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The choice this November for San Francisco’s district attorney is as difficult as it is important. The DA is responsible for keeping our streets safe, keeping our sometimes rowdy cops professional, and keeping our politicians honest. It’s a tough job. The editors of The Recorder feel that one part of the choice facing voters Nov. 4 is simple. While we agree with much of incumbent Terence Hallinan’s progressive agenda, we believe he has failed to deliver on it and should be replaced. The second part — which of the two challengers deserves to succeed him — is far more complex. We believe that Bill Fazio would make an adequate, perhaps solid district attorney, though probably not much more. We see Kamala Harris as having the potential for greater success, but we have serious reservations about the way she has conducted her campaign and therefore cannot endorse her. Hallinan contends that he has done a great job giving San Franciscans what they want — a progressive DA who is tough on violent crime but compassionate toward nonviolent criminals whose principal offense is being impoverished or addicted to drugs. We do credit Hallinan with taking a strong public stand on the issue of medical marijuana, which arguably has helped pave the way for more mainstream politicians to show some backbone on a politically sensitive issue. In other areas, though, Hallinan has not measured up. Internally, the office has been rife with turnover. Hallinan has gone through six No. 2 prosecutors in less than eight years. Many of the office’s top trial lawyers have been cherry-picked by the U.S. attorney and neighboring DAs, or have simply up and left for other careers. Hallinan himself acknowledges that the office’s conviction rate is poor, but he blames that on San Francisco police procedures and his preference for diversion on drug cases. We are skeptical, particularly given the office’s performance on high-profile cases. The “fajitagate” police misconduct case, for example, was handled disgracefully. Hallinan blames a runaway grand jury, but his explanation doesn’t wash, particularly because he publicly backed the grand jury’s decision in the early going. Tellingly, Hallinan touts failures as some of his biggest wins. He describes the dog-mauling case against Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller as a shining moment for the office, but the fact remains that the office wanted a murder conviction and got only manslaughter, after the trial judge found that the DA had not proved its case. Few other DAs would claim that as a victory. Similarly, in a recent interview with Recorder editors, Hallinan and his chief assistant, Murlene Randle, spoke glowingly about another case in which the office asked for murder and ended up with manslaughter — albeit with a hate-crime sentence enhancement. Outside of San Francisco, prosecutors regard a hung jury on a murder charge as a disappointment, not a resume builder. So while we like Hallinan’s ideals, we don’t like his results. Indeed, we believe a case could be made that Hallinan’s performance as DA actually damages the progressive agenda by creating the impression that progressives can’t be trusted with law enforcement. Arguably, a DA with a successful approach to quality-of-life crimes could have rendered the Care Not Cash initiative a non-starter. We believe that Fazio would bring desperately needed competence to the office. As a deputy DA he obtained convictions in numerous serious felony cases without ever developing a win-at-any-cost reputation. Over the past seven years he has put together a successful criminal defense practice, making him the only candidate with a trial lawyer’s perspective from both the prosecution and defense tables. Fazio also strikes us as politically independent — his support comes mostly from lawyers and judges at the Hall of Justice, not from the city’s political power brokers or the Democratic machine. We also see some negatives with Fazio. We are troubled by his flip-flop on capital punishment. In previous campaigns he said he would bring capital charges in exceptional cases; now he says he would never seek a death sentence. The reasons Fazio gives for his conversion — the extraordinary time and money required for trials and appeals, and the lack of true closure for victims’ families — make good sense to us, and one could argue it’s better that wisdom arrive late than never. But we suspect his change of heart is motivated more by political expediency. Most San Franciscans probably oppose the death penalty. We also don’t hear a lot of interesting new ideas coming from Fazio, which perhaps is to be expected of someone who’s spent almost his entire 28-year career in the same courthouse. While we believe he could handle the core crime-fighting functions of DA perfectly well, we doubt that the office under Fazio would become a hotbed of innovation. There’s also the inescapable fact that Fazio has tried, twice, to defeat Hallinan and failed. Although Fazio attributes his razor-thin defeat in ’99 to bad luck — liberal Tom Ammiano’s write-in campaign may have brought out more Hallinan supporters for the run-off election — the argument also can be made that he simply cannot connect with a majority of San Francisco voters. That brings us to Kamala Harris. There is a lot to like about Harris, a former prosecutor who more recently has worked at the S.F. city attorney’s office. She has brains, energy and leadership skills. She enjoys a broad cross-section of support, including many people who’ve worked closely with her in bar association and community groups. We especially like the fact that Harris worked for eight years in the Alameda County DA’s office, one of the top prosecution shops in the state, giving her an outsider’s perspective that the other two candidates lack. And we like her agenda of bringing San Franciscans together and attacking the root causes of crime at the juvenile level — even if her approach sounds somewhat vague on specifics. The conduct of her campaign, however, gives us serious pause. To begin with, Harris has been less than candid about the support she has been getting from Mayor Willie Brown and some of his closest allies. The issue isn’t Harris’ long-ago personal relationship with Brown; it is his present financial and political support for her campaign. When critics raise the Brown connection, Harris’ supporters stridently attack them as sexist and racist. But the fact is that Brown has personally contributed $500 to Harris’ campaign, as have many friends of his. As reported in SF Weekly last month, a Brown political consultant has circulated a fund-raising letter signed by Brown and seeking $500 contributions for an independent committee “to help Kamala win.” According to SF Weekly, Harris said she was “not sure” how she felt about Brown’s fund-raising support and argued that she has no control over it. But she does have control — she could make crystal clear that she does not want his help. She could refuse to accept his money. Or she could forthrightly acknowledge that she is relying on Brown, along with many others, to help get her elected. We also are troubled by her violation of the city’s campaign spending cap, perhaps even more so by her fuzzy explanation for it. In January, Harris signed a pledge to abide by a $211,000 spending limit. In July the city amended its campaign finance law. Harris says her campaign assumed that it was, therefore, no longer bound by the previous pledge. The Ethics Commission disagreed and has levied an unprecedented $34,000 fine, which Harris has agreed to pay. Harris says she is taking responsibility for the error, but at the same press conference she says, “I first learned of my campaign’s missteps just over a week ago.” And although the Ethics Commission has agreed to deem the violation unintentional, we’re skeptical. It seems to us that a simple phone call to the commission inquiring about the effect of the new law could have cleared up the “confusion.” We’d be more comfortable with Harris if she simply said, “I’ve changed my mind. The gubernatorial recall election has made it nearly impossible for me to get my message out through traditional media, so I will have to spend more than anticipated to reach the voters.” Instead, her campaign clumsily sought to exploit a legal loophole and is now obfuscating about it. In the end, we see Harris as a high-risk/high-reward candidate. We could see her bringing a passion and a vision that would elevate the San Francisco DA’s office to what it should be — a statewide leader in traditional law enforcement, compassionate rehabilitation and progressive crime prevention. But she also could be no more than another good lieutenant of the Brown-Burton machine, playing politics as usual and showing contempt for the voters’ intelligence. Fazio may not have the upside of Harris, but we believe he has been more honest, and, therefore, is a safer choice. We endorse Fazio for district attorney.

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