Kamala Harris, the state’s first African American district attorney, beat an incumbent known for an unconventionally leftist approach to law enforcement by embracing many of his positions while denouncing him as incompetent.
Harris, 39, a career prosecutor, trounced eight-year incumbent Terence Hallinan in an election Tuesday in which she captured the black vote -- traditionally part of Hallinan’s base -- won over female voters and carried the city’s more conservative and moderate precincts.
The defeat of Hallinan, a former criminal defense lawyer, may end an era in which the district attorney’s office here has been regularly at odds with the police. Hallinan, 67, a member of a famously radical family, emphasized prevention over punishment, championed the rights of medical marijuana users and promoted leniency for drug users and prostitutes.
Harris supports medical marijuana and eschews the death penalty, as Hallinan did. In an interview Wednesday, she pledged never to seek the death penalty or a third strike for a nonviolent offense, which under the state’s three-strikes sentencing law brings life in prison.
But unlike Hallinan, who had never prosecuted a case before he became district attorney, Harris has been shaped by 13 years as a prosecutor, working with police in both Alameda County and San Francisco.
Harris grew up in Berkeley, the child of an endocrinologist mother and an economics professor father. She graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.
“I am liberal and progressive and have been committed my entire life to civil rights, and I believe in police accountability,” Harris said. “But I was not running for the public defender, and I recognize there is a role for the public defender and a role for the D.A.”
In another difference from her predecessor, Harris does not favor legalizing prostitution. She said she would go after pimps and the customers of prostitutes, as well as those who commit crimes against prostitutes. She also said repeat drug dealers need “more attention” from the D.A.'s office because they are victimizing some neighborhoods.
“It is untrue to assume that communities of color and poor communities don’t want law enforcement, because everybody wants law enforcement,” Harris said. “They just don’t want excessive force.”
Harris does not plan to fire large numbers of prosecutors as Hallinan did when he first took over the D.A.'s office. In San Francisco, unlike Los Angeles, prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the elected D.A. In his first few months in office, Hallinan created an uproar by leaving pink slips on the chairs of prosecutors while they were at lunch.
“I will put in place performance standards and equip people to rise to the standards with training and other resources,” Harris said.
Mark MacNamara, a spokesman for Hallinan, attributed Harris’ victory in part to Mayor Willie Brown, who dated Harris for a year during the 1990s. Brown “managed and directed” her campaign, MacNamara said.
Others said Harris had benefited from the entree Brown gave her, but that she had succeeded because she had run a hard, effective campaign. Harris said the mayor was one of several elected officials and lawyers who had helped her learn the political ropes.
Some analysts said Hallinan’s bid for reelection was doomed last spring, when his attempted prosecution of the Police Department’s top officials collapsed because of lack of evidence.
In February, a grand jury overseen by Hallinan indicted Earl Sanders, the city’s first black police chief, and the upper echelon of the department for illegally trying to protect low-level officers who had been involved in a brawl in 2002.
Hallinan eventually dropped two of the indictments, and a judge threw out the rest of the highly publicized case against the police supervisors.
“Any time you lose a big case, you are in trouble,” said Jeff Brown, who for 22 years was the city’s elected public defender and who endorsed Harris. The botched prosecution was “the capper” for Hallinan, with the black community particularly upset about the indictment of the chief, Brown said, adding that Hallinan “looked very flaky.”
Hallinan, formerly an elected member of the Board of Supervisors, was the unlikeliest of prosecutors. On his office wall was a photograph of him with Angela Davis, the radical college professor and Communist Party member, and another of him holding a banner at a Vietnam War protest march.
He was arrested 16 times during civil rights marches and had several run-ins with the police as a teenager when his late father, the renowned criminal defense lawyer Vincent Hallinan, was in prison. The elder Hallinan was jailed repeatedly for contempt of court and ran for president from prison in 1952 on the Progressive Party ticket.
“The interesting thing with my brother being a D.A. was that we were all raised with a great deal of suspicion of authority, of the state and the power of the state,” said Patrick Hallinan, a criminal defense lawyer here and Terence’s older brother. “And of course, with that sort of attitude, you tend to run against the grain with the police.”
The D.A. could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but his brother said he was “tired out.”
“It was with mixed feelings that he lost,” Patrick Hallinan said. “He hated to lose, but he didn’t look forward to another four years.”
Patrick Hallinan said Terence did not intend to run for office again. He said Terence was proud of having added more members of minority groups and gay people to the D.A.'s office and for having shown “there is no immunity for the abuse of authority.” A spokesman for the D.A.'s office said the D.A. might enter a law practice with his son, who has just passed the bar.