2011 Third Place Writing Winner

News Story

Methamphetamines nearly took Jon Alexander’s life.

Now free from his drug addiction for more than eight years, he’s making a stand with California Attorney General Kamala Harris to make sure they don’t take his county.

As Harris continues to battle transnational gangs and the issues of drug, weapon and human trafficking at the border, Alexander, the district attorney of Del Norte County, has been by her side — even when it requires driving more than a thousand miles to do so.

At a tour of the United States-Mexico border in Calexico, Calif. back in March, Harris said she was shocked to see the intricate nature of some of the cross-border tunnels, which Calexico police detective Mario Salinas said have contributed to recent increases in crime, especially gang violence.

“I was absolutely taken aback,” Harris said. “One of the tunnels I saw had walls as smooth as these walls, and lines of lighting and air conditioning. I looked at that thing and thought this was about a business, a big money business. It’s about the trafficking of drugs, guns and human beings — children as young as 5 years old being sold.”

Another sight Harris was shocked at was the presence of Alexander, who traveled from the opposite corner of California to let Harris know that the drugs being smuggled into Imperial County were affecting the entire state.

As far as crime is concerned in Del Norte, methamphetamine use accounts for more than 80 percent of the felonies committed. Also, of all the children Child Protective Services have removed from homes, more than 80 percent have been due to drug-related issues.

At the meeting, Alexander and Harris sat down with members of the Drug Enforcement Association, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI and border patrol while a table covered with confiscated methamphetamines, heroin and cocaine flanked the attendees. Alexander noted that confiscated drugs and weapons, and the number of gang members in jail are two ways to count victories, but said the most significant way is immeasurable.

“I don’t know how many, but I can tell you at least one kid a thousand miles away in Del Norte County is going to go to sleep tonight without that poison in his veins because of what you did down here on the border,” Alexander recalled telling the agents. “And I came a thousand miles to say thank you and God bless you for it.”

On Monday, Alexander was continuing the endless battle, this time while sitting in his office filling out a criminal complaint against members of the Sureño prison gang for a pipeline of heroin that runs from San Fernando into Crescent City and then into Pelican Bay. Within the week, those gang members will be charged with conspiracy and the fight against transnational gangs will take another step in the right direction.

“There may indeed be one statistic that only God knows,” Alexander said. “And that is how many kids out there will never be addicted, never be poisoned by the things on that table in Calexico. That’s because of those agents and because Ms. Harris is working at it on a daily basis.”

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Personality/Profile Article

California Attorney General Kamala Harris has spent her life surrounding herself with people who support her, but it may be even more vital that she has ignored the ones who didn’t.

Harris didn’t receive overwhelming support when she decided she wanted to run for district attorney in 2003 and while those detractors still exist eight years later, they now spend time critiquing the initiatives she puts into place as California’s first female attorney general instead of her political aspirations. She is also the first attorney general born to African-American and Asian-American parents.

“I never ran for these offices or did this because I wanted to be the first,” Harris said. “I actually thought I could do the job and do it well.”

So far, she has proved that to be the case. As San Francisco’s district attorney from 2003-11, Harris increased conviction rates to the highest they have been in more than 15 years and increased attendance at local elementary schools by 30 percent during an initiative to combat truancy.

Raised by Dr. Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, Harris and her sister, Maya, were taught the immeasurable value of education from a young age. Her parents met during the height of the civil rights movement, and while that movement is what steered Kamala toward law enforcement, her parents were skeptical at first.

They had reason to be concerned. After all, law enforcement on a higher level just wasn’t a typical career for women at that time, especially a woman with an Asian-American mother and an African-American father.

As it turns out, the 1989 graduate of the Hastings College of the Law isn’t a typical woman.

Harris says watching her parents’ involvement with the civil rights movement and the work of famous lawyers like Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston is what led her down the career path she has chosen from an early age.

“I joke that that meant for my sister and me that we pretty much grew up surrounded by adults who spent full-time marching and shouting about this thing called justice,” Harris said. “Growing up in that environment was just very rich and very stimulating.”

Though Harris knew early on that she wanted to be a lawyer, it wasn’t until after she graduated from Howard University with economics and political science degrees and went on to law school that she broke the news to her parents.

“What I said then is what I absolutely maintain today after a career as a prosecutor,” she said. “Law enforcement has such a direct and profound impact on the most vulnerable among us, and has as its responsibility, as its job, to be a voice for the voiceless.”

Since making that decision 22 years ago, Harris has worked on giving that voice to the citizens of California, first to San Francisco and then to the entire state.

After starting her career as deputy district attorney in Alameda County from 1990-98, Harris took a managing attorney position in the San Francisco district attorney’s office. Then in 2000, one of her mentors, Louise Renne, sought her out and Harris accepted an offer to work in Renne’s office.

“She works around the clock,” Renne said, “but at the same time she is just so extremely personable, and I knew almost immediately from the combination of those things that she had what it took to become the district attorney or the attorney general.”

Renne wasn’t alone, however, as Harris had been making those types of impressions since her law school days. Keith Wingate, now the associate academic dean at Hastings, said Harris wrote a paper for him 20 years ago as part of an independent study that still resonates with him today.

