After a frenetic week of hats being tossed into the ring, five individuals stated their intention to be San Francisco’s District Attorney, and fill out the term of the ousted Chesa Boudin. And, good news: Four of them are licensed to practice law in California.
So, that narrows things down a bit.
Let the record show that there is nobody by the name of Austin Hills who is a member of the state bar of California. DA candidate Maurice Chenier is a member of the bar in good standing, and lists a San Francisco address to boot. Good for him.
But the three major candidates are appointed incumbent DA Brooke Jenkins, former police commissioner Joe Alioto Veronese and former police commissioner John Hamasaki. All of them are licensed to practice law — and all ostensibly reside in the city, too. So they’ve got that going for them. Which is nice.
This will be an interesting race, of the “May you live in interesting times” variety. Meaning, it figures to be nasty, brutish and — mercifully — short.
“If November’s election is a referendum on progressive law-enforcement versus moderate law-enforcement, then John Hamasaki will lose. And lose badly,” predicts a longtime city political operative. “But if it’s a referendum on whether the DA should be independent of the mayor he or she may have to investigate or prosecute, then John may well win. Or Veronese may win.”
This foretells a punishing race. San Franciscans ostensibly deserve a deep discussion on each candidate’s concepts of law-enforcement and justice and how to solve our city’s overt, persistent and heart-breaking problems. Maybe that will happen. But what will definitely happen is a brawl.
This city’s overall political culture may not be at its toxic nadir — remember, a supervisor shot and killed a fellow supe and the mayor within many of our lifetimes. But it does feel like the most toxic elements of our political culture have grown more toxic, and our overall political dialog has grown more dumb, debased and dishonest.
The forthcoming DA’s race would figure to be a showcase of this. Jenkins, Veronese and Hamasaki may well have what George Bush called “the vision thing.” But they definitely all have an uninhibitedness and willingness to throw an elbow — and many partisans in the real and virtual worlds willing to do the same.
And after a high-intensity brawl leading up to November, the winner has the pleasure of running again, next year. Whoever that winner is may emerge politically damaged — and vulnerable to a challenge in 2023 (or 2024).
From, perhaps, better-funded, better-known and more viable challengers.
It’s hard not to see Jenkins as the favorite to win this race. But it’s also hard to predict, because God knows what self-created mess will emerge next.
Right from the get-go, Breed undercut the quaint notion of an “independent” prosecutor, sending a mayoral staffer to sit in on her appointee’s inter-office meetings and, via an email trail, dictating matters down to clerical minutiae in the DA’s office.
And while Jenkins, throughout the recall campaign, sold herself as a volunteer, Michael Barba at the San Francisco Standard last week broke the news that her six months of work earned her a reported $115,000 – after taxes — from a nonprofit adjunct to the one handling the recall.
If you’re paying someone $115,000 after taxes, you’re paying them significantly more in gross pay before taxes. And this is in less than half a year. For that kind of money, you could hire a staff attorney.
For that kind of money, you could reanimate Melvin Belli.
So it deeply strains credulity for Jenkins to claim — as she continues to do — that she was paid so handsomely not to serve as the figurehead and attack dog of the recall, but instead to do some manner of undisclosed legal consulting for the recall’s adjunct nonprofit. This is the equivalent of Hunter Biden claiming that his paintings sold for exorbitant prices because he’s a really good artist.
If Jenkins really was paid by the 501(c)(3) nonprofit to do work for the 501(c)(4), it would also mean that its fabulously wealthy donors actually got a tax deduction for funding her work on the recall.
That’d be challenging to prove. And Jenkins, of course, insists this is not the case. But if she would like to provide evidence of the work product that earned her a wheelbarrow full of cash, she’s always free to do so. Meanwhile, four entities that have subpoena power to do more than ask for this information are the DA (!), the state attorney general, the feds — and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Well, huh. This, too, promises to be interesting.
