2017 Writing Finalist

Jordan Guskey

Indiana University
$1,500 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion

Winning Stories

News Story from Interview | Personality/Profile | Spot News

News Story from Interview

Dennis Herrera remains confident his office will win any future court case in defense of sanctuary jurisdictions

Refusing to consider a possible victory in the courts by the Trump administration, San Francisco city attorney Dennis Herrera doubled down on how he felt about future court battles on the topic of sanctuary jurisdictions.

“I can predict we’re going to win,” Herrera said at a press conference Tuesday morning.

A month ago the United States District Court for the Northern District of California sided with San Francisco in a suit filed Jan. 31. That suit sought a preliminary injunction against an executive order President Trump made Jan. 25 on the grounds that Trump’s effort to step up immigration law enforcement and withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities was unconstitutional and exceeded his power.

Ever since the case began, Herrera said United States Department of Justice lawyers tried to walk back how broad the language of the executive order appeared and the possible monetary effect went from billions of dollars to less than $10 million.

“The financial risk that forced us to file that lawsuit was open-ended and very uncertain, but now even if we were to lose on the merits, they’ve walked it back so far and identified what’s at risk that the financial hit to San Francisco would be very, very small,” Herrera said. “But we’re not going to lose anyway.”

Not all jurisdictions shared that mindset from the start. Mayor Carlos Gimenez of Miami-Dade County in Florida ordered the executive order be followed a day after its release, and less than a month later the Miami-Dade County Commission voted to shed its sanctuary status.

Herrera said every jurisdiction is entitled to make decisions about what fits its local needs but indicated Gimenez’s actions could mean he didn’t want a sanctuary status in the first place.

“I think what we’ve demonstrated is that there was no need, if you believe that your jurisdiction should provide sanctuary city status, that there was really no need to act as quickly as perhaps the mayor of Miami did,” Herrera said.

That confidence extends to challenging Trump’s inclusion of a rewritten version of a part of U.S. code in his budget plan.

“1373, if it were amended, doesn’t change the constitutional challenge that we had made to 1373,” Herrera said. “So, I don’t — I’m still very confident in the strength of our case, irrespective of whether that passes in the president’s budget.”

Herrera said the administration’s action shows it can’t be trusted and that anything anyone says can’t be taken at face value. Herrera’s predecessor, Louise Renne, said actions he takes like this as city attorney are critical for San Francisco and the nation.

“I am glad to see the San Francisco office continues to bring up such cases,” Renne said.

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Dennis Herrera doesn’t quit

Dennis Herrera heard screams from across Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco.

The city attorney of San Francisco was in his office. Members of the team that had argued California’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional were with his chief deputy, Therese Stewart, in hers.

Gossip prior to May 15, 2008, had them thinking they might not like the Supreme Court of California’s ruling. The response speech was tailored to be an optimistic look at the future. This gave them hope.

“I don’t think the other side would have enough people here in SF to get that loud of a cheer,” Stewart remembers everyone in her office saying.

They waited for the official word but couldn’t get the court’s website to work. Thankfully they had sent deputy press secretary Alexis Truchan to pick up a paper copy of ruling just in case, and moments later she spoke through tears of joy to a room that now included Herrera.

Herrera remembers getting emotional telling his team how proud he was of them. Stewart remembers a hug the two shared and that Herrera was a crier.

“Why are you getting so upset?” Herrera said Stewart, a lesbian, quipped. “You are straight.”

“Oh, fuck,” press secretary and communications director Matt Dorsey thought to himself. “I’ve got to go rewrite the speech.”

Losing had been a part of the journey and would be again not five months later. Herrera was just four years into what would become a decade-long fight that would end with the Supreme Court of the United States. They had already kicked down the door and had to keep pushing.

“My favorite quality about Dennis is he’s fearless,” Dorsey said. “He’s a guy you want on your side because he’s not going to fold.”

Herrera, 54, is now a couple years removed from the case that firmly established his statewide and national celebrity and 16 years into a position his wife didn’t think he’d be in for more than four. He didn’t know where the role would take him at first, in fact he never expected to be in San Francisco longer than a summer internship during law school, but knew he wanted to be involved in public life and help the community.

This role provided him that opportunity. His hard work provided others. That’s what led him to continue a legacy for the office that started with his predecessor, Louise Renne, who helped redefine what it means to be a municipal lawyer.

“I’m lucky in that San Francisco provides a wonderful platform,” Herrera said. “People accept and expect that the city attorney’s office is going to get involved in issues of national significance.”

It means he’s taken on bans against same-sex marriage at both the state and federal levels, yes, but also more recently sued President Trump in the interest of protecting sanctuary jurisdictions like San Francisco.

It was the latest in what his mind has been a philosophy of using the law in a progressive way to influence people’s lives for the better each and every day, and the latest in what is an exercise of independence as he is an elected official and has to answer to constituents and not other officials.

“He’s not a guy who would work well working for somebody else,” said Stewart, now an associate justice with the 1st District Court of Appeal. “He’s got a lot of confidence and good judgment, and I think for someone else to tell him what to do, it just wouldn’t suit him.”