“We have an incredible amount of bright, hard-working students here, but something about Kamala just stuck out to people,” Wingate said. “We are tremendously proud of her success, but not surprised by it.”

Unfortunately for Harris, not everyone had that first impression. In that 2003 election when she ran against two-term incumbent Terence Hallinan, she recalls receiving the poll results for the first time as she was sitting in her small campaign office. She had only six points.

Refusing to accept that her critics had been right, Harris went back to her roots, the reason she became a lawyer in the first place and the reason she was so passionate about practicing justice — her parents.

“We were not deterred. [My campaign] was really based on what I remember my parents doing not long before,” Harris said. “What that was, is understanding and appreciating the importance and the power of coalition building, which means understanding that though people may seemingly have differences between them, no matter how anyone looks, no matter what their religion, language, or faith, we all care about the fact that we want our children to grow up in a healthy community.”

Along with working to provide that community, Harris offers real-life proof that a woman of African or Asian descent can hold a powerful law enforcement position, which Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics, says is life-changing for young women in itself.

“When young females consider joining the political landscape, it’s important they see people who look like them already in these positions gaining credibility and respect,” Walsh said. “And to say Kamala is doing that would be an understatement.”

Walsh also said the attorney general position is often used as a springboard toward becoming governor, which if Harris was to run and be elected, would be another first for females in California.

Harris maintains her belief that it’s not about being the first. It’s about upholding the justice system she has dedicated her life to since a young age and making sure those conviction rates and attendances rates continue to improve.

Most of all, it’s about remembering what her mother told her.

“My mother always used to say to us, ‘You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you aren’t the last,’ ” Harris said. “That’s definitely something that is a part of that for me. I’m hopefully lifting other people up and pulling other people along.”

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Spot News

As more and more San Franciscans trade in their shirts and ties for flannels and flip-flops, the trendy Plouf restaurant and executive chef Mark Papedis are holding on to one piece of their classy wardrobe – tablecloths.

At first the parallel might seem a bit strange, but the 36-year-old Papedis, who was born and raised in San Francisco, said he has watched the restaurant and fashion industries undergo similar transformations in unison.

Though author and former San Franciscan Danielle Steel recently claimed the city had lost its style and deprived individuals of the opportunity to be “chic,” Papedis said those changes are just a sign of the times.

“It’s definitely more casual now, but that goes for everything,” Papedis said after pointing out his elegant white tablecloths. “People don’t want to have that formal dining experience, they want to be able to dress down, but go out and have a good meal still.”

While others throughout the city offered reasons ranging from a lack of individual creativity to the struggling economy, overall they tended to agree there certainly has been a transition from chic to bleak.

The one thing not many people could seem to agree on was when exactly the change started. In Papedis’ mind, it was five or six years ago. For 58-year-old David Poppitt, a Brooks Brothers sales representative that has lived in the city since 1988, it was about 15 years ago. Simon Marquis, who has worked at Saks Fifth Avenue for 16 years, says it was seven years ago.

But to lifelong resident and 61-year-old Shreve Jeweler consultant Stephanie Reed, it seems like “a zillion” years ago.

“It’s really, really changed,” said Reed, who remembers wearing a dress, hat and white gloves to come downtown with her mother as a little girl. “You would never walk around in flip-flops and shorts and sweats. It’s not as formal or proper, but nothing is.”

Poppitt, a native of Philadelphia who has also spent time in New York, says those alterations are taking place all over the United States though. With the “dot-com” generation, as he called it, entering the workforce, he said he has watched elegance and upscale take a backseat to comfort and convenience.

“It was always known in the past as a very dressy, elegant kind of town,” Poppitt said of a time when men always wore suits and women wore hats and gloves. “But things haven’t been dressy no matter where – San Francisco, New York or wherever – since probably the mid-to-late 90s is my opinion.”

It doesn’t take a native to notice, either. Glen Ross, president of Shreve Jewelry, moved to San Francisco in September of last year and said he was surprised to find a city in which he could see business, formal, super punk, goth and trendy styles all on one street instead of a city with its own look.

As Ross notes, it’s almost as common now to see a male walking downtown wearing a ball cap – cocked ever so slightly to the side and the brim as flat as it was the day it was purchased – as it is to see a businessman, briefcase in tow, strolling to work in his finest suit.

And, Papedis said, the thing most commonly seen now, much to his surprise, is blue jeans.

Though Levi Strauss & Co., the first company to manufacture blue jeans, was founded in San Francisco in 1853, Papedis said their product wasn’t widely accepted locally until recently.

“Ten years ago, you couldn’t wear blue jeans anywhere,” Papedis said. “We didn’t even wear blue jeans to school, my mom made me wear those Dockers. If you wore blue jeans to school back then, you’d look like a schmuck. Now it’s the exact opposite.”

He added the days of picking out the right shirt and tie before a first date are long gone, and Reed similarly suggested things as simple as someone giving up a seat for an elderly person on the train or opening the car door on that first date have been stored away in the back of the closet next to those ties.

“I think everything has kind of changed,” Reed said. “I mean, you have to keep up with the times. You have to adapt to it.”

But sport coat or track jacket, designer shoes or flip-flops – Plouf still has a well-dressed table waiting.

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