Buried in all the hoopla over mayoral succession is another key job — and more political intrigue
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."
Adachi said the most important qualification is an understanding of how the D.A.'s Office operates and the respect of line staff. "That's where trial experience comes in. You want someone with experience of homicide trials and serious cases. You're overseeing a staff of trial attorneys, investigators, and their support staff — who are all litigators."
Adachi warns that having a caretaker in that office for 11 months would create havoc. "The best choice would be someone who would allow for a smooth transition and have the qualifications and interest in running for office," he said.
Sup. David Chiu, who became the first Chinese-American Board of Supervisors president in January 2008 and previously worked as a criminal prosecutor in the D.A.'s Office, has often been mentioned as a candidate. He told the Guardian that he enjoyed his time as a prosecutor but wants to stay put, for now.
"Kamala Harris did a good job in terms of her prosecutorial approach, and I understand she is anxious to make sure her legacy is not repealed," Chiu said. "I'm happy to serve wherever to further the public interest, and the board is in a fragile and unstable place."
Former D.A. Terence Hallinan, who served two terms as a supervisor before being elected D.A., thinks it's a big advantage to come from the board. "I knew how to use the budget process to get what I needed," he said. "I held the key to that door."
But a city insider who asked to remain anonymous said that if Chiu is thinking D.A., he'd be setting his sights too low. "The brass ring is right there for Chiu as mayor," the source said.
According to the city charter, the D.A. must be a San Francisco resident who has been licensed to practice law in all California courts for at least five years. Sup. Sean Elsbernd, who qualified for the bar in 2000, has been mentioned in some circles. But Elsbernd told us that the rumors that Newsom would appoint him as D.A. and Newsom's Chief of Staff Steve Kawa as D7 supervisor are baseless.
"They are just saying that because I'm an attorney," said Elsbernd, who worked as a law clerk with Nielsen, Merksamer, Parinello, Mueller, & Naylor and with the D.A.'s Office prior to his August 2004 appointment to the board by Newsom and his November 2004 election.
So now the money remains on Newsom to appoint Henderson, who is a gay African American. "It's important to take the diversity of the city into account," our City Hall source said. "And Henderson can do the job. He's extremely capable; the lawyer types like him; he reaches out to all groups and political factions; and his appointment would be a signal to the Democratic Party that whoever appoints him takes diversity seriously."
Hallinan said he thinks Henderson will get the nod. "I think Kamala wants to keep a hand in that office," Hallinan said. "And Paul is a nice guy, very competent, a good administrator — though not real experienced at trying cases."
The D.A. doesn't have time to try cases because there are administrative matters to deal with every day, Hallinan noted. "But trial experience is good because, although the job is administrative, you are selecting who should try what case," he said. "So unless you have experience, it's hard to judge what resources you have to be devoted."
Fazio, who lost to Hallinan in the D.A.'s race in the 1990s, says he wants Henderson to get the appointment. "Henderson has been a loyal deputy. Onek has never been in a courtroom, and he doesn't even work in San Francisco," Fazio said.
Fazio doesn't think Henderson's bid will be hampered by ongoing crime lab and prosecutorial scandals in the D.A.'s Office since he wasn't directly involved in the crime lab and police misconduct cases. "The biggest challenge for Paul will be turning all that around and running for office," Fazio said. Insiders agreed that unless something highly unusual happens, an incumbent Henderson would get widespread political support in November.
But Onek sounds like he's in the race for the duration, and he downplayed his lack of trial experience. "The bottom line is that I'm not going to be the chief trial attorney," Onek said. "The role of the D.A. is to set policy, have a vision for the office, manage the office, work collaboratively with the community and law enforcement agencies, and finally, bring resources in from outside."
"I'm spending my time building a criminal justice movement and not focusing on the politics of it all," he added. "It's speculation and the winds change every day."
Onek observed that his entire career has been about criminal justice reform. "Kamala Harris did a great job of starting on that reform, and we need someone who can step in and continue the reform."