Et Tu, Mom?

A new theme is already beginning to take shape this young campaign season: politicians betraying their heirs

And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? Bring them out unto us, that we may know them. And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him, and said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly. Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: Only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof. -- Genesis 19: 5-6

As a new campaign season emerges in Gomorrah by the Bay, stories of political parental betrayal abound. Geoffrey Brown, the former San Francisco public defender, has turned on his protégé, Jeff Adachi, after nurturing him as an heir. Carol Migden, the San Francisco assemblywoman, had for years chaperoned Supervisor Mark Leno as her political favorite son, before surprising him last week by endorsing his rival, Harry Britt.

"For 18 years, I was devoted to her," Leno says. "If he [Britt] is her political father or mentor, I'm her political protégé, or son."

If late 20th century San Francisco was a golden-age Sodom and Gomorrah, as Armistead Maupin suggested in Tales of the City, then perhaps the aftermath of that famous Bible story is a fitting motif for the city's new century: The daughters of Lot trudging toward Zoar as Sodom burns, mindful that their father had just offered them up to Sodom's rape-minded hordes. As they head into the desert, one can't help but wonder whether memories of their father's treachery will consume them or propel them forward. And what's going through their father's mind, now that he's performed this heinous deed?

Three days before Father's Day I'm sitting across from former Chief Assistant Public Defender Jeff Adachi in his Fillmore Street law office, listening to him talk about lawyering. It is a profession he obviously loves. Adachi's Japanese-American parents were interned during World War II. Ever since, he has dedicated himself to preventing miscarriages of justice.

"Being a public defender represented for me an opportunity to make sure that the process is fair, and that I could fight for people who couldn't defend themselves," he says.

Until January he had directed a staff of 80 idealistic attorneys as chief assistant to Public Defender Geoffrey Brown, overseeing an ambitious office overhaul. Instead of cutting deals with prosecutors, Adachi -- presumably with Brown's backing -- was encouraging lawyers to place aggressive bets at jury trials, and winning.

"From October 1999 to October 2000 we had an unbelievable number of wins," one attorney I talked to said. "There was a profound trickle-down effect. If we thought we were getting good deals before, then guess what? This does an amazing amount of good for credibility when an attorney says "We'll go to trial,' and means it."

During Adachi's tenure as chief assistant public defender, the San Francisco PD had swiftly gone from a department known for taking whatever they were offered by prosecutors to one of the toughest shops in the state.

Now Adachi sits alone in a Fillmore office, attending to private clients and, presumably, wondering why his former boss and mentor hung him out to dry.

"It's lonely in here," he says.

In January, Brown quit his post two years early to accept an appointment by Gray Davis to the California Public Utilities Commission as part of a three-way patronage deal involving State Senate Pro Tem John Burton and Willie Brown. As soon as Geoffrey Brown quit, Willie Brown appointed Burton's daughter, Kimiko Burton-Cruz, in his place.

Just as he resigned, Geoffrey Brown took the bizarre step of publicly humiliating Adachi. Adachi had inserted the words "I have every confidence in Jeff Adachi's ability to lead this office and in his bid to become the next public defender." Brown had said as much to his staff on several occasions, going so far as to tell the staff it would be a "crime" if Adachi didn't become San Francisco's next public defender, according to attorneys I spoke to. Just the same, Brown told a Chroniclereporter that Adachi had altered the message without his permission. Brown himself would not make such an endorsement because it would be an inappropriate use of office resources, he told the reporter. Within the week Burton-Cruz had moved into the PD office and fired Adachi.

While it's true that political patronage can carry unsavory duties, Geoffrey Brown's efforts to undermine Adachi seemed beyond the call of duty. I called Brown to ask about this. I asked if the news story had overstated his reaction. But Brown passed on the opportunity to spare any kind words for his protégé.

"What happened in terms of the e-mail in terms of that story is true," Brown said.

I called Peter Keene, who had been Brown's chief assistant since the 1970s, before retiring in 1998 to become dean of Golden Gate Law School. Had there been some sort of falling out between Adachi and Brown?

"I never heard any major criticisms from Jeff about Adachi's role as chief assistant," Brown said.

Attorneys both in and outside the public defender's office theorize that Brown may have felt sidelined by his brilliant protégé. Just last fall Willie Brown named Adachi the best manager in city government.

"There's no question he's the best trial lawyer I have ever seen in 33 years of being a criminal defense attorney," Keene says. "He's a charismatic leader who is absolutely held in awe by the people in the public defender's office who are there now -- the line troops -- because they know what a superb public defender he is."

Attorneys who spoke off the record describe a public defender's office whose morale has been crippled by Burton-Cruz's appointment. Attorneys haven't been impressed with the leadership of Burton-Cruz, who worked a few years as a low-level attorney in the Public Defender's office before being given a job in Willie Brown's office overseeing criminal justice grant programs.

