By any reasonable standard, District Attorney Terence Hallinan should be facing a healthy field of challengers as he prepares for his re-election campaign this year. For the three years and three months he has been in office, Hallinan has screwed up so severely, so often, and on so many levels that he should be considered the classic vulnerable candidate.
To name a few of our bungling DA's blunders: He jeopardized a gangland murder prosecution by making idiotic statements to the press, leading a judge to remove his office from the case. He settled the biggest criminal pollution case in city history for an infinitesimal fraction of the potential fines and cleanup costs, because he and his handpicked chief deputy didn't understand the law. He's tangled with judges and the police chief in debilitating and useless fights, showing himself to be an injudicious hothead. On three occasions he's unethically attempted to discuss cases with judges outside the presence of opposing counsel.
But Hallinan's worst problem involves high-stakes cases brought by his office. They keep falling apart, and they fall apart in ways that lead one to a troubling conclusion: Either the DA's Office prosecuted the wrong people, and let the bad guys get away, or the DA's Office blew a righteous case, and let the bad guys get away. Either way, bad guys keep getting away:
* The biggest police corruption case in recent city history -- brought against three narcotics officers, one caught on videotape taking money -- ended in acquittals for all three defendants.
* A murder-conspiracy case filed against a family of Gypsies accused of poisoning and bilking elderly loners seems hopelessly lost, now that a judge has dismissed the most important charges in the indictment.
* And just recently, a case that accused a pastor of defrauding his parishioners fell into tiny pieces after the prosecution was revealed to be baseless, and the investigation that spawned it to be seriously flawed and politically motivated.
Overall, the District Attorney's Office's record on convictions is dismal. Line prosecutors tell me the office is a public defender's dream. "We give away the store every day," one prosecutor said recently.
Public Defender Jeff Brown grew so concerned with the sad state of the DA's Office he briefly considered running against Hallinan. Think about that for a second: A man who has dedicated 27 years in public office to getting criminals out of trouble was so concerned with the quality of law enforcement in San Francisco that he considered taking Hallinan on.
Sounds bad, right? Well, then why is Hallinan poised to skate back into office next January untouched?
Potentially formidable opponents, including Brown and former prosecutor Katherine Feinstein, daughter of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, all have backed away from the race. Former prosecutor turned defense attorney Bill Fazio, who lost to Hallinan by a few percentage points in 1995, is still playing Hamlet, pondering the possibility of running.
As it stands, Hallinan's only declared opponent is Matt Gonzalez, a 33-year-old deputy public defender, who, while an interesting and intelligent fellow, hasn't a snowball's chance in San Diego of winning.
The reason for Hallinan's good political fortune can be found in a remark he made to Fazio during the 1995 campaign: "Bill, you may be a better lawyer than me, but I am a better politician."
Hallinan has a political edge for two basic reasons: 1) He has created and maintained a charming image as a feisty former boxer standing up for radical-left notions of criminal justice -- an image that, if utter nonsense, is effective in the popularity-contest part of a political campaign. 2) His political supporters include the meanest, nastiest thugs who have ever strode the local political stage.
Terence Hallinan has an image that San Francisco voters lap up like mother's milk. They don't see a guy who has tanked murder, police corruption, and pollution cases. They don't see a guy who has had reckless ex parte communications with judges. Hell, most voters don't even know what that Latin term means. They see a guy who promotes their liberal views of law enforcement.
Diversion programs for drug offenders go over very well in a town outraged by the so-called War on Drugs. Diversion programs for prostitutes and johns go over even better in a town that simply loves its whores.
And Terry Hallinan is hell on wheels when it comes to diversion over incarceration.
Hallinan's image makes liberal voters feel good. They vote for him, and walk away proud that they are rebelling against traditional notions of law enforcement. Who cares about prosecutorial efficacy, legal acumen, sound judgment, or convicting criminals, when San Francisco has an opportunity to further gild its anarchistic rep?
A formidable opponent could alter the image of Terence Hallinan through the careful application of fact. Easily. That's why I think it's the second part of Hallinan's political arsenal -- the thugs whom I call the "unholy triumvirate" -- that has cleared the electoral field for this otherwise-stumbling DA.
These three thugs are:
Ted Fang, the publisher of the San Francisco Independent, who worked on Hallinan's 1995 campaign at the same time his newspaper was smearing Fazio with false allegations of underworld ties that tripped well over the bounds of journalistic and human decency into anti-Italian bigotry.