DA candidates, from left, John Hamasaki, Brooke Jenkins and Joe Alioto Veronese. Jenkins and Hamasaki photos provided by campaigns. Veronese photo via Wikipedia commons and photographer Gabriel Classon

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. 

John Hamasaki, after filing paperwork to run for District Attorney. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.

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 $115,000after 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. 

Mayor London Breed, left, on July 8 introduces her pick for DA: Brooke Jenkins.

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. 

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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. Let’s remember the “toxic nadir” cited above did not only result in the death of a mayor and a supervisor but also resulted in the ascendancy of Feinstein and Friends (Brown , Newsom, Breed etc.) who have ruled this city for the past 40+ years. Their record is as clear as the trash on the streets and the well-documented defunding of public health and other public services (SFPD a notable exception). And the hypocrisy and petty (and not so petty) corruption that has been a feature of their regime could not be more clear than the pathetic puppet persona of Jenkins.

  2. Jenkins is corrupt. Not much had changed in SF, not because if the DA, but because of SFPDs unwillingness to do their job. So much for blaming Boudin for all the woes!
    When the income inequality is insanely high, rental rates goes unchecked, so that people can’t afford housing. You’re gonna see ugly things in the city. The problem is much much bigger. It’s not a few corrupt peyote that’s responsible, but a much larger crowd all doing their part to make things worse.
    Start looking at Congress, and both democrats and republicans. They’re all terrible and incompetent at improving the country.

  3. Two important aspects missing: The standing of the next DA will be a function of voter turnout. Collectively, we forfeit the right to gripe over who’s filling the DA seat when turnout’s been low. Secondly, ranked choice voting. A DA will have much better standing if the position would have been won if only factoring the 1st choice count. These things stand, the he-said-she-said clown wagon charade leading up to the election – not so much.

  4. it’s as if the mayor is very bad at micro managing (micro mis-managing) the DA’s office. Meanwhile, the city’s falling apart and is covered in trash. And yet the downtown business folks and the techbros want this crazy mayor for four more years?

  5. I’m not a Chesa Boudin fan, but I thought, and still think, that the recall was so stupid. What a waste of money and time for all of us when we could have waited one more year to undergo this mess of choosing from the dumb, corrupt, or power hungry for this seat. Where the hell is the integrity in this city?

  6. “Someone’s gonna win this thing, but nobody is getting out clean.”

    Yep.

    Just pressed on the microwave to get the popcorn goin’. Looking forward to the brawl, albeit from a distance.

  7. Cash bail is by its nature discriminatory of course in that it favors those who can come up with it. Unless the answer is to make all suspects remain in jail awaiting trial, which highly favors the prosecution and offends the principle of the presumption of innocence, however, it is hard to see how it can be eliminated. Doing so invariably results in releasing onto the streets those who, given the nature of most crimes, prey upon people of color far more seriously than prosecuters who seek to incarcerate them.

  8. This is civil, but I am not sure if it’s short…
    Joe, one of your better pieces of late. A fair, balanced, sober look at the dynamics at play. I agree, this will be an interesting race to watch. The voters will ultimately give Jenkins a chance (just off of name recognition alone), but I agree with your assessment that it might only be a one year opportunity to create change (which is a millisecond in the San Francisco bureaucratic and political Thunderdome). If someone with a higher profile were running (e.g. a former Supervisor – many are lawyers), I think there is a real chance she would have lost.

    I think Joe Alioto (Veronese) is playing the long game here. Play it right down the middle this race, and wait for the chinks in Jenkins’ armor to expose themselves for the next race. If this was 20 years ago, he would win on the Alioto name and his resume.

    The point I disagree with, is your position on Chesa Boudin. I think his name is thermonuclear at this point. Even if Jenkins doesn’t create positive change, the voters of San Francisco will want to give someone else a chance versus going back to policies that led to his recall.

    I could see Catherine Stefani running for D.A. in the next cycle, but I don’t see her path to victory. Her positions seem to align with the tenor of most voters (based on the recall results), but I am not aware of any support for her in the Asian community (first or second largest voting block – depends on your source). Despite Nancy working for Jenkins, if she looks like a wounded animal, I could see her running again. She didn’t have a bad showing a few years ago and she will have an inside track on how the department is run, which could help her be effective, more quickly than other candidates. She will also be able to speak directly to the differences between plans and Jenkin’s approach to the office.

    1. “I could see Catherine Stefani running for D.A. in the next cycle, but I don’t see her path to victory . . I am not aware of any support for her in the Asian community (first or second largest voting block – depends on your source)”

      Asians are about one third of the population of the city. Whites are about a half. So you can take the view that over 80% of the voters are not that interested in the kind of race politics that has dominated both the DA’s office under Chesa and the SFUSD, which in turn has sparked the 4 successful recall movements this year.

      So when the challengers to Jenkins cite racial issues as being paramount for them, do they not consider that a good 70% to 80% of the voters do not see that as a priority, and instead want a focus on actually getting the job done? Or don’t they care what the voters want?

  9. Two observations:

    1. Your crystal ball doesn’t account for the very real possibility that there won’t be a D.A. election in 2023 if the Nov. 2022 ballot measure to eliminate elections in odd-numbered years passes.
    2. The “toxic atmosphere” in San Francisco has been caused by the millions of dollars being pumped into recall elections, disinformation attacks, and the anti-Black narratives that the recall campaigns trafficked in.

  10. As always great analysis. We should start a drinking game for every pop reference Joe puts into his columns!

  11. This ridiculous mess was always going to be the result of a successful recall. Lots of political maneuvering, bad faith rhetoric and zero progress on improving the lives of any of us without ambitions to public office. Thanks again, recallers!