It's experience versus change in DA's race
by Heather Cassell
San Francisco's district attorney's race kicked off with respectful, but passionate, perspectives from the three candidates about how to keep the city safe during their first candidate forum.
It was standing room only in the LGBT Community Center's Rainbow Room June 15 as moderator Scott Graham, editor-in-chief of the legal newspaper the Recorder, opened the two-hour debate between District Attorney George Gascón and his two opponents, Alameda County prosecutor Sharmin Bock, and former police commissioner David Onek.
The race is on the November ballot and it is also a ranked choice contest, like the mayor's race, where voters can choose their top three candidates. The filing deadline is August 12, so additional candidates could jump into the race.
Onek and Bock are looking to unseat Gascón, who was appointed district attorney by former Mayor Gavin Newsom in January after then-District Attorney Kamala Harris was sworn in as state attorney general. Gascón was formerly the city's police chief.
The candidates hold similar positions on some hot button issues and were cordial with each other, but they wasted no time on differentiating themselves on key issues and switching the conversation to their strengths.
Bock, a curiosity to the audience as a relatively unknown entry onto the San Francisco political scene, positioned herself as the experienced prosecutor and innovator. Gascón positioned himself as the experienced insider and manager. Onek portrayed himself as the outsider reformer.
All of the candidates believe in preserving San Francisco's policy as a sanctuary city for documented and undocumented immigrants; reserving three strikes only for serious and violent felonies; diverting non-violent offenders into programs rather than sending them to jail; reforming the prison system; and strengthening many of the programs created and implemented during Harris's term as district attorney.
A 40-year resident of San Francisco, Bock is the only candidate with more than 20 years experience prosecuting "every kind of crime," in the courtroom, she said, and has implemented nationally recognized criminal justice programs similar to Harris. She has also already garnered the endorsement of Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo/San Francisco).
Bock created and leads nationally recognized units dealing with human trafficking, rescuing exploited individuals and prosecuting the perpetrators as well as finding closure for unsolved murder and rape cases, she said.
"The job of district attorney is not a management job, it's not a police job, and it's not even a job for someone with just a law degree; it's a job for someone that's an experienced, progressive veteran prosecutor," said Bock, immediately taking a stab at Gascón and Onek. "If you want a DA who knows what it takes to effectively charge, prosecute, and convict the most dangerous criminals that are in our society and [that] can actually deliver the results that you deserve to keep your community safe that's an important difference."
Gaston's brief tenure as the district attorney has been marred by scandal in the police department that has caused more than 100 cases to be dropped by the district attorney's office due to alleged police misconduct and problems in the labs.
He's continued to tackle the issue while continuing to implement programs, such as the neighborhood courts.
Gascón, who has worked closely with the city's LGBT community, was the only candidate to address the community throughout the evening. He has been endorsed by out gay mayoral candidate Bevan Dufty and out city Treasurer Jose Cisneros.
Harris has also endorsed him as has Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California).
Onek, who is now a senior fellow and founding executive director of the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, was one of the police commissioners that selected Gascón as chief of police. He also served in Newsom's Office of Criminal Justice and has an estimated 20 years' experience working on reforming the criminal justice system.
Most of the questions directed to Onek focused on juvenile justice reform and the city's gang injunction. Onek responded that he looked forward to working on progressive reform around juvenile justice, pointing out that he disagreed with taking truancy to a law enforcement level.
"How is a child going to go to school because their parent is locked up?" he asked to great audience laughter, but didn't suggest any changes.
Bock took Gascón to task pointing to the "impossible conflict of interest" of Gascón being asked to investigate and potentially prosecute police officers that he formerly supervised as chief. "That puts George Gascón between a rock and a hard place," said Bock.
Bock pointed out the importance of the police and the district attorney's office working together as partners, but she stressed the necessity of the departments retaining their autonomy.
It's "just important [and] perhaps more vital [that] they need to be entirely independent of one another," said Bock, who called for a new district attorney as the only solution to the problem.
Gascón said the district attorney's office had the "ability to prosecute many of the cases" and dismissed the attacks on his position as "theories" about dealing with police corruption and reforming the department. There has only been one challenge to the conflict of interest, Gascón said, and his office "prevailed." The reality, according to Gascón, is that there are a finite number of cases of alleged improper conduct of an officer and if any conflicts arise those cases are immediately handled by the state attorney general's office.
"We've done what needs to be done," said Gascón. The police department had a problem with a "small number of police officers" and the majority of officers were "hard working people."
Gascón pointed out that in spite of the similarities shared by the candidates the difference would come down to how "we move policy and how do we move safety in the district attorney's office in the years to come."
"I have a long history of successful leadership in the criminal justice system," Gascón said. He pointed to his work during the past year and a half in the district attorney's office and police department; in the Los Angeles Police Department, and, before arriving in San Francisco, taking a strong stance and doing what was right for people of color, the LGBT community and other communities in Mesa, Arizona, where he served as police chief.
"You are not hiring a trial lawyer. You are hiring someone that can lead the organization that could motivate people to do the right things and they can also manage the organization when it comes to budgetary issues," Gascón said.
Quality of life
Bock believes in doing everything possible to "get people out of the criminal justice system," she said. She prefers to look at quality of life issues in a compassionate way rather than legislating to the point of micromanaging when asked about issues such as the sit/lie law and incarcerating individuals for drug use.
"Political hot button measures don't work ... we need to take a hard look at quality of life," she said, recommending a combination of foot patrols and social services to assist people on the streets and diversion programs for people using drugs. They shouldn't be anywhere "near a jail cell," she said to audience applause.
Gascón and Onek agreed with Bock.
Gascón, who was asked about marijuana, suggested the plant should be decriminalized. Onek said he believed there was a way to hold people accountable without "waste[ing] precious prison beds" by sending individuals back to jail for minor offenses.
Only Onek spoke out staunchly against the death penalty. Bock, who opposes capital punishment, left the window cracked, preferring to continue with Harris's special circumstance committee to review cases individually and make recommendations on capital punishment, she said.
Gascón, who was the only one to have faced making a death penalty charging decision, believes it should be reserved for perpetrators of the most heinous crimes. Yet, later in the debate, he agreed with Bock that the "death penalty is not a good tool" due to costs and its ineffectiveness. He then went further, suggesting rewriting the state constitution "so that we take this tool out of the way so we create life in prison without parole."
In addition to the allegations of police misconduct that is affecting criminal cases, the DA's office is facing overwhelming caseloads, and the city is preparing for the forthcoming influx of potentially thousands of prisoners after a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision ordered the state to release or transfer more than 33,000 inmates because of overcrowding.
Bock pledged that she wouldn't experiment at San Franciscans' expense with the serious challenges facing San Francisco.
"We are definitely in challenging times. San Francisco is at a critical crossroads and there is stormy weather ahead, let there be no doubt about it," said Bock.
The debate was co-sponsored by the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, the Recorder, and the San Francisco Young Democrats.