Onek Wages Strong Challenge for D.A.

by Paul Hogarth on March 14, 2011

Unlike some progressives, I was not upset when Ed Lee was appointed Interim Mayor (or that David Chiu was re-elected Board President) – and believe that much of the grumbling that’s heard on the Left these days is unwarranted. But Gavin Newsom’s final act as Mayor – when he appointed Police Chief George Gascon as the new District Attorney – was disturbing. Besides the inherent conflict-of-interest and unprecedented nature of such a move, it showed – once again – that Newsom has little loyalty to people who worked for him. Because David Onek, who was an aide to Mayor Newsom in the Office of Criminal Justice and helped bring down the City’s high homicide rate, had already been campaigning for months. Now, Onek’s bid for District Attorney has picked up support from the City’s progressive leaders – including Aaron Peskin, Art Agnos and John Avalos – and moderates like Carmen Chu, who respect the work he did in the Mayor’s Office. And with a fundraiser this weekend co-hosted by Jane Morrison and Agar Jaicks, Onek is building a “center-left” coalition to challenge ex-Republican George Gascon for the November 2011 election.

Gavin Newsom’s last-minute appointment of George Gascon on January 9th to replace Kamala Harris followed an intensive courtship of Board President David Chiu – who ultimately declined the job on January 6th. Newsom’s motivation, of course, was to have Chiu vacate his District 3 Supervisor seat – so he can appoint a moderate. When Chiu opted not to play along, Newsom picked Gascon – a former Republican, who had only lived in San Francisco for a year – as a final snub to local Democrats and progressive leaders.

As far as anyone can tell, no Police Chief in the country has ever been appointed District Attorney – and there are reasons for that. As the lawyer who prosecutes criminal cases, the D.A. must hold the police accountable when they break the law. While it’s important to have a D.A. who police can trust, it is equally important to have an independent D.A. who will not tolerate Fourth Amendment violations that lead to cases being dismissed. With the recent rash of illegal police searches in single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels under Gascon’s watch, the conflict-of-interest is becoming more and more clear every day.

Gascon has finally admitted as such, requesting on Friday that the Justice Department take over the investigation – one week after his opponent, David Onek, had publicly called for an independent probe. “I first checked with five respected criminal justice experts before demanding this,” said Onek, “and they all said it was a no-brainer.” If Gascon were a progressive D.A., the Chronicle would call for his resignation. Instead, they are trying to cast blame elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Onek’s campaign had a fundraiser this weekend at the home of former SF Democratic Party Chair Agar Jaicks. “We are on hallowed Democratic ground,” said Aaron Peskin, who reminded the crowd that a scene in Milk had been filmed in Jaicks’ living room. “We are in the spot where every good Democratic, San Francisco value candidate has had their start.” Onek’s other public supporters who addressed the crowd were former Mayor Art Agnos, and Onek’s father-in-law – Michael Dukakis.

Onek spoke about his background at Walden House and Legal Services for Children, his work on the SF Police Commission and as Executive Director of the UC Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice at Boalt. “For tough issues, let’s bring everyone around the table to get programmatic, common-sense reforms,” said Onek, as he described his work to help people out of prison get jobs. While working in the Mayor’s Office, Onek described what he did to help better manage police resources and bring down the City’s homicide rate.

Many at the fundraiser were not yet Onek supporters, but had been invited by Peskin and others to consider joining his effort. By far the biggest applause line Onek received from the crowd was: “the death penalty does not work, and I will not seek the death penalty in San Francisco.” As D.A., Gascon has deviated from Kamala Harris and said he would not rule out seeking the death penalty – much to the dismay of many local progressives.

Onek said he admired much of what Kamala Harris did as D.A., and strongly supported her bid for Attorney General. But asked where he disagreed, he said it was where Harris threatened to incarcerate the parents of truant children. “I don’t think that helps,” he said.

Aaron Peskin reminded the crowd that as President of the Board of Supervisors, “Mayor Newsom and I did not see eye to eye.” But he always had a “great relationship” with David Onek when he worked in the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, and that “his ability to deliver is superlative.” Peskin urged others to support Onek’s candidacy.

With more than seven months to go, the race for District Attorney has only begun.

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