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The following is an unusual article, a partisan interview of a prospective elected official by an already elected official. In the interest of fairness and public education, the Call has invited Jeff Adachi's opponent, Kimiko Burton-Cruz, to contribute a similar piece of her own, which will appear at a later date. And as the campaign heats up, we will return to these two candidates in order to explore some of the issues that separate them.


Directly accountable to the people

Supervisor Matt Gonzalez interviews Jeff Adachi

MG: Jeff, first of all itís a pleasure to get to sit down with you and talk about the upcoming public defenderís race. What motivated you to become a public defender?

JA: I come from a humble background. My dad was an auto mechanic and my mom was a lab tech. They really had to struggle to achieve what they had. My parents and grandparents were interned in the concentration camps during World War II. They lost everything they owned and had to start all over again.

I remember asking them why they had been imprisoned for four years, and my mom said it was because they were Japanese-American. There was no trial, but they were judged guilty by society. That sense of injustice has always stayed with me. In the late 70ís, I became involved in the case of a San Francisco man who had been wrongfully convicted for a crime he didnít commit. His name was Chol Soo Lee, and he was on death row. I worked with others on the case for seven years, organizing in the community, to bring his case back to the courts. Tony Serra and Stu Hanlon were the defense attorneys, and Iíll never forget the moment when the jury announced its not guilty verdict. It cemented my desire to become a public defender and fight for those who were unable to afford a lawyer.

MG: Having worked in the office for nearly ten years myself, I know how much more experienced you are than your opponent. Do you think the average voter is getting the message? And what is Burton doing to ďbeef upĒ her experience?

I was a public defender for over fifteen years and have dedicated my entire professional career to public defender work. As the officeís top trial lawyer, I handled over 3,000 criminal cases and tried over 100 jury trials, including 50 felony trials. Unlike my opponent, I have handled and tried murder and serious felony cases. In 1998, I was promoted to the second-in-command under Jeff Brown, who asked me to succeed him after 22 years. This is the message of the campaign which we are putting out to voters.

My opponent, on the other hand, has said that the job doesnít require any real trial experience and has said it is an administrative job. That is nonsense. The daily work of a public defender is to be a trial lawyer. Anyone who works in that office will tell you that in order to make decisions about how serious cases should be handled, you need the experience of doing it yourself. The message of the Burton campaign is that experience doesnít matter.

MG: My understanding is that Kim Burton has handled only one felony trial. As the public defender, would you allow someone with that kind of experience to be even a misdemeanor supervisor in the office?

Who would hire a fire chief who had fought only one fire? The public defender is the head of the largest criminal defense firm in the City ó 90 lawyers and 30 staff. The public defender must train, direct, and supervise trial lawyers. The public defender must be someone who can command the respect of the rank and file, and the staff will not respect someone who hasnít been through the trenches themselves. Even a misdemeanor supervisor needs to have the respect of the lawyers they are in charge of supervising, and more importantly, the experience to train lawyers in the art of trying cases and representing clients. If you were a public defender handling a case load of 50 murder, serious felony, three strike, and other felony cases, you would have a hard time taking direction from someone who had tried only one felony case.

MG: The rumor Iíve been hearing is that the Brown/Burton machine is trying to invent some qualifications for Kim so that she can counter her obvious shortcomings in this regard. Recently, I noticed that the California Law Business Magazine named Kim as one of the top lawyers under the age of 40 in California. I practically fell out of my chair when I read that! Obviously her record as a criminal trial lawyer would not qualify her for such a listing and to my knowledge Kim has never tried any civil cases, so how do you explain this? I mean, it sounds pretty suspect to me.

JA: I donít know about what qualifications they looked at in choosing her, but I would think that a professional business magazine would have some standards before declaring that someone was a top lawyer. Lawyers are usually evaluated by their professional accomplishments, cases they have handled, clients they have represented, and verdicts they have won. Again, I donít know what that particular magazine looked at, but I would hope that their award was based on qualifications and not the fact that they have ties to her father, State Senator John Burton, or her godfather, Mayor Willie Brown. One does have to wonder what other factors might carry weight with a business publication other than her civil experience.

MG: Unlike your opponent, I know youíve taught in law schools, published articles in legal journals, and been recognized for your management abilities. Can you say something about this?

JA: You know, itís ironic that barely a year ago the mayor himself presented me with the Public Managerial Excellence Award. I was chosen as one of the cityís top five managers by the Mayorís Fiscal Advisory Committee, a group of business leaders who made recommendations to him. I was the first public defender in history to ever receive this award. Iíve also taught law for ten years and published five law textbooks, but I guess in some circles it doesnít really seem to matter as much as political and family connections.

MG: You were fired by your opponent within hours of her first day in office. Was that difficult?