"I hired both of them," Keene says. "She was a student of mine at Hastings when I taught there. And I supervised both of them in the public defender's office. Kim [Burton-Cruz] was only in the office a few years. She only got involved in a few felony cases," Keene says. "Adachi, on the other hand, has done the toughest cases in the office. He knows the day-to-day work of a criminal trail lawyer, just pouring out one's spirit to protect the rights of poor people who are suspected of crimes. You don't have anywhere near that passion in Kim. She is a smart individual. She didn't show a tremendous amount of zeal or dedication that I saw when I was there and supervising her. She was appointed because she was John Burton's daughter. To me that's not a qualification."

For his part, Jeff Adachi seems to bear no ill will toward his political father, despite the fact that Brown appears to have abandoned him.

"He really helped me in terms of growing as a leader and as a person," Adachi says. "He introduced me to a lot of people and really took it upon himself to help me. He's given me what he's given me. It's now a matter of what I can do with it."

Supervisor Mark Leno is less philosophical as he describes the circumstances under which he learned that his political mentor Carol Migden had endorsed former supervisor Harry Britt to replace her as a San Francisco representative in the California Assembly.

Britt, who occupied Harvey Milk's supervisor's seat from 1978 to 1993, is running for Assembly at the request of Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano. Migden, who is apparently betting on the insurgent Ammiano-progressive political machine, let it slip a week ago that she would back Britt. Migden had taken over Britt's Supervisor seat when he left in 1993. Still, Leno felt deeply hurt by the endorsement.

"I was her major gay and [lesbian] community organizer. I put together her core support group and was her major fund-raiser. It intensified from the years 1993 and 1994 up until my run for public office in 1998. I was completely devoted to her. Before I decided to run for Assembly, after I was elected for supervisor in District 8, I told her of my interest in her seat," Leno says. "I let her know I was going to run. She never discouraged me. I never asked for her endorsement, but she never discouraged me, and I moved forward."

Britt helped Migden get her start in San Francisco politics, and she suggests that's where her loyalties lie.

"You don't replace old friends for new. It was a very tough personal, painful choice. I have strong relationships to both, and I made a difficult choice, and one I'm resolved about and confident in," says Migden, who plans on running for a post on the State Board of Equalization next year. "I'm with Harry Britt. I think he's a link to Harvey Milk and an extraordinarily undiluted progressive version of the world. His exceptionally intelligent progressive connectedness is absolutely unparalleled."

Intrigued, I called Britt to get a taste of his intelligent progressive connectedness. I had watched him give a talk at a candidate's night last week that had consisted mostly of him parrying audience questions by saying that he had been out of politics for nine years and needed to do some catching up. When asked how voters might distinguish between him and Mark Leno, he warmed to his subject, characterizing his longtime friend as a captive of campaign contributors.

"That's not a criticism of Mark. It's just that in this last election there was a lot of money, presumably from the Brown interests. I just know that when you look at candidates, the first thing you look at is where the money is. I've been able to get things done because I wasn't constrained by big money interests," Britt said.

So does that mean Carol Migden, one of the most successful fund-raisers in the California Assembly, is "constrained" by big money interests?

"I haven't been watching what she's been doing. I don't know what the word "constrained' means here," Britt said.

Did Britt wish to use a different word?

"I'm not backing off the word constrained, I'm just not applying it to Carol because I haven't followed what she's done," he said, changing the subject. "We can't allow George Bush to monopolize the national and state debate on environmentalism and energy and things that effect our lives. I think I'm a good debater, and I can call attention to things that are important in this political system."

Britt may be an excellent debater, for all I know. But in this case he appears to be mostly a place-filler for Tom Ammiano's politically correct "progressive" machine.

"It all kind of clicked for me," Ammiano explains.

There's a narrative that describes San Francisco politics as a battle between two dynasties. The one led by Tom Ammiano and the rest of the "progressive" supervisors elected last fall are insurgent, while the old California Democratic Party machine led by Willie Brown and John Burton is in decline, this narrative version says.

But the fact is that San Francisco may very well be headed for a new type of politics, where a candidate's place in the political universe has nothing to do with whether or not she's friendly with Willie Brown. In this post-Willie era, a Kimiko Burton-Cruz just may lose the race for public defender, despite her famous name and the money it brings. Mark Leno, a smart, conscientious lawmaker who anywhere else in the world would be considered a progressive, won't be threatened by the narrow list of Provincial political sensibilities that have been lately used as a leftist litmus test here.

Perhaps next Father's Day, when Leno is the Democratic candidate for Assembly and Jeff Adachi is our public defender, the politics of parental betrayal will be all but forgotten. Jeff Brown and Carol Migden may remain ensconced in a political post somewhere, but they will have lost just the same.

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.