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After Steinle verdict, DA Gascon’s 2019 re-election vulnerable to challengers

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District Attorney George Gascon, left, and prosecutor Diana Garcia exit the courtroom on Oct. 23 during the opening day of trial of Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, who was later found not guilty for the death of Kate Steinle. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Call it the Great Gascon Pile-On.

In the wake of the Kate Steinle verdict, which saw Jose Ines Garcia Zarate found not guilty of both murder and manslaughter, enemies of District Attorney George Gascon are sniffing out vulnerability for his 2019 re-election.

Failing to get a murder charge is understandable, most say, because it requires proof of intent. But failing to net a manslaughter conviction? That’s left San Francisco politicos — and indeed, the entire city — slack-jawed.

Now, the sense is, Gascon is an easy target for future political challengers.

“As someone looking from the outside, clearly it looks like his office made the mistake of not trying the case appropriately,” Board of Supervisors President London Breed told me on Monday.

Former Supervisor David Campos, as lefty-left as you can get, also said, “I like George Gascon, but I do believe many on the left wondered why this case was overcharged.”

Gascon has two heavily rumored political opponents in 2019: Former Police Commissioner Suzy Loftus, who was appointed by Mayor Ed Lee and considered a moderate, and Supervisor Jane Kim, who garnered backing from former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders in her state Senate bid. Neither confirmed a run.

“I have not made any decisions,” Loftus told me, when reached Monday for comment.

Note: That’s not a no.

Loftus, as native San Franciscan, has six years of experience as a prosecutor in the DA’s Office — experience that Gascon’s opponents say he lacks. She also served as Special Assistant Attorney General to Kamala Harris when Harris was attorney general.

Kim did not respond to requests for comment. Still, she’s termed out next year, and it’s fairly obvious Kim needs a new perch. Running for the DA’s Office does not sound like a stretch.

Former Mayor Art Agnos was among those who felt Gascon is vulnerable.

“In my political judgment, the only one who could hurt him from an election is someone coming from his right, saying [the DA’s Office] should have been more skilled pursuing the hardcore case against Zarate,” Agnos told me. “I don’t know who that might be, but it’s a scenario that is possible.”

If that person is Loftus, then her prosecution record may boost her in an electoral throwdown against Gascon.

David Latterman, a longtime San Francisco political consultant, said Gascon may be vulnerable from the “right,” but a lefty challenger — perhaps Kim — would have a tougher time capitalizing on a failure to prosecute Zarate.

Latterman said Gascon has mostly pursued charges that are in line with San Francisco values. “He blew it on one major case, but other than that, what’s the real reason to kick him out?”

Moderates may be keen to see Gascon ousted after he pursued charges against Human Rights Commissioner Nazly Mohajer and commission staffer Zula Jones for allegedly facilitating illegal campaign donations for Mayor Ed Lee. (Lee has denied any wrongdoing.)

But there are reasons those on the left may see Gascon vulnerable, too.

Campos said progressives wonder “why no charges are brought [by Gascon] in other cases, especially regarding police brutality.”

For instance, the San Francisco Police Department shot and killed Amilcar Lopez, and Gascon declined to prosecute the officers involved. That may be an opening for Kim.

Gascon’s office defended its record.

In 2017, the District Attorney’s conviction rate for felony charges, as of October, was 90 percent, said spokesperson Max Szabo. Szabo also said the DA’s Office pursued charges against 19 law enforcement officers since Gascon took office.

“Idle speculation that a jury’s singular verdict somehow creates a political launchpad doesn’t give the voters much credit,” Szabo said.

Notably, the guy working for Gascon was the only person I found willing to defend him.

* * *

Political parties usually provide plenty of powerful hints. Cue last Monday, when political powerbroker David Ho celebrated his 40th birthday at 5a5 Steak Lounge. The man who helped push Supervisor Ahsha Safai’s campaign over the finish line, and who also has political ties to Supervisor Aaron Peskin, hosted two interesting guests in particular: City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Planning Commissioner Christine Johnson.

The two are alike in one crucial way: Both are heavily rumored candidates in their respective races, and their presence at Ho’s party may be a (very) strong hint at what’s to come.

Herrera is rumored to be running again for mayor. If he does throw his hat in, attending Ho’s party was smart. (Also in attendance was the only announced major mayoral candidate, Mark Leno, who has been heavily courting Chinatown support as well.)

Johnson, by contrast, is rumored to be the only major opponent for District 6 supervisor candidate Matt Haney. With Ho’s recent rebuke of Haney, Johnson’s attendance at the political bash all but seals the deal.

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at joe@sfexaminer.com, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at facebook.com/FitztheReporter.

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