for good government,” he said.
Regardless, whomever succeeds Herrera will be in a stronger position as an incumbent than if the seat were open. Breed certainly has the opportunity to ensconce more moderates into citywide office.
While Herrera’s office has been investigating the PUC and other city departments in an ongoing integrity probe, allegations of wrongdoing and an overall toxic, corrupt culture in the PUC long predate the city attorney’s efforts.
Ali Altaha is a construction management executive and former PUC contractor turned critic of the department. He charges the PUC with fostering an atmosphere of cronyism and graft in which bids are limited to a connected group of contractors — thereby driving up costs while driving down quality.
Five or six years ago, Altaha said he complained to Herrera about corruption in the PUC, and was connected with an investigator. “But, after years and years, nothing happened until the feds came into the picture.”
If the prospective new PUC boss means business, Altaha says, he could start by cleaning house.
“If he cleans up the PUC from the the bad characters who have been involved, that would be a good sign,” Altaha says.