That confidence led to the 2011 election for mayor. The New York native’s values have coincided with and been strengthened by San Francisco’s. He knew he could be an executive. He knew he cared about the community. Circumstances, however, put him in a situation Stewart described as impossible to win in, and he did lose.

Stewart sees that loss in the mayoral race as one of the toughest things Herrera has dealt with in his life. It’s the only time she can remember really worrying about him. But he kept making a difference as a city attorney while also not masking his disappointment as other politicians might.

Dorsey, also no longer a part of the city attorney’s office, said a lot of people are drawn to political office for reasons that should disqualify them, but Herrera isn’t one of them. Dorsey has worked in the political world in some fashion since he was 11 and never thought he’d work with someone for 14 years like he did for Herrera.

Above and beyond, though, he sees Herrera as a great dad. Herrera has more balance in his life than other politicians, although Dorsey admits that it probably hurts Herrera in some ways, and will choose spending time with his son instead of at political events where he could glad-hand other high profile people in San Francisco and probably advance his political career.

“It is to his political detriment hat he is this way, but the soccer game is going to win every time,” Dorsey said.

The 2019 election year presents Herrera with an opportunity. He could give running for mayor another try or try to punch his ticket to the city attorney’s office again. Herrera said Tuesday he’d be lying if he hadn’t thought about it.

Neither Dorsey nor Stewart know what he’ll do, but both of his former employees said he’s an effective executive that could succeed well in either role.

“It’s going to be a tough race if he does it, and yet it’s something I think Dennis has always, in a sense, saw himself as being able to do it and do it well,” Stewart said. “I think he would.”

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Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation’s community garden is at risk

Sarah Skinker knows there are some people who use the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation’s People’s Garden in San Francisco who would be affected if all of what President Trump attempts to change in the United States’ efforts with immigration law becomes established practice.

Skinker, an urban agriculture supervisor for TNDC, said the community garden is for everyone in the community and that all people are welcome. The garden, which sits not far from San Francisco City Hall and across the street from the Supreme Court of California’s headquarters in the Earl Warner Building, grows beans, peas, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, a healthy asian bed with herbs and much more.

It also has an oriental garden with flowers in one corner of its real estate that a tenant in one of the buildings nearby takes times to take care of.

Anyone can volunteer at the garden, although Skinker said many of the people who do volunteer are people who live in the community and are either homeless or have experienced homelessness, incarceration, abuse or addiction. On this Wednesday morning the three people volunteering deal with homelessness in one way or another, and one is present both to volunteer and find some healthy food to eat.

“It’s not the typical place people would go to find help and they find it even if they’re not necessarily looking for it,” Skinker said. “Look around, it’s colorful. It’s beautiful. It’s not things you would normally find in this part of town, so that has a lot to do with it. It’s very sensory.”

She still struggles though, because she wants the garden that has brightened the corner of Larkin and McAllister streets do more than what it is capable of doing right now. Still, volunteers learn basic things they might need to hold a job, directly or indirectly, such as punctuality, people skills and the ability to follow directions in order to complete tasks.

The conversations Skinker and one volunteer, Lisa Cook, have with people who come to the garden don’t have to do much on the political situation unfolding around them. However, Skinker knows there are people TNDC helps with housing throughout the Tenderloin who are afraid what Trump is doing could affect their situations.

“I know that our company has really rallied around providing guidelines for if ICE shows up, and being an ally for folks that aren’t quite sure what to do if that happens,” Skinker said. “So, I know that we’re really focusing on that.”

TNDC has a community organizing department that helps rally around rights organizations that work with people of various ethnicities in the community, but at the garden the importance is placed on making sure people in the greater San Francisco area have access to fresh and healthy food that wouldn’t have access to it otherwise.

TNDC’s website says there are over 30,000 residents in the Tenderloin, and that the district is one of the only neighborhoods in San Francisco without a full-service grocery store. Since 2010, the organization’s efforts have expanded its gardening locations to four different rooftop gardens on TNDC buildings. Together, all five produce approximately 2,500 pounds of food that TNDC distributes to over 400 people each year for free.

Cook is trying to eat healthier, in addition to giving back to her community and finding a way to get to know it better.

“We don’t interact enough,” Cook said. “We need to do that more.”

Cook started volunteering at the garden seven months ago, and is a peer nutrition advocate at the Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center. She’s a people person who loves engaging with people and this garden. Her favorite part of it is the kale.

Today, like every day she comes, her 3-year-old chihuahua Eric is with her. He sits in a Gen7Pets stroller next to a couple lemon trees, which are new as of a few months ago like the green house next to them, and the bench she’s sitting on so she can rest her legs. Eric can be antagonistic, even feisty, toward strangers — Cook wishes that wasn’t so — but is always loving with her and helps her mental health.

She doesn’t like Trump’s antagonistic attitude toward immigrants, and thinks there’s a chance it could hurt the garden and what the community could hope to accomplish as a unit.

“It’s going to hurt a lot of people,” Cook said. “There are people with jobs out here, I don’t want to see that happen, especially with people who aren’t breaking the law. Don’t send them away from their families.”

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