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The Rise of Kamala Harris

This is adapted from a piece that ran in 2003.

It won’t be a political tragedy, no matter who wins, but I can’t help seeing the San Francisco district attorney’s race as the sad, final act of “Othello at the Hall of Justice.” The outcome was inevitable; and yet it didn’t have to come to this.

I worked closely with Kamala Harris for a year, and even more closely with Terence Tyrone Hallinan for two-and-a-half years as the San Francisco District Attorney’s public information officer. I’d known “Kayo” since 1967. We used to drive down to Fort Ord together when I was covering the Presidio mutiny court martials for Liberation News Service (a syndicate for the “underground press”) and he was representing 14 desperate young GIs who’d held a nonviolent sit-down to protest conditions at the stockade.

Back then there was a sign across Highway 1 as it went through the small city of Castroville that said “Welcome to Castroville, the artichoke capitol of the world.” I sent a note to the Castroville chamber of commerce suggesting that they change their slogan to “the artichoke heart of the world.” Many years later the sign was replaced, but the C-of-C stuck with “artichoke capitol.” Which goes to show that excellent advice, given away freely, becomes ignorable.

Terence’s first success in electoral politics came in 1988 when, at age 52, he was  elected to the SF Board of Supervisors.  In 1991 Dr. Tod Mikuriya helped write, Dennis Peron organized, and Terence strongly supported a ballot initiative whereby San Francisco voters advised the state of California  “to restore hemp medical preparations to the list of available medicines… Licensed physicians shall not be penalized for or restricted from prescribing hemp preparations for medical purposes.”  Prop P passed by a 4-to-1 margin. Terence then introduced and convinced the supes to pass a bill urging the Police Commission and the District Attorney “to make lowest priority the arrest or prosecution of those involved in the possession or cultivation of hemp for medicinal purposes.”

Terence ran for DA himself in November 1995 and his pro-pot identity helped him get elected. He immediately moved to replace 14 career prosecutors with lawyers of his choosing. The corporate media was aghast. In ’96 Terence would be the only district attorney in California to support Proposition 215, the measure by which voters legalized marijuana for medical use.

I was then working at UCSF Medical Center as managing editor of Synapse, the internal weekly. I took a day off in December 1996 to accompany Terence to an “Emergency All-Zones Meeting” of law enforcement officials called by Attorney General Dan Lungren to lay out his “narrow interpretation” of Prop 215. Terence took the floor to advise the assembled sheriffs, police chiefs, and DAs, to leave the implementation of the new law to public health officials. It took bravery.

Terence was re-elected by a narrow margin in ’99, which is when he tapped me to be his press secretary. He filled me in on who was who at the office —which lawyers were assigned to which units, who had special expertise, which ones he had hired, whose loyalty he questioned, etc. etc. He described Kamala Harris admiringly and called her “a great hire.” (She had previously been a prosecutor for the Alameda County DA’s office.)

Although I’d covered a few trials over the years, I had to learn the workings and lingo of the criminal justice system on the job. No one I turned to for information was more helpful than Kamala. She gave very clear, detailed explanations, offered useful material to read, and never made me embarrassed to ask simplistic questions like, “How many people get arrested in San Francisco and what do they get charged with?”

By the way, everything I learned working for law enforcement served to confirm what I’d known as a reporter: violations of the drug laws account for about two-thirds of the crimes for which people get prosecuted, even in progressive San Francisco. First time I rode the elevator up to the jail, Vernon Grigg, SFDA’s top narcotics prosecutor, said, as if giving a tour, “And here is where we keep our negroes.” The door opened and sure enough everyone in an orange jumpsuit was brown-skinned (like Vernon).

In January 2000 there was considerable media interest in a state ballot measure to be voted on in the upcoming March election —Proposition 21— which would give prosecutors the option of trying defendants younger than 18 in Superior Court instead of the juvenile courts. (Previously such decisions had been up to the judges.) Hallinan had opposed Prop 21 —the only DA in the state to do so. The Assistant DA who had been most heavily involved in the No-on-21 campaign —speaking at rallies and drafting position papers— was Kamala Harris.

When reporters called with questions regarding Prop 21, I would give them the option of interviewing Kamala as well as Terence, because she was knowledgable and felt strongly about the subject. (She foresaw 38,000 more kids per year, most of them black and Latino, being tried in adult court over the year.) Plus Kamala was willing and generally available.

About a third of the Assistant DAs do not want to talk to reporters, I was coming to realize; about a third really do; and the other third will deal with the media if asked, but would not volunteer.

