George Gascon, longtime Republican

Charles Russo

One thing I didn’t know when I wrote about former police chief George Gascón's shocking Jan. 9 appointment as San Francisco’s next district attorney is that he has Republican roots. But then I came across a January 10 Los Angeles Times article that revealed that in 2008, Gascón described himself to the L.A. Times “as a longtime Republican.”

Gascón is now registered as “decline-to-state” but his Republican leanings could become an issue in the D.A.’s race this November, depending on what happens between now and then, in terms of decisions Gascón makes, especially around cases the San Francisco Police Department refer to his new office.

Paul Henderson, who was D.A. Kamala Harris’ chief of staff before she won the Attorney General’s race, was rumored to be Harris’ preferred choice as her replacement. But he now finds himself in the awkward position of reporting to the man he will be running against this fall.

“I respect Gascón as a law enforcement officer and I appreciate that he called me personally to inform me of the mayor’s decision,” Henderson told me. “D.A. Gascón and I will be discussing next steps and I stand ready to help him address the pressing issues facing the office.”

Henderson said the atmosphere over at the D.A.’s office is “a little crazy these days.”

“Everyone is trying to figure out what is going to happen,” Henderson said.  “All of this happened out of the blue, out of left field.”

Or right field, if you consider Gascón’s former voter registration.

“I think a lot of people were expecting something and someone different,” Henderson observed. “That’s the reality and the truth. I know I have a lot of support, but I need a little time to weigh and evaluate things.”

Political consultant Jim Stearns told the Guardian that he believes Gascón and Newsom when they say Newsom’s offer of the post to Gascón was a spur-of-the-moment decision

“I know for a fact that [Board President] David Chiu was offered the D.A. position and that Chiu and Newsom were genuinely confused about whether Chiu was going to take it or not,” Stearns said. “Chiu had discussed it at length a long time ago and rejected the notion. But then, when the offer was actually made, he said ‘I don’t know’ for a few days. Then, when he turned it down, the Mayor’s Office was in a quandary. So, I think Newsom was trying to pull a rabbit out of the hat, but this is one of those appointments that you might not make, if you really thought about it.”

As Stearns notes, Gascón had only been SFPD Chief for 18 months, and before that he was chief in Mesa, Arizona, which as Stearns puts it, “is not what you’d call a big city.”

And while Gascón, who was former high-ranking official in the Los Angeles Police Department, has since scored high marks for reducing violent crime, there were a lot of issues between SFPD and the D.A.’s office during his tenure, leaving him at risk of being accused of conflict of interest in his new role.

Perhaps the biggest of these conflicts is the question of police misconduct, which became a political hot potato during the Attorney General’s race, when attention was brought to a law that’s been on the books since 1963, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brady vs. Maryland that the government has a duty to disclose material evidence to the defense which could tend to change the outcome of the trial.

In 1972, "Brady" was expanded to require District Attorneys to turn over any information that could impeach the credibility or veracity of a police officer's testimony, or if an officer has a past record of falsifying reports or other conduct that could impact their truthfulness. But it turned out that San Francisco had never formalized a "Brady" policy. It's true that Gascón as SFPD Chief requested that searches be done as far back as 1980 for any sustained discipline actions that could be interpreted as possible "Brady" issues, but his move to D.A. raises the issue afresh.

“What better way to keep a lid on it,” Stearns opined.

So far, the D.A.’s office has not released a statement on how Gascón intends to handle potential conflicts of interests, but I’ll update this post, if it does.

Stearns speculates that part of the decision to appoint Gascón was a result of the foot-dragging that went on as a result of Chiu’s indecision, allowing lots of competing camps to canvass for their preferred picks.

“The Gettys were pushing Bock,” Stearns said, referring to Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Sharmin Bock, an expert in human trafficking. “Others were pushing for [Assistant D.A.] Andy Clark, Paul Henderson, and [Deputy City Attorney] Sean Connelly [who represented the city in police excessive force cases].”

Other names floated were Chief Assistant District Attorney David Pfeifer, David Onek, senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice; and San Francisco attorney John Keker.

“Newsom may have concluded that if he pushed for any of these folks, he’d be taking sides, and that if he went for Gascón, he wouldn’t be pissing anyone off,” Stearns said.

But now it seems the whole law enforcement world in San Francisco is in an uproar, as folks start to try and figure out how the appointment impacts the D.A.’s race in November.

‘The politics of a D.A.’s office is unique,” Stearns observed. “You can be thrown a curve ball at any moment. You never know what crime is going to be committed, and all of a sudden you have to make a decision that can impact the race.”

Stearns notes that Gascón has some positives going for him.
“He has fairly well-known name recognition, he had good grades, mostly, from the mainstream press for the work he has done as police chief, and it sounds like he is a pretty good manager and administrator.”

On the downside, there’s his statement that he’s “not philosophically opposed to the death penalty,” and the latest shocker that he’s been a longtime Republican.

And then there are the vagaries of running for elected office under San Francisco's instant run-off voting (IRV) system.
“He could end up like Don Perata,” Stearns said, referring to Perata’s recent loss to Jean Quan in the race for Oakland mayor. “He could have the most money, the most endorsements and even the most votes, but no second and third place votes, and therefore he loses. But that depends on who else is going to run against him.”

Calls to David Onek, who filed in the D.A.’s race last summer and has already raised over $130,000 and collected a ton of endorsements, went unreturned, but if he gets back, I’ll be sure to post his comments here.

And as Henderson previously stated, he doesn’t plan to make any decisions until he has a substantive conversation with Gascón.

“Paul is pretty anti-death penalty, but like Gascón he came out in favor of sit-lie,” Stearns said, noting that Gascón may not feel he has to actively campaign to win in November.

“It’s a shock to the system what you have to go through to campaign in this city, especially if you believe in authority and hierarchy, and all of a sudden you have to go to every Democratic Club in town and listen to everyone’s questions and comments. But he sounds pretty serious about running, and I certainly believe that every election is competitive, so it remains to be seen what kind of candidate Gascón is and the deals he makes”.