Gascón took unusual path to DA's office

George Gascón’s unexpected rise to become San Francisco’s first Hispanic district attorney was just the latest in a lifetime of unusual career twists.

A Cuban refugee at age 13, he was raised in Los Angeles, where he dropped out of high school. After selling cars for a living, he earned a college degree and became a cop, rising through the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department. Later, as an Arizona police chief, he challenged the local sheriff’s hard-line anti-immigration policies.

When hired by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom to take over the San Francisco Police Department, the longtime Republican got an early taste of The City’s politics when progressives beat back his effort to arm officers with Tasers. But just one year later, as the first police chief appointed district attorney, he changed his party affiliation and soon emerged as one of San Francisco’s leading Democratic officeholders.

In his first race for political office, the 57-year-old Gascón campaigned as an effective manager of large organizations. Voters didn’t seem to mind that he’d never prosecuted a case, and he easily won the election.

But despite that success, Gascón, who’ll be inaugurated into the office  Jan. 5, said he wondered whether to even pursue the job in the first place. Newsom asked him over a whirlwind January weekend to replace former District Attorney Kamala Harris, who had been elected California attorney general.

“I called people that I trusted, and I really had a short period of time to make that decision,” Gascón said. He said he consulted both city officials and his family.

“Would I be an electable person?” he wondered. “I didn’t want to come here and spend a year, and get a lot of wheels in motion, and then not be elected.” In the end, he said, he believed he had “a fighting chance” and took the risk.

“I think my mom is still trying to figure out what this DA does,” Gascón said, laughing.

The move left employees of the Police Department stunned. Having an outsider run the department had already been difficult for some. There had been complaints about his command staff changes; his decision to move inspectors out of the Hall of Justice to district stations; and his reliance on another outside hire, Jeff Godown, to publicly take captains to task during CompStat meetings. Gascón also inherited the department’s drug lab scandal.

But Gascón came to be viewed as an able, intelligent leader, willing to negotiate and fair on disciplinary issues, according to police union President Gary Delagnes. Ultimately, he seemed to be settling into the job.

“There was certainly a level of betrayal when he left,” Delagnes said. “There was a certain level of, ‘I guess he’s what we thought the whole time, a political animal.’”

Still, Delagnes called Gascón “professional, very likable, an ambitious guy who’s always looking for the right

His biggest near-term challenge may be the budget. Despite an understaffed office of prosecutors buried under caseloads, the mayor is seeking $1.6 million in cuts, about 5 percent of the total office budget, each of the next two years. How to deal with state realignment of prisoners to county jails, which may require shifting prosecutorial priorities, also has taken up Gascón’s time.

Gascón takes a tough stance against violent crime, but envisions a “sustainable” and fiscally sound law enforcement model for The City that lowers incarceration rates, keeps kids in school, and gives a more active role to residents and community groups. He communicates personally with the families of homicide victims. He says local law enforcement shouldn’t be wasting resources helping federal authorities deport otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants who have come to the U.S. for economic reasons.

“I come from a really blue-collar, working family,” he said. “My parents are not particularly educated, but they have incredible work ethics and a strong sense of right and wrong. And that was always a good moral compass for me.”

Performance reviews paint Gascón as open-minded and fair

Ask Hall of Justice regulars about George Gascón’s performance to date as district attorney, and you’ll discover that it’s hard to find complaints.

Several office prosecutors said that after initial reservations about Gascón’s lack of prosecutorial experience, the lawyer and former police chief won them over with a confident, intelligent approach to management and a strong vision for the office.

“The office has been energized by his leadership,” Assistant District Attorney Brian Buckelew said. “He’s here all the time, he works hard, he’s involved in decisions from top to bottom.”

Gascón also kept trusted and respected managers in top positions, and does not micromanage cases, prosecutors said.

“He recognizes that he doesn’t have the extensive experience that some of the upper-level attorneys have in the office,” Assistant District Attorney Eric Fleming said. “As a result, he’s open-minded and values our opinions and experiences.”

He’s viewed as approachable and professional, not only by his staff, but by the competition.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi said the two have “a good working relationship” and talk regularly. Both are committed to rehabilitative solutions for nonviolent criminals, especially with the return of prisoners to county jails under state realignment.

Adachi said he approached Gascón early this year with concerns about a jump in third-strike charges for nonviolent offenses by the District Attorney’s Office.

“We brought that to his attention, and from what we’ve seen, he’s addressed that,” Adachi said.

Making his mark

George Gascón’s initiatives as district attorney:

  • Expanded neighborhood courts to handle low-level misdemeanors
  • Continued anti-truancy efforts
  • Bolstered victims services unit
  • Work on state realignment and sentencing reform

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