Enter Iago

Two weeks after I started at SFDA, Darrell Salomon became “the number two” —Hallinan’s Chief Assistant. As a young lawyer Salomon had helped Joe Alioto, then the mayor of San Francisco, sue Look Magazine for linking him to the Mafia. Recently he had helped the Fang family acquire the San Francisco Examiner from the Hearst Corp. for the bargain price of minus $66 million (seller pays buyer). Hallinan hoped that Salomon would help him introduce efficiencies to SFDA that are common practice at successful private-sector firms.

Not long after he arrived, Salomon came into my office and instead of sitting in the chair across the desk, pulled it over so that he could sit alongside me and read what was on my computer screen. This was not a man stealing a sideways glance. I swiveled the monitor slightly to make it easier for him to read as I pondered his intent: Dominance gesture? Mafia tradition? Trying to get something on me? Whatever was on the screen was work-connected, rest assured. I was honored to be employed by the city/county of San Francisco and the tough-minded old boxer who had done so much to oppose the Drug War and give people a break here and there.

“You and I have a philosophical difference,” were Salomon’s first words.

“That may be,” I said, “what about?”

“You’re trying to make a star out of Kamala Harris.”

“I can’t make a star out of Kamala Harris,” I said, “she already is a star.”

Salomon scowled. He said he didn’t want me directing media inquiries about Prop 21 to Kamala because she was planning to run against Hallinan in November 2003. “She has an agenda,” Salomon said and repeated, ominously, “She has an agenda…” I pointed out that it was February 2000, an exhausting campaign had just ended, for a couple of years everybody in the office ought to concentrate on prosecuting crimes without an eye towards an election almost four years away.

I imagined that in two years Terence and Kamala could sit down and discuss which of them should run in 2003, based on whether he had the energy and desire, whether she had the experience and perspective… I was like Ripped Van Winkle, having returned to the world of electoral politics after a 36-year absence. I overestimated the importance of The Cause and underestimated the importance of The Ego.

Darrell Saloman told me I didn’t understand politics. “It’s never too early to think in terms of the next campaign,” he said. Also, I could learn a lot if I would report to him instead of to Terence. “You could be my eyes and ears in the office…” I ignored his offer and defended my decision to put reporters in touch with Kamala, who was spending her week-ends working on the No-on-21 campaign as a volunteer. “The camera loves her,” I said, quoting KTVU reporter. And she thoroughly understood all the ramifications of the new law. And didn’t it reflect well on Terence Hallinan that his brilliant young African-American protege was looking out for her younger brothers? And maybe, if they saw a high-ranking sister on TV, they’d pay attention.

Darrell sneered at my naivete. I kept going: “And there’s the basic Egalitarian principle that those who do the work should get acknowledgment. And it’s the line deputies that the reporters want access to, because they know the details of the case…

“She’s Willie Brown’s protege!” Darrell blurted, his face gone purple. “He’s f—ing her!”

I said, “How do you know? Couldn’t an old gent want to be seen with a beautiful young woman on his arm, leaving the opera?”

Maybe Darrell thought my Candide act was a put-on. He jumped up, shook his finger at me, and said “You direct those reporters’ calls to Terence Hallinan. That’s what he told me to tell you.”

Later that day, I asked Kamala if she was planning to run in 2003. She said “Not if Terence decides to run for a third term.” She said it would be “unprofessional.” I told Terence, who did not believe her.

I sent Terence a note about my encounter with his Number Two. “… I figure Kamala started speaking out on Prop 21 not because she ‘has an agenda’ but because she has mercy. And if her agenda is to oppose the police state, what’s wrong with that? Darrell said there’s one good thing about her, not you, speaking out against Prop 21: ‘it lowers the risk of alienating the governor, and we may need the governor for money.’

“Emotionally and intellectually I know you’re very pro-Kamala, and I think it’s reciprocal. That’s why I’m writing to suggest that you rise above seeing her as a rival…”

I soon learned that Terence wanted to handle not only the Prop 21 calls, but all the calls coming in from reporters. He said he felt responsible for the policies and actions being carried out in his name. “I’m the elected official,” he reminded me. “I’m the D.A. It’s my office. Except for my spokesman, I don’t want anybody going to the media.”

