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Kamala's Karma 

She's smart, she's experienced, and she's running for DA. But she's Willie Brown's ex-girlfriend, and her opponents are trying to crucify her for that.

Wednesday, Sep 24 2003
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Page 4 of 6

Harris attacks the incumbent for his handling of the Fajitagate case (in which Hallinan encouraged a grand jury to indict the top brass of the San Francisco Police Department for obstruction of justice without having enough evidence to prove his case) and for allowing Elbert Flowers to plea-bargain out of a stiff sentence for torturing his girlfriend in 1998. (Flowers was arrested for torturing another girlfriend last month.)

Hallinan, she adds, has an abysmal conviction rate for serious crimes. She says that before he assumed office in 1995, the District Attorney's Office won convictions in 75.5 percent of cases filed. After Hallinan took office, the conviction rate fell to 64.7 percent. "During Hallinan's first five years, 4,568 cases would have been convictions if Arlo Smith's track record had been maintained," she concludes.

Hallinan replies that the 10 percent drop in his conviction rate is due to his diversion program, which emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment. He says his attempts to prosecute top SFPD officers in Fajitagate may have failed, but they "lifted the lid off a long-simmering problem" and may lead to future reforms. He still believes command-level officers conspired to obstruct justice after three young cops were accused of beating up two men who refused to give them their steak fajitas.

The DA admits he is "not 100 percent clear" why Flowers received only a two-year prison sentence after his first offense. The victim and her lawyer, Hallinan explains, apparently prevailed on an assistant DA to give Flowers a break. "Those are hard cases," he says. "Sometimes you bite the bullet and take a chance. As this one worked out, we should not have let him out, period. He should still be in prison."

Harris also charges that federal and state law enforcement agencies have stopped bringing white-collar crime and public corruption cases to Hallinan because he is not doing his job. She promises to more vigorously investigate and prosecute city officials who break the law.

Hallinan insists he has excellent working relationships with his counterparts in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento, especially California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. In the past two years, he says, his office disposed of 11 theft cases involving city agencies or the San Francisco school district, and nine other cases are under investigation. "I'm not remiss in the prosecution of governmental corruption since her boyfriend was elected mayor of San Francisco," he says. "The situation of public corruption under Brown is discouraging to me -- it is everywhere. Her relationship to Brown would make it hard for her to prosecute."

But at least a few prominent members of the San Francisco bar view Harris as more competent than the incumbent. Among them are well-known defense lawyers Jim Brosnahan, who represented "Marin Taliban" John Walker Lindh, and John Keker, who has served on the San Francisco Police Commission.

"I like Terence Hallinan, but he has been a disaster as a DA," says Keker. "The assistant district attorneys complain that the cops bring them bad cases, the police whine that the DA doesn't prosecute. Fazio does not have the organizational capability to bring about reform. Harris is one of those once- or twice-in-a-generation politicians that does have real legal and organizational talents."

Harris also has fans among those who try to help young sex-abuse victims. She co-founded the Coalition to End the Exploitation of Kids, which provides legal and health services to sexually exploited children, including teenage prostitutes. Her partner in that project is Norma Hotaling, an ex-hooker who considers youthful prostitutes to be the victims of serial rape. Hotaling is not endorsing anyone in the DA's race, but she finds "Harris to be absolutely dedicated to ending the sexual exploitation of children, who should not be arrested but saved from the johns."

Dr. Shannon Thyne, who coordinates the Department of Public Health's child sexual abuse program, works closely with the unit Harris heads at the City Attorney's Office. Together, they created a program to spot evidence of child sexual abuse in emergency rooms. While Thyne credits Hallinan with setting up effective programs to deal with those who prey on children -- making it easier, for example, to remove young victims from abusers and put them into foster care -- she says Harris has long been the mover and shaker on the issue.

As Harris campaigns in the Mission, a man on the street tells her that he likes Hallinan's "permissiveness." Harris responds that people ought not to confuse "compassionate justice" with Hallinan's failure to prosecute property-destroying war protesters.

"It is not progressive to be soft on crime," she says.

In fact, Harris' law-and-order rhetoric worries Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who does not want her to win. "Harris would be a hard-nosed prosecutor," says Adachi. "It's not the tradition in San Francisco to favor punishment over rehabilitation. We are not concerned with the conviction rate, we don't want to come down hard on people accused of crimes, we don't want to nail them to the cross."

Harris just laughs at this criticism, which would qualify as a wannabe DA's dream endorsement almost anywhere except San Francisco.


Despite her credentials and zesty campaigning, Harris acknowledges that recent polls indicate she is lagging far behind Hallinan and Fazio.

With the incumbent at 28 percent and Fazio in the mid-20s, she has 14 percent of the prospective vote (having risen from 9 percent back in February). The silver lining, she says, is that unlike in most political races, the percentage of undecided voters in the DA contest is rising (from 27 percent in March to 35 percent this month). That growing pool, she believes, gives her an opening.

As her name recognition slowly increases, the possibility of her winning is driving her opponents bananas. In an interview about his own candidacy, Fazio couldn't leave the subject of Harris alone. "How can Harris root out corruption if she has Willie supporting her behind the scenes?" he interjected, apropos of nothing. "I do not care that they had a relationship, but there are legitimate questions whether or not there is payback there."

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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