In Land of Liberals, D.A. Race Takes Twists


In this lonely bastion of liberalism, where Mayor Willie Brown is the “conservative” in the mayor’s runoff Tuesday, running for district attorney is different.

Diversion must be stressed over prison. Candidates must show they will be tough--but not bloodthirsty--on violent crime such as murder, rape and domestic violence. Drug users and prostitutes must be given leniency, rather than a trip to the slammer.

So when it was suggested to the campaign manager for incumbent Terence Hallinan that challenger Bill Fazio supports medical marijuana as strongly as Hallinan, the Hallinan campaign quickly dispatched Wayne Justmann, executive director of a marijuana distribution center, to champion the district attorney.


“Mr. Hallinan has had 30 years experience supporting marijuana initiatives,” Justmann said. “His membership in NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) goes back some quarter of a century.”

Portraying Fazio as unproven, Justmann noted that he has not successfully defended anyone on a marijuana charge since leaving the district attorney’s office four years ago and becoming a criminal defense lawyer--a black mark perhaps only in San Francisco.

The sometimes raucous runoff between Hallinan, a former criminal defense lawyer who was almost denied a law license because of his police record as a youth, and former Deputy Dist. Atty. Fazio may be one of the most unconventional races ever for an elected chief prosecutor. Voters will make their decision Tuesday, when they also choose between incumbent Willie Brown and Supervisor Tom Ammiano, a stand-up comedian and longtime gay activist, for mayor.

Although a series of embarrassing gaffes by Hallinan has given Fazio a comfortable lead in the polls, the turnout for mayor could be particularly helpful to the incumbent district attorney.

Hallinan, son of the famed criminal defense attorney Vincent Hallinan, is popular with African Americans, whom Brown is expected to draw to the polls, and gays and leftists, whom Ammiano attracts. Both mayoral candidates have endorsed Hallinan.

Hallinan says he will never ask for a death sentence. Fazio, a former career prosecutor who once won a death sentence, said he would consider it only in an extremely egregious case. Both promise that they will not charge a third strike--which could result in some cases in a life sentence--for a nonviolent offense.


Fazio, 52, who touts a liberal line on most issues, has tried to turn the race into a contest about competence, not ideology. “Hallinan gets kicked out of court regularly because of his basic incompetence,” Fazio said.

Whereas Hallinan comes from a famously radical San Francisco family, he also grew up in affluence. Fazio stresses his working-class roots and notes that he and his brothers and sisters have married ethnic minorities.

Hallinan, 63, narrowly beat Fazio, a deputy district attorney for 20 years, in the last district attorney’s race four years ago. Fazio said that practicing criminal defense law since then has made him more well-rounded and more aware of “the power of the prosecutor’s office and the responsibility of wielding that power in an appropriate manner.”

Hallinan calls Fazio a born-again, a conservative in disguise. The district attorney, who once defended mass murderer Juan Corona and now keeps a photograph of Communist scholar Angela Davis in his office, boasts that he has brought more minorities and gays into the district attorney’s office and beefed up programs to reform youthful offenders rather than put them behind bars.

Controversy nevertheless has shadowed the incumbent. A San Francisco judge recused the district attorney’s office from a criminal case early this year after Hallinan publicly commented about it and then approached the judge privately.

“Two Irishmen,” Hallinan sighed, explaining the dispute between himself and Superior Court Judge William Cahill.


Hallinan, a former amateur boxer nicknamed Kayo, began his term by getting into a brawl in a crowded steakhouse with a former supporter. Punches flew in a confrontation over layoffs that Hallinan ordered in the district attorney’s office after his election. Hallinan fired veteran prosecutors by leaving pink slips on their chairs during the lunch hour.

His most recent stumble occurred when he tried to paint Fazio as a rogue prosecutor. Hallinan said publicly that Fazio, while in the district attorney’s office, might have placed an innocent man on death row in 1981.

Fazio won a death sentence against a man who was convicted of raping, sodomizing and murdering a young woman. The U.S. Supreme Court has asked an appeals court to reconsider whether the death sentence ought to be thrown out because of a technical issue--faulty jury instructions.

During a recent candidates’ debate, distraught family members of the murder victim, alerted by the Fazio campaign, showed up. They confronted Hallinan with anguished words, and Hallinan begged them to forgive him for resurrecting their pain by questioning the guilt of the convicted murderer.

The emotional confrontation between Hallinan and the victim’s relatives was widely broadcast on radio and television.

“I almost started crying with the poor people,” Hallinan said. Later, he accused Fazio of staging the event, calling it “an exploitation of victims for political purposes.”


But Hallinan was the one hurt by the episode. Even the public defender who represented the defendant at trial came to Fazio’s defense.

Hallinan has fought back. “Do you know about the incident with the massage parlor?” he recently asked a reporter.

About a year ago, police raided a massage parlor about 11 p.m. and arrested several women for prostitution. Fazio was there at the time, and police, who support Fazio over Hallinan, let him and the other men go without putting their names in the police report.

Fazio said he was at the massage parlor to interview a witness in a murder trial of a man accused of killing a gang leader who allegedly shook down massage parlors.

He said he was fully clothed and had a briefcase with him. But he has declined to identify the witness he was talking to that night, and Police Chief Fred Lau has ordered an investigation.

Hallinan said his campaign learned of it from two female police officers who were angry at the disparate treatment of the women and the men at the massage parlor.


“It is not good to have a district attorney indebted to the Police Department like that, particularly the vice squad,” Hallinan said. “The hard part of our job is overseeing the Police Department.”

Gov. Gray Davis and Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer have endorsed Hallinan, a Democrat, as have most of the city’s supervisors and former Dist. Atty. Arlo Smith. Hallinan also won the backing of the influential Harvey Milk Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Democratic Club.

Fazio, also a Democrat, is backed by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, whose daughter considered running against Hallinan; by the largest gay newspaper in the city; and by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Examiner.

The Chronicle recently ran front-page articles declaring that Hallinan had one of the worst conviction rates in the state. The Examiner, relying on an analysis by a law professor at UC Berkeley, also looked at the statistics and concluded that Hallinan’s conviction rate did not differ much from his predecessor’s.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Brown, an elected official, said he recently decided to endorse Fazio because of what Brown called Hallinan’s poor case management. Brown endorsed Hallinan four years ago.

Brown said Hallinan does not delegate well and failed to train and prepare the 60% of his staff that he has hired since taking over. Cases are dismissed on the day of trial because deputy district attorneys offer such generous trades that Brown’s office cannot turn them down, Brown said.


“Part of it is inexperience and part of it lack of training,” Brown said of Hallinan’s deputies. “I think a lot of the attorneys who were hired had a lot of cases thrown at them and they did not get a lot of guidance. In other counties, you are trained.”

Brown said Hallinan also gets himself in trouble by shooting from the hip. To old-time San Franciscans, Hallinan has become an embarrassment, Brown said.

“Sure, I have made mistakes,” Hallinan conceded. “I have done some things I wouldn’t do again. But I have been under a microscope with [the city’s newspapers] looking for any basis to bash me. It is a hard job turning an institution like this around.”