But working reporters want access to the assistant DAs, because it’s they —not the boss— who prosecute the cases and are most familiar with the facts. By giving the Assistant DAs leeway to talk, Terence would not only win the reporters’ thanks, he might even get more sympathetic coverage for the office. “Think of it from Jaxon’s point of view,” I argued, invoking the Chronicle’s indefatigable and highly cynical man at the Hall of Justice, Jaxon Vanderbeken. “Let’s say Braden [Prosecutor Braden Woods, then in Homicide] gets an unfavorable verdict but he isn’t allowed to discuss it, so Jaxon has to get you or me to explain what went wrong. He’ll see the explanation as the official party line and all he’ll want to do is poke holes in it. But if he talks to Braden, who just spent six days in court and put his heart into the prosecution and has an idea about why he didn’t get a guilty verdict, Jaxon might quote his comments and not feel impelled to refute him.”

In my two and a half years at the DA’s office I generally gave the reporters access to the Assistant DAs. Terence was forbearing. He knew I was operating in what I took to be his interests, but he disagreed with my approach, and he had every right to, and he was the boss.

If Kamala Harris was hatching any disloyal plans, I never got wind of them. Within the office she was a terrific mentor. I remember her instructing Assistant DA Maria Bee to be much more forceful in prosecuting Douglas Chin, dubbed “Rebar Man” by the media. This was a case that the Hallinan-haters had been publicizing heavily. Ken Garcia of the Chronicle characterized it as an “overzealous attempt by Hallinan’s office to prosecute a Mission District man who went on a crusade to combat prostitution in his neighborhood. Douglas Chin, a.k.a. Rebar Man, a mild-mannered electrical engineer, did a stupid thing for a fine cause. He dropped candy-bar-size metal chunks from a rooftop on the cars of johns prowling for hookers around 19th and Capp streets, where he lives…”

Kamala instructed Maria, in fierce tones: “Show some outrage towards this creep! Tell the jury who he really is —a 46-year-old loner who lives with his mother. At night he sits for hours in the front room —in the dark, in the front room of his mother’s house— looking out at the hookers. A creep! When he’s sufficiently aroused, he puts on gloves and a ski mask and climbs a fire escape onto the roof of the church next door. From the roof of the church he hurls down 9-inch chunks of steel, which he has carefully hacksawed —this man is a creep!— at cars that he assumes are driven by pimps and johns. And he admits that he’s done this ritual hundreds of times! It’s a miracle nobody’s gotten killed!”

Maria gulped and nodded and said, “Yes, thank you, yes, I will…”

Kamala is certainly not somebody who wants to see SFDA and the boss look bad, I thought. Far from it… But I couldn’t convince Terence. If Othello at 850 Bryant wasn’t a tragedy, Kamala Harris and Terence Hallinan would have resolved their differences and would be working in concert to reform the criminal justice system and the society at large. She would be his political protégé and worthy successor.

Darrell Salomon resigned after less than a year at SFDA, blaming Kamala for stirring up resentment towards him. Then Terence, on his own, decided to test Kamala’s loyalty. He confided in her some info that, were it to appear in the press, he assumed, could only have come from her. And sure enough, the info did appear before long in a story by Dennis Opatrny of the Recorder. Terence summoned me into his office and was waving the legal tabloid in triumph: “You were wrong to keep sticking up for her! See…”

He gave Kamala a de facto demotion and she left to work for Louise Renne at the City Attorney’s office. Another beautiful, brilliant, brown-skinned attorney named K(ia) Harris was hired by SFDA and assigned the very office that had been Kamala’s.

I soon learned that Terence had divulged the supposedly secret info to a loose-lipped third party. It was she, not Kamala, who gave the Recorder the pseudo-incriminating item.

PS 2019.

Kamala ran for district attorney in 2003 —pursuing her agenda, indeed— against Terence, the incumbent, and a veteran prosecutor named Bill Fazio, who’d been among those fired by Kayo when he first took office. Fazio finished third, leading to a run-off between Kamala and Terence. She prevailed by a 56-44 margin. I sat the whole thing out. I had left SFDA, moved to the East Bay and was producing a publication for a pro-cannabis doctors’ group. I didn’t think Terence should have run for a third term, and he didn’t ask me what I thought.

The Intercept has just published a piece by Lee Fang on the 2003 contest between Kamala and Kayo, headlined “IN HER FIRST RACE, KAMALA HARRIS CAMPAIGNED AS TOUGH ON CRIME — AND UNSEATED THE COUNTRY’S MOST PROGRESSIVE PROSECUTOR.”

And I just posted the last piece I wrote about Terence and was reminded of the fierce  animosity that he  —and Kamala—had to contend with, the so-called “culture” of SFPD.



More articles by:

Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at fred@plebesite.com

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