Matt Dorsey supports the 2011 mayoral campaign of his then-boss, Dennis Herrera

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.   

See Also:

PUC boss Harlan Kelly arrested by Feds, charged in bribery scheme, resigns

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. 

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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. Joe,

    What about Matt Gonzalez?

    Just mentioned that in note to you and him.

    Amazes me how young these guys still are.

    Well, 55 is young to me.

    I think Matt can beat anyone Breed chooses and it is a major spot.

    I’d certainly back him with one of my customary one-man-parade.

    Go Giants!


  2. Herrera should do well in the new position but it is systematically improper for the Mayor to have the authority to appoint a City Attorney to supposedly investigate City Hall.

  3. Herrera was tapped precisely because he is part of the cesspool of corruption in this city. Despite a number of whistle blowing cases that my colleagues brought to his office, he refused to investigate any of them AND ONLY when the feds unveiled the crap that goes on in this city, he pulled a Me Too and started investigating some of the “irregularities”. Herrera’s office has been extremely pro-developers and pro-landlords, the two major benefactors of the Breed and Brown machine.

  4. Yeah. Good luck getting a Breed appointee to investigate corruption in anything even remotely associated with Breed.

  5. What is Herrera’s plan to go back to in-person working? If kids, teachers and school staff didn’t matter to him, he should be back in the office and in court.

  6. “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. ”

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  7. As the PUC boss, Herrera will be subject to the Public Integrity investigations that he was just leading. Good thing nothing has come of those, despite the plethora of tips. Will Noreen Ambrose – previously Harlan’s city attorney and now head of Ethics, such as it is – recuse herself from anything involving Dennis that comes before her? Dennis got her that job at Ethics.

    Breed must have been desperate. HK has been gone ~5 months and the best they could do was this guy. Sad! City Attorney is best known in the PUC for charging up a storm after offering staff their so-so opinions…Breed was clearly unimpressed with PUC leadership, reading between the lines of her email to PUC staff today.

  8. The consigliere to two decades of corruption is now tapped to oversee the PUC, a department racked by corruption charges because he’s established a track record of only catching corruption after the fact.

    We need a house cleaning of those who have enabled and counseled corruption.

    Herrera and Rosenfield have to go.

  9. Herrera showed his hand when he went along with the spurious SFUSD lawsuit at the Mayor’s behest. Now he’s going to accept a pay raise to take over the mess at PUC where he will similarly take orders from the Mayor, AND she gets to fill his vacant seat. SF Politics is like game of thrones minus the dragons although at this point nothing would surprise me…

    If London Breed is Cersei and Matt Haney, seemingly our best chance at a change in power, is probably going to turn out to be Rob Stark. *facepalm*

  10. This is very stakes hoodwinking – complete with -Mistress in Charge – from the hood in charge. It will take years to clean the cesspool. Herrera stands to make a lot – and leave at his bidding – four years time. Ben Rosenfield will have to deal with new plays – and a brand new – quarterback. The Sewer System started with a tag of $6 billion – has reached $ 12 Billion – will end costing the City and County of San Francisco – $20 Billion. Despicable!

    1. What qualifies City Attorney Dennis Herrera to be fit for this position? So the city is replacing the “acting” GM who has been with the SFPUC for almost 2 decades with someone that has worked on a legal case against PG&E. Does anyone at City Hall have a brain or are we simply giving the city away?