JA: I had taken a vacation day to run some errands. When I got home, my wife had received a hand-delivered letter from one of the investigators in the office. The letter said that my services were no longer needed. This is the only communication I ever had with my opponent regarding the office. I think the thing that troubled me most was that there was no attempt to ensure a smooth transition for the sake of the clients. You have to understand, I was representing two clients in major murder cases in addition to preparing the budget, running the office, and dozens of other tasks. I was never asked to participate in a debriefing, and the many projects I was working on were abandoned. But I think the hardest part was not being able to do what I love, and I miss the people I worked with for over fifteen years. The lawyers in that office are great people to work with.

MG: Kim Burton has been running the office for six months or so. What do you think of the job she has done?

JA: What Iíve seen is a politicization of the office, a lack of diversity in her management team, and a disregard for non-English-speaking clients. In her first week on the job, my opponent fired an incredibly talented young Latina lawyer and replaced her with an ex-prosecutor whose father happens to be a judge. I had promoted the first lesbian attorney in the 80-year history of the office to a supervisor position in the office, and my opponent demoted this attorney in both rank and pay, while male supervisors, who likewise were not supporting her bid for public defender, were only demoted in rank, not pay. She also demoted the first gay felony supervisor. Now there are no gay or lesbian supervisors in the office. My opponent also fired the only Latino supervisor in the office, and now there are no Latino supervisors in the office. She also canceled a number of programs that were highly successful.

I had started a program to help kids who were at the Youth Guidance Center get back into school with special services, such as counseling and tutoring. My opponent terminated that program in her first two weeks in office. Sheís also severely cut interpreter services for non-English-speaking clients.

MG: Itís really a shame that machine politics is entering the race for public defender. This is a job, after all, to represent the hundreds of folks out there who get charged with a crime and donít have the personal wealth to hire a lawyer. Any idea why this job is an elected one in San Francisco? I understand it is appointed everywhere else.

JA: Itís important that the public defender be independent, which can only be attained by making the post an elected one. Having an election also makes the public defender directly accountable to the people he or she serves.

MG: Your opponent has already received over half a million dollars in campaign contributions and is certain to benefit from huge independent expenditures (or ďsoft moneyĒ as they call it) before election day. Iíve even heard that Modesto Congressman Gary Condit has contributed money to her campaign. Why is there so much money in this race?

JA: Itís clear that most of the $700,000 is coming from John Burtonís many connections. This is the most money ever raised for a local candidate in San Franciscoís history, other than Willie Brownís last mayoral race. Why? I donít think itís because John Burtonís friends suddenly have an interest in having a good public defenderís office in San Francisco. Itís an attempt to buy an office, and I donít think the public defenderís office should be for sale, particularly when peopleís lives are at stake.

MG: Your support is very diverse. Does this ever get you in trouble with progressives who get nervous when they see conservative names on your campaign literature? I guess it works the other way around too, with conservatives noticing your progressive support?

JA: I am building a wide base of supporters from different political philosophies and persuasions, and from all of San Franciscoís diverse communities. Both conservatives and progressives have an interest in making sure that we have clean and honest government. Iíve been extremely fortunate to receive support from all over the city. And no, it hasnít caused a problem, because people understand that I am running because I want to run a competent, professional law office, and not as a springboard to some other political office.

I also think itís worth noting that the two members of the Board of Supervisors who are lawyers and who happen to be former public defenders are supporting my candidacy.

MG: I wanted to ask you about the Central Labor Council. I understand they are already getting behind Willie Brownís race for the State Senate three years from now, so Iím not surprised that they would back his god-daughter. But how are the rank and file of labor dealing with this race? Tell us about your support among working people.

JA: A recent independent poll showed that we were leading this race citywide. That same poll showed that we were especially strong among union households. Working people have shown a growing tendency in recent years to vote against the political machine even when the machine succeeds in pressuring their leadership into making unsavory deals. That shift among the workers has actually strengthened the leadershipís ability to resist those deals, as shown by their recent decision to support the Municipal Utility District, after opposing it for so many years. Where this trend may lead in the future will be interesting to watch.

MG: Jeff, itís been a pleasure talking with you. You of course have my full support and my commitment that I will walk precincts for you as we approach the election. But I have to warn you, politics is the most duplicitous business Iíve ever been involved with. In the courtroom, judges and prosecutors may be coming after you, but there are rules that everyone must abide by. I wish I could say the same for politics. Seriously though, keep up the good work.

JA: Thanks, Matt. Iíll keep that in mind in the months ahead and I greatly appreciate your support.

Jeff Adachi is a candidate for San Francisco public defender. Matt Gonzalez conducted this interview on November 12, 2001. Gonzalez was a deputy public defender in San Francisco from 1991-2001. He is currently a member of the Board of Supervisors representing District 5, which includes the Western Addition, Haight-Ashbury, and Inner Sunset neighborhoods.