Joe Alioto Veronese seems to have crafted a sensible strategy to run the middle path. He voted for the recall of Boudin and emphasizes that criminals “preying on small businesses and citizens will no longer be tolerated.” But he also embraces many of the Boudin policies that polled so much better than Boudin; he says that cash bail is “discriminatory on its face” and pledges to rid the DA’s office of prosecutors who “have preyed upon people of color.” He’s always happy to harp on Jenkins as a pawn of the mayor, and portray her appointment as part of a corrupt bargain.
So, that seems like a sound game plan. But you need an adequate candidate to execute even the best strategy. Can Veronese be the one to pull it off? Time will tell.
Which brings us to Hamasaki. He is facing the challenge of being not particularly well-known, and too many of those who know him don’t like him. Hamasaki, to his credit, was one of the few people in the realm of San Francisco police oversight to make a full-throated call for reform of a department in dire and desperate need of it.
That’s for the good. Less good was the route these calls too often came: inveterate Internet shit-posting. The day before his declaration of candidacy, Hamasaki scrubbed his Tweets. But the Internet lasts forever, and that move will only launch 1,000 screencaps.
Hamasaki saw fit to tweet an “uncomfortable truth” in 2021 regarding a story about New York police seizing a stolen pistol from a 17-year-old. “Taking a gun from one kid may as likely stop violence as end up in that kid getting killed,” he wrote. “It may feel good to post this photo, but I’ve known too many kids who were killed for being in the wrong neighborhood (often their own) & being unable to protect themselves.”
If you’re going to argue that merely taking guns from random kids and releasing them back into a dangerous and gun-saturated neighborhood is not a total solution to solving rampant gun violence — and can lead to tragic individual results — that sounds about right. But Hamasaki’s ill-worded tweet made it seem like taking stolen guns away from juveniles was, inherently, a bad thing. This was, notably, a tweet he was not required to send; he was not mandated to opine about this tricky subject. It was not a well-expressed thought, and open to both good- and bad-faith criticism. Who knew? Twitter is not the place for nuanced policy analysis.
Several members of the Board of Supervisors objected, Hamasaki poured oil on the fire with needlessly antagonistic personal tweets, and the situation escalated to the point that Supervisor Aaron Peskin instructed Hamasaki to apologize and walk back his tweets, or be ejected from his public position. He complied.
Hamasaki declined to stand for nomination for a second term on the police commission. It’s not at all clear he’d have been nominated for that second term — but, truth be told, that’s in large part because he was behaving like someone who didn’t want to serve a second term.
There are too many stories like this. Hamasaki’s online history is a rich vein for any oppo researcher to mine. And while most voters aren’t on Twitter and don’t know who he is — this is a needless impediment that he has made for himself, and an easy distraction from the substantive arguments he will make.
Other significant impediments would include that lack of name recognition, and the lack of a substantive donor base. To win this race, Hamasaki, who has never before run for office, is going to need to raise scads of money, and do so quickly.
So, maybe he won’t win. But he’ll run hard. He’ll hit hard. So will everyone. Someone’s gonna win this thing, but nobody is getting out clean.
The more voters hear about the candidates running for DA, the more they may not like them. Any of them. And yet, one of them will be elected.
Imagine that Jenkins wins. Imagine she is bloodied up in the campaign, and limps to a victory. Imagine in 2023 (or ’24), San Francisco is still a mess (it’s easy if you try). Enter Chesa Boudin. He can claim that his policies evidently didn’t cause or exacerbate the problems, which persist under his successor. He can run again, utilizing name recognition and financial resources superior to this year’s crop of challengers.
Or, imagine that Jenkins loses. Supervisor Catherine Stefani was passed over by Breed for the DA job. Instead, she’s running unopposed in November for her District 2 seat; she would have had to forgo this position and pass up an uncontested election if she’d been tapped for DA.
If she runs for DA in the next election, however, she’ll do so as a sitting supe — and if things weren’t to go her way, a supe she’d remain.
Again, time will tell. The old line from War Games, after all, applies to more than war: Sometimes the only winning move is not to play.