The next district attorney

Buried in all the hoopla over mayoral succession is another key job — and more political intrigue

Paul Henderson, David Onek, Jim Hammer, and Kathleen Feinstein have been mentioned for the D.A. spot

By the time District Attorney Kamala Harris declared victory in the razor-close California attorney general race, two candidates had already filed to replace her. And their candidacies further complicate the delicate process of appointing a new district attorney when Harris gets sworn in Jan. 3 as the first woman and racial minority to become attorney general of California.

David Onek, a senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice and a former police commissioner, filed in July and has raised $130,000 and collected 1,000 signatures.

Paul Henderson, a veteran prosecutor whom Harris tapped in 2007 as her chief administrator, filed Nov. 22 when his boss' victory in the attorney general's race looked assured.

And now Alameda County Assistant D.A. Sharmin Bock, a human trafficking expert, is reportedly mulling a bid.

Mayor Gavin Newsom has said that if Harris resigns before him, he'll heed her recommendation for her successor. But whoever Newsom, or his successor, appoints will have a major advantage as the incumbent if he or she runs in November 2011.

Unlike the interim mayor, who will have to make unpopular cuts to balance the budget, the person who fills out Harris' term will have a strong presumption of holding onto the office.

So far Harris has been silent on the topic of a replacement to the post she held since 2003, when she defeated two-term incumbent District Attorney Terence Hallinan.

A possible reason for Harris' silence is that until recently San Francisco Superior Court Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein, the only daughter of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, was thought to be a front-runner for the post. This perception was based on the assumption that Sen. Feinstein wanted her daughter appointed, that Newsom would obey the senator's wishes, and that no one in Democratic circles would dare to challenge Judge Feinstein in November given her mother's political influence.

But it turns out that Feinstein, 53, whose peers unanimously elected her to succeed James J. McBride for a two-year term effective Jan. 1, 2011 as the Superior Court's presiding judge, couldn't legally accept an appointment anyway and would have to run in the November race.

And Superior Court spokeswoman Ann Donlan told the Guardian that Feinstein does not intend to give up her position as presiding judge. "Judge Feinstein has told court employees and her judicial colleagues that she has no intention of relinquishing her judicial duties in San Francisco," Donlan stated.



That leaves Henderson as Harris' presumptive heir; Onek, who is married to the daughter of Michael Dukakis, is a political force to be reckoned with; and former prosecutor Bill Fazio and police commissioner and former prosecutor Jim Hammer are possible appointments.

District Attorney's Office spokesperson Erica Derryck would say nothing on the record about the appointment other than that it's the mayor's decision to make. But former D.A. Office spokesperson Debbie Mesloh noted that Harris has outlined the qualities she is seeking.

"Kamala has mentioned publicly that she is looking for someone with integrity who understands how the office works and will take over in such a way that allows people to continue their work," Mesloh said. "That may sound like small potatoes, but it's a big deal given how many folks work in the D.A.'s Office."

Public Defender Jeff Adachi told us he finds it interesting that neither Harris nor Newsom has issued an endorsement in favor of anyone. "The silence is deafening," Adachi said, "But what's absolutely missing is a process to select a new district attorney. The D.A's job involves major responsibilities in terms of running and managing a large law office, so I think there should be some kind of process."