Paul Henderson doesn’t mince words when it comes to debunking the notion that Willie Brown helped him get his new job as Mayor Ed Lee’s public policy czar. Or that his decision to drop out of the D.A.’s race was in exchange for his new job.
“There was no deal with Willie Brown. I called and said, so do I get a check in the mail, a basket of fruit?” Henderson said, recalling his furious reaction to Brown’s claim, made in the Chronicle in January, that Brown and then mayor Gavin Newsom conspired to make sure Henderson was “taken care of,” in the wake of Newsom’s shocking announcement that he had appointed San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón as D.A.
“If there was a set up for me somewhere, I still have not got it. I didn’t get shit,” Henderson, who joined the D.A.’s office in 1995 and was said to be former D.A. Kamala Harris’ preferred pick to fill the D.A. post, after she won the state Attorney General’s race, last fall.
Instead, Henderson, who filed papers to run in the D.A.’s race in November, saw his plans blown out of the water when Newsom, in his last act as mayor, appointed Gascón as Henderson’s new boss. And when Gascón filed papers in the D.A.'s race the very next day, Henderson found himself in the unenviable situation of holding an at-will position in the D.A.'s office, while running against his boss in the 2011 D.A. election.
“ If there was any deal, it was for me not to lose my job,” Henderson added. “And it’s the best decision for me. I really do care about public service.”
During his 16 years in the D.A.’s office, Henderson established juvenile drug and community justice courts, set up domestic violence and hate crime programs, and focused on rehabilitative, reformative, treatment-oriented alternatives to imprisonment.
He said his decision to join the Mayor’s Office is based on a long relationship with Lee. “I want to have a voice in the criminal justice system, and I’ve known Ed Lee independent of all this political business,” Henderson said, recalling that he worked with Lee to develop language programs in the D.A.’s office, so employees could take lessons and better interact with community members, victims and witnesses in court.
“I’m a third generation San Francisco resident, and the first generation not to grow up in the projects, though we lived opposite them,” Henderson continued, recalling how his mother is a Public Defender, his grandmother was a community advocate, and he went to preschool in Sunnydale. Those experiences gave him a strong sense of being connected to and serving his community from an early age, Henderson said.
And he soon found himself holding the highest position, as a gay and black, in the D.A.’s office in the 1990s.‘I was the first African American the D.A.’s office had hired in five years,” Henderson said, recalling how the department looked in 1995. “And look at it now,” he added, noting that since he took over hiring at the D.A.’s office, more gays, lesbians, Asians, Latinos and other minorities have been employed.
“I’m very aware of who I am and what I represent in this office,” Henderson said. “For me, it’s about creating an open door and having a voice at the table. Ed Lee has asked if I would be the liaison between national, state and local agencies collectively in his office. And this expands my voice and creates opportunities for all in San Francisco in ways that are exciting to me.”
Henderson said his new post will have a very different focus from the role former US Attorney Kevin Ryan played, during his brief tenure in the Mayor’s Office, under Gavin Newsom.“This will be about policy development, advice and implementation, and it will be more reflective of marginalized communities,” Henderson said. “So, I don’t want these communities being misled into thinking, ‘oh, he got a hand out.’ This was not a hook-up. I earned my place here."
"The truth is that you have access to me because I am in this position," Henderson continued. "And I hope it’s transformative for the city and the community. Because I did not get shit. There is no Paul Henderson pay-off. I’d be happy to tell you if I’d sold out. But no. I knew Ed independently. He knows my heart, trusts my judgment and reputation. This has nothing to do with Willie, Gavin and Kamala. Unless it did, and they are all tricking me. In which case, they should at least tell me, so I can credit them. But the truth is, I’ve worked so hard, and if I've become ‘the Man,’ then I’m at the table for the community. I’m not the person who took a pay out, got a hook up, a cushy deal, so I will go away, to silence my voice.”
Henderson notes that he has not given up his political aspirations, despite all that went down recently. “If it’s not my time right now, I still have political credibility and a profile in the city that isn’t going away “ he said, noting that he raised $65,000 in 28 days, just before Christmas, with no staff, immediately after a statewide election. “That speaks to how much support I have. Obviously I was disappointed that I wasn’t appointed D.A. But I’m not dead, and I’m trying to move in a direction that expands my voice.”
Henderson says his new role won’t change him and he’ll remain accessible to gay, black, Chinese, Samoan, immigrant, low-income, Latino and other marginalized communities.“I have a lens that most city leaders don’t have,” he said, noting that he was homeless and slept in his car when he was going to law school. “Ad now I can affect policy. Many folks feel the criminal justice system happens to you, and over 80 percent of victims are people of color and poor people. But who speaks for and represents them?”