Cothran

Cases of Incompetence
Neither Matt Gonzalez nor Steven Castleman has the slightest experience in electoral politics. Neither is the preternaturally ambitious sort who works his way up through customary political avenues backslapping and glad-handing the usual suspects until everyone who is anyone agrees he is ready.

Matt Gonzalez likes late-period John Coltrane and publishes forgotten beat poets, two qualities I can assure you, having watched politics in this town for nearly 10 years, no usual suspect would ever hope to possess. Castleman is a stay-at-home dad who lends out his prosecutorial expertise in environmental law to Solano County as a consultant.

No, these two men of cheap haircuts and illegible campaign fliers are authentically self-chosen as actual or possible candidates for district attorney this November. (Gonzalez has announced his candidacy and Castleman is still considering running.) Self-chosen, that is, by the incapacity of San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan.

For both men, it only took one instance of interacting with the DA inside the criminal justice system -- one case for each -- before both men saw that clearly something had to be done.

These two attorneys experienced firsthand the ineptitude of a once-admirable man who has disintegrated in front of San Francisco's eyes over the past 3 1/2 years. They didn't hear about it from friends or read it in the paper. God help them, they saw the awful mess up close and personal.

To have one such authentic individual in a race is an extreme rarity in machine-dominated San Francisco politics. To have two would likely be a first; it would also turn what promised to be a dull enterprise involving an also-ran (former prosecutor Bill Fazio) and a has-been (Hallinan) into one marked by lively politics and genuine debate.

The DA's absurd treatment of a minor pot case led public defender Matt Gonzalez to announce his candidacy for district attorney early this year. A much higher-stakes prosecution -- the biggest illegal pollution case in state history -- and Hallinan's complete botching of the matter, has made former Assistant District Attorney Steve Castleman consider running.

Each case -- one big, one small -- illustrates that Terence Hallinan is not what he told us he would be: a progressive prosecutor capable of changing the system.

Don't get me wrong. I am sure that in the deepest corners of his sclerotic mind and heart, Hallinan wants to be a progressive crusader like his father, Vincent. It's just that he doesn't now have the cojones, the gravitas, the mind, the whatever-it-takes to translate heartfelt ideals into admirable action. If he ever did.

Matt Gonzalez has told me his story a few times now, and he repeats it often on the campaign trial. As he did during a recent fund-raiser at Sadie's Flying Elephant, a small, dark bar in the Potrero Hill flatlands with many dogs and two pool tables.

Private detectives and public defenders mix with a crowd of young and attractive nouveau bohemians (is there a better term?), some wandering outside for the roast beef from the sidewalk barbecue. They eventually hear Gonzalez dedicate the event to St. Maximo, the patron saint, in Central America, of drunks, whores, and revolutionaries. But first he tells the crowd why he is running.

"Let me tell you how I got into this race," Gonzalez starts out. "I was representing this guy on a marijuana case."

Gonzalez's client was one Andrew Dugger, your basic twentysomething hippie wastrel on Haight Street. An eyesore maybe, but hardly a threat to public safety, he was busted with exactly 1 ounce of marijuana. He wasn't bothering anyone. He was just rolling a jay with some buddies, discussing the now-famous Tyson ear-biting fight.

There he was on Haight Street, he and his buddies, having just scored, sitting on the steps of the apartment building in which they had scored, Andy saying something such as, Oh, dude could you believe it when he chomped down on his ear like that? Dude it was too nasty, Andy rolling a joint, and -- boom -- the cops spot one of Andy's friends, who also is sitting there and happens to be wanted on some minor warrant.

Andy gets nailed with a joint in his hand, and the cops search him. Boom again: They find the ounce he just scored, taped to his legs in more than one bag. Suddenly, he's on the hook for a felony possession-for-the-purpose-of-sale charge.

Now, cops always overcharge when they book someone into the system. It's routine. And normally your smart district attorneys kick this kind of chickenshit case out of the system about as fast as they possibly can. They plead it down to a misdemeanor and send the kid out sweeping city streets or picking weeds for Sheriff Mike Hennessey. No jail time. No extra cost to the taxpayers. No extra body in jail to add to more jail overcrowding and the possibility of fines from the federal court overseeing your overcrowded hellhole of a city jail.

But as I think I have said before, Hallinan is not your smarter DA. Hallinan charged Andy with a felony, Gonzalez tells the crowd at Sadie's.

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