The Problem With Grampa Politics
The desperate search for candidates to challenge District Attorney Terence Hallinan this November continues.
With predictable and instructive results.
A few weeks ago, some folks from the City Democratic Club — attorney Peter Hanson and sometimes journalist/sometimes political consultant Richard Rappaport — began bugging Public Defender Jeff Brown to run. (I touched on this recruitment effort in my March 24 column.) Brown, a nephew of former Gov. Edmund “Pat” Brown and cousin of Jerry Brown, is looking for an easier exit from public service — after 16 years as public defender he's calling it quits in 2003 — than to take over a demoralized and politically riven office. He wanted to decline. But Hanson and Rappaport are his friends, and it's hard to say no to your friends. So Brown, in his own words, “tried to put them off my scent and onto someone else's.”
Brown had just the guy in mind: Sean Field Connolly, a former public defender and current general counsel for the Police Officers Association, the local police union. “I must have been by the video store and seen the film The Candidate [a movie starring Robert Redford], and thought, 'Here's this smart, handsome, All-American-looking kid — why not get him in the race?' ” (Brown is right; Connolly does reek of All-Americanism.)
So Brown pulled Connolly aside the next time he saw him — which was easy, because their offices are across the street from each other; they can literally wave at each other from their windows — and told him he should seriously consider running.
Connolly, being no dummy, pointed out that he lacked a fund-raising base and any hope of winning endorsements from the political clubs that always favor incumbents, because the incumbents have money to give the clubs (which use the money to support their “slate card” endorsement operations).
Brown suggested what he called a “Maginot Line Strategy,” a reference to the German Wermacht's decision to ignore supposedly impenetrable French border defenses and sneak into France through the low countries during World War II. “I said, 'Hey, when Terence is getting fleeced at all the clubs, you can be out there at bus stops, shaking hands,' ” Brown told me.
An insurgent, ultra-grass-roots campaign is really the only way to beat Hallinan, a man schooled in the tired, old, corrupt machine politics of his pal Willie Brown. And Connolly began to like the idea. “He started to see himself in the Edmond O'Brien role in a movie in his head called Mr. DA,” Brown recalled.
When Connolly's name hit the gossip circuit in the Hall of Justice, the legal community took notice. This is a decent idea, many of them said. With five years of experience as a public defender, Connolly has progressive credentials. He has conservative credentials from his work at the Police Officers Association. He even has the establishment/Catholic Church credentials that go with graduating from the University of San Francisco Law School. He is a 36-year-old, energetic Irish-American lawyer who could present an attractive alternative to the crusty and burnt-out (please note the use of kind terms) Irish-American lawyer who currently resides in the district attorney's seat.
Connolly went on leave in early March to help his wife with their new baby, and when he got back last week his voice mail was brimming with support. The exiles in the DA's Office were excited. Judges were thrilled. Sheriff Michael Hennessey called and offered his endorsement, which, as anyone knows, is the most valued endorsement in San Francisco politics. Police Commission President Dennis Herrera ran into Connolly at a social event and offered his support.
Jeff Brown's trial balloon had caught a gust, it seemed.
But we all know who has the most wind in San Francisco.
That's right: Willie Brown.
Connolly has told people that he was called into a meeting with the POA leadership, including President Chris Cunnie, and given an offer he couldn't sensibly refuse: Keep your job with the Police Officers Association. Or go ahead and run for DA — as an unemployed lawyer with a new baby.
In other words: If you run against Terence, we'll fire your ass.
In an interview this week, Cunnie denied he gave Connolly an ultimatum. He characterized the conversation between Connolly and the executive board of the POA this way: “Being loyal to the POA, Connolly came in and told us his name was being floated and that it wasn't him doing it. I told him it was flattering that he was being considered, but that the POA wasn't in the business of running candidates for office, and Sean agreed.”
Now, the POA's threat had nothing to do with Terence Hallinan. The union's members and some of the leadership, like a lot of people, think Hallinan ought to be retired.
But Terence Hallinan is a close ally of Willie Brown, and the POA cares very much what Brown thinks, especially these days, when the union is negotiating a new contract with the mayor. And that's how business is done in San Francisco. As I've said before, self-interest trumps the public interest every single freakin' time.
Anyway, Connolly decided he liked his current job too much to try for the uncertainty of a new one. I heard he isn't too upset about how his putative candidacy was derailed. He knows politics is rough. He isn't even seeking press attention regarding his crushed aspirations. I found out about his experience in San Francisco machine politics by pure happenstance.
But I think the whole episode is quite revealing, because it illustrates how the old guard in San Francisco does business, and points out the great need to chase them from office with a stick.
Willie Brown and Terence Hallinan represent a tired and tiresome form of politics. They don't have any notion of how people under the age of 55 think about life and democracy. They play by the rules of politics that Phil Burton set down 40 years ago.
These rules hold that elected officials should use the power of their office to crush all potential opponents and stay in office for life, serving only the narrow band of interests necessary to maintain power.
That's all. Nothing creative. Nothing for the public at large. Groups that don't organize and express power, or threaten potential harm, are ignored.
Brown and Hallinan might call this grown-up politics. I call it doddering, old, toothless, grampa politics. Ideology aside, both Brown and Hallinan are becoming local versions of Strom Thurmond.
I mean, have you seen Hallinan speak lately? “Dodder” is a kind term. The flame is at low ebb. The Sterno can is nearly dry. I don't even consider his so-called progressive ideas about criminal justice anymore. I just notice that he is unable to effectively execute any idea more complex than brushing his teeth.
Connolly would have made a fine alternative choice for San Francisco voters. Young and bright, he would have been a sharp contrast to Hallinan's doddering on the campaign trail. Hallinan's only declared opponent so far, Matt Gonzalez, a hip, 33-year-old public defender, will also provide contrast to the aging insipidity of Hallinan. But it would have been nice to have two such candidates bookending the DA's frayed edges.
The worst part of Connolly's crushed candidacy is that it is a reflection of San Francisco's political backwardness. Over in Oakland, voters rejected the sameness of calcified ward bosses for wacky, warehouse-living, New Age iconoclast Jerry Brown. And didn't it make you giddy when Green Party candidate Audie Bock defeated the ultimate tar-pit relic, Elihu Harris, in his feeble attempt to lumber back into the state Legislature?
It made me jump up and click my heels.
Used to be that Herb Caen made fun of Oakland, and we all chuckled with the old chuckle-bum. But that old Willie Brown lap dog is dead, and Oakland now seems to have raced ahead of San Francisco in political acuity.
Jeff Brown was right when he advised Connolly to go around the Maginot line of the San Francisco political machine. That machine gave us our current, problem DA, and it will almost always give us tired, old, intellectually vapid, machine-loyal idiots as public officials. Look at the Board of Supervisors. On second thought, don't. It's too depressing.
Lately I've been regretting what I said about Matt Gonzalez in a previous column outlining why too few candidates had opted to challenge our feckless DA.
Specifically, I said Gonzales hadn't a snowball's chance in San Diego of winning. Well, a few weeks ago, when a cold snap hit the state, ice pellets and hail came down in San Diego.
The weather is changing. Audie Bock showed us that.
I'm going to take a fresh look at Gonzalez and stop judging him by the tired old rules of machine-dominated political races. I think every judge, lawyer, prosecutor, defense attorney, and Democratic Party activist ought to start doing the same.
C'mon, everybody. It's time to catch up with Oakland.
George Cothran (firstname.lastname@example.org) can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco,