SF city attorney launches
2013 re-election bid
by Matthew S. Bajko
City Attorney Dennis Herrera, best known for his office's legal push for same-sex marriage, has begun to lay the groundwork for his re-election campaign in November.
Last week Herrera quietly pulled papers to seek a fourth term as the city's chief legal defender. When he was first elected for the post in a runoff in 2001, Herrera became the first Latino to serve as San Francisco's city attorney.
Four years later, and again in 2009, Herrera found himself running for re-election unopposed. As of now he is the only person to declare his candidacy for city attorney. When he signed the necessary paperwork Thursday, January 17 at the city's elections department, Herrera became the first person to pull papers to run for local office on the November ballot.
Herrera invited a reporter and photographer from the Bay Area Reporter to join him last week at the elections office. Afterward over a cup of tea – he gave up coffee when he turned 50 in November – Herrera sat down for an interview.
As for why he wants to remain city attorney, Herrera said, "If you are a lawyer that has an interest in public issues and understands the power of the law to impact people's lives, the city attorney is uniquely positioned to do that. You can make a positive impact for the citizens that you serve, and that is incredibly rewarding."
Due to an election schedule change voters approved last November, Herrera is running for a truncated two-year term this fall, as will gay city Treasurer Jose Cisneros. In November Cisneros told the B.A.R. he planned to seek re-election, but as of Wednesday, he had yet to file his paperwork with election officials.
The two offices will then be back up for grabs in 2015, when they will be on the same ballot as races for mayor, district attorney, and sheriff. The move, pushed by gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, is meant to save the city money on election costs.
Herrera told Wiener, who worked for him as a deputy city attorney, that he was supportive of the measure, Proposition D, when he first floated the idea by him last year.
"Running for the seat again in two years is a little daunting. But it was the right thing to do when you look at voter turnout in this race from four years ago," said Herrera.
Asked if he planned to serve out the full two-year term, Herrera said that "as we sit here today absolutely," adding that he is "lucky to lead a nationally recognized law office. I am lucky to have a great position."
He ruled out running for state Assembly in 2014 when gay Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) is termed out of office. Herrera lives in Ammiano's 17th Assembly District in the Dogpatch neighborhood with his wife, Anne, and son, Declan.
"I have no interest in the Assembly seat," he said. "When you are an elected official you look at what are you good at, and I am good at being a lawyer. I am sure there are a lot of great candidates who want to run for Assembly who are great legislators and I wish them the best."
He also ruled out running for mayor again in 2015. Herrera sought Room 200 at City Hall in 2011 but came in third.
"I have no plans to run for mayor," he said.
He was less committal on if he would seek another four-year term as city attorney come 2015.
"I am just focused on thinking about this election," he said.
It remains to be seen if anyone will oppose him this fall. He is likely to have the support of both of the city's LGBT Democratic clubs.
"I am fairly certain that we'll endorse Herrera's re-election as he was one of our mayoral endorsees. I mean, you never know who will hop into the race but he has been a supporter of the club in the past," said Harvey Milk club President Tom Temprano, who expects the group to make its endorsements in September. "I haven't heard anyone discussing it, personally. Defeating him given his popularity citywide, especially after the mayor's race, would be a hell of an uphill battle."
Alice B. Toklas endorsed Herrera as its top pick for mayor in 2011. Co-chair Martha Knutzen also has not heard of anyone planning to oppose Herrera.
"We will probably endorse in July but have not set our calendar yet," Knutzen told the B.A.R.
Herrera could find his race overshadowed by a campaign to rename SFO as Harvey Milk San Francisco International Airport. Gay District 9 Supervisor David Campos is trying to place the idea on the November ballot, though as the B.A.R. noted in a story last week, he is short one vote of the six needed from supervisors to place the charter amendment before voters.
Due to guidelines that prevent him from taking a position on local ballot measures, Herrera is in the lucky position of not having to weigh in on the controversial proposal. All he would say when asked about it is that he expects it will provoke "robust discussion."
"Certainly, there are a lot of people worthy of having SFO named after them, and Harvey Milk is certainly one of them," said Herrera.
He has not yet hired a campaign manager but has lined up endorsements for his re-election from nearly all of the city's elected officials. The four-person legislative delegation in Sacramento, both the district attorney and public defender, and 10 of the supervisors have already endorsed him, Herrera said.
As of last Thursday he had yet to ask newly elected District 7 Supervisor Norman Yee for his endorsement, nor had he spoken to Mayor Ed Lee about endorsing his re-election bid, said Herrera. A mayoral aide told the B.A.R. that Lee has made no decisions on endorsements for the November races adding that he "rarely endorses" for local elected offices.
As for any bad blood between the two former mayoral rivals, Herrera said that he believes they have a good working relationship.
"I pledged when I lost the mayor's race to go back to being the best city attorney I can be representing the mayor and members of the Board of Supervisors. I am confident whatever occurred in the last campaign is in the past," said Herrera, who found his record on same-sex marriage questioned by unnamed sources in a front-page San Francisco Chronicle article weeks prior to the 2011 election.
Taking action for marriage equality
Since 2004 Herrera and his staff have pursued litigation to overturn anti-gay marriage laws, first at the state level and then federally. His office is a party to the lawsuit seeking to overturn Proposition 8, the voter-approved constitutional amendment defining marriage in California as between a man and a woman.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case, known as Hollingsworth v. Perry, Tuesday, March 26. Herrera and Chief Deputy City Attorney Therese Stewart plan to travel to Washington, D.C. to attend the hearing, though neither will be arguing before the nation's highest court.
Theodore Olson will handle answering the justice's questions that day. He and his co-counsel, David Boies, filed the lawsuit on behalf of two same-sex couples seeking the right to marry. The backers behind Prop 8 are appealing lower court rulings that found the law to be unconstitutional.
City attorney staffers traveled to D.C. last week to take part in strategy sessions on the case with Olson and Boies.
"I am very excited to be providing our input and have that ability to be full participants in this case," said Herrera, who was seated at counsel's table once before for a Supreme Court hearing in a partial-birth abortion case the city was a party to.
He will be paying attention to all of the justices that day, as Herrera said it would be "a mistake" to ignore any of the nine members on the court. He pointed to how Chief Justice John Roberts surprised many pundits who assumed he would vote against the federal health care law but ended up writing the majority opinion upholding it.
"You have to be prepared to make your case to all the justices," said Herrera.
The court has until June to issue its ruling. No matter the decision, it is sure to bring media attention to Herrera just as he enters the summer months and begins to ramp up his campaign activities.
Without divulging specifics, Herrera mentioned other areas he plans to focus on this year that will also keep him before the cameras. His office is planning to file lawsuits involving guns, privacy issues and health care that will take "very creative" legal approaches, promised Herrera.
"I plan to be very active this year," he said.