By Fred Gardner April 5, 2013
California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris is in the news again. (Physical beauty can be a mixed blessing.) This piece, entitled “Othello at 850 Bryant,” ran in the Anderson Valley Advertiser after Harris had been elected District Attorney of San Francisco in November, 2003. She defeated DA Terence Hallinan, who was seeking a third term. The Committee on Jobs, mentioned in the lead, represents the city’s corporate elite.
Kamala Harris, 39, is ambitious, smart, and tough enough to direct the cops; she could be a worthy successor to America’s most progressive DA. But Kamala has shown an undue respect for money. She could take on the cops, but would she take on the Committee on Jobs?
Full disclosure: 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 SFDA 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 case for Liberation News Service (a syndicate for the “underground press”) and he was representing 17 desperate young GIs who’d held a nonviolent sit-down to protest conditions at the stockade.
There used to be a sign across Highway One as it went through Castroville that said “Welcome to Castroville, the artichoke capitol of the world.” I wrote the chamber of commerce suggesting that they change their slogan to “…the artichoke heart of the world.” When they eventually replaced the sign, they kept the old slogan, “…artichoke capitol.” Which shows that giving good advice away for free only makes it easier to ignore.
A folk song is a song that gets remaindered
Folk tales go on sale low
And what some folks got to say
Can’t give it away
I guess too many folks already know
Oh, I guess too many folks already know.
So Terence and I became friends and stayed in touch over the years. I had been working as managing editor of Synapse, the internal weekly newspaper at UCSF, when he tapped me for the PIO job. I started in January 2000, at the outset of his second term. He told me who was who in the office -which lawyers were assigned to which units, who had special expertise, who he had hired during his first term, whose loyalty he questioned, and so forth. He spoke with special respect and affection for Kamala Harris —”a great hire,” he called her. She had been a prosecutor for the Alameda County DA’s office and had been highly recommended by Hallinan’s former Chief Assistant, Dick Iglehart.
Although I’d covered a few trials over the years, and had written about the drug laws in connection with the medical marijuana movement, I had to learn the workings and lingo of the criminal justice system on the job. Nobody was more helpful than Kamala Harris. She gave the clearest explanations, offered useful material to read, never made me embarrassed to ask simplistic questions like, “How many people get arrested in San Francisco every month 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.
In January 2000 there was considerable media interest in Proposition 21, a measure on the ballot in the March election that 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 would call with questions regarding Prop 21, I would always 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 if Prop 21 passed. Plus, Kamala was willing and generally available. I was learning that about a third of the Assistant DAs really didn’t want to talk to reporters, about a third really did, and the other third would deal with the media if asked, but wouldn’t volunteer.
Two weeks after I started at SFDA, Darrell Salomon became Terence’s Chief Assistant. As a young lawyer Salomon had helped Joe Alioto 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 introduce efficiencies to SFDA that were 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 and County of San Francisco and the tough 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.”
Thin wisps of smoke started rising from the brow of Darrell Salomon. 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 asserted. “She has an agenda…” I pointed out that it was February 2000 and exhausting campaign had just ended. For a couple of years, I said, 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 Rip Van Winkle, having returned to the world of electoral politics after a 30-year hiatus. I overestimated the importance of “the cause” and underestimated the importance of the ego.
Darrell Saloman told me I didn’t understand politics. He didn’t understand that I was hoping to impose my definition of “politics” on TH and Kamala and everybody else with whom I was coming in contact. “It’s never to early to think in terms of the next campaign,” said Saloman. I could learn a lot if I would report to him Ñas everyone else in the office was supposed to doÑ instead of reporting directly to Terence. The lack of total control seemed to bother him quite a bit. “You could be my eyes and ears in the office…”
I ignored his offer and defended my approach to the PIO job. Kamala was spending her week-ends working on the No-on-21 campaign as a volunteer. Also, “The camera loves her” (a quote from Dan Springer, then with KTVU). Also, she thoroughly understood all the ramifications of the new law. Also, didn’t it reflect well on Terence Hallinan that his brilliant young African-Indian-American protege was looking out for her younger brothers and sisters? Maybe, if the young bloods caught Kamala on TV they would pay attention.
Darrell sneered at my naivete. I kept going: “Also, 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!”
“How do you know?” I asked. “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 bluntly 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 this to Terence, but he did not believe her. He believed the intelligence fed him by Darrell Salomon and some others in his employ who were patently jealous of Kamala.
I have a copy of the memo I sent Terence back then describing Saloman’s visit to my office and my take on Kamala. I wrote: “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 subsequently learned that Terence wanted to handle not only the Prop 21 calls, but all the calls coming in from reporters; his reasoning was principled, not tactical. He said he felt responsible for the policies and actions being carried out in his name. “I’m the elected official,” he explained. “I’m the D.A. It’s my office. Except for my spokesman, I don’t want anybody going to the media.”
I held my ground. The reporters almost invariably want access to the assistant DAs, because it’s they —not the boss— who are most familiar with the facts of a given case. By giving the Assistant DAs leeway to talk, Terence would not only win the reporters’ thanks, he might even catch an occasional break.
“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] 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 extremely 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. 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. 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’s a hell of a teacher, I thought, and certainly not somebody who wants to see the boss look bad. Far from it! But I couldn’t convince Terence, and in due course he gave her a de facto demotion. She left to work for Louise Renne at the City Attorney’s office, and as if Fate (that nasty bitch) was out to demonstrate how replaceable workers are in our system, another beautiful, brilliant, brown-skinned attorney named K(ia) Harris was hired by SFDA soon thereafter, and for a while occupied the very office that had been Kamala’s.
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 protege and worthy successor. But tragedies don’t have happy endings. The audience may be tantalized with hope —happiness can seem achievable until just before the final curtain— but there’s always a missed opportunity, a misleading piece of evidence, a crucial fuck-up, a little character flaw that leads to the sad conclusion.
Darrell Salomon didn’t last a year at SFDA. He resigned in response to widespread expressions of dislike that he attributed to Kamala Harris’s organizing skills. Unfortunately, the suspicions he planted continued to grow, and in due course Terence decided to test Kamala’s loyalty. He confided in her some info that, if it were 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. “Aha,” said Terence, “you were wrong to keep sticking up for her. See!” He flourished the Recorder piece.
But I have good reason to believe that Terence had divulged the supposedly secret info to a third party -and maybe a fourth. The tragic flaw driving Othello at 850 is an inability on the part of the hero to know who his real friends are. And which of us bats 1.000 in that department?
There’s a big gray building eight-fifty it’s called
In the name of justice, that’s where people get hauled
Thirty judges in their courtrooms, two floors for the cops
Plus the sheriff, the DA, the morgue, and the jail on top
They say “good guys” and “bad guys,” white hats and black
Walk into any courtroom, any morning, look who’s sitting in back
Eight hundred and fifty that’s how many tears
The average person’s gonna cry when they walk in here
At Cafe Roma the defenders and the DAs dance
It’s a dispo disco, they know the steps, nothing’s left to chance
Eight-fifty days away from my wife
Eight-fifty days away from my life
—A “dispo” is what the lawyers called the disposition of a case. They arranged almost all the dispos among themselves without going to trial. The Cafe Roma was across Bryant Street from the Hall of Justice. They had a live coffee tree growing near the front door. It even flowered!