University of Nebraska-Lincoln
$1,500 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion
News Story from Interview
Sanctuary city suit: groundbreaking for some, a tradition in SF
For many around the country, San Francisco’s April lawsuit against President Donald Trump was a bold act of defiance.
The lawsuit argued Trump did not have the authority to enforce a Jan. 25 executive order that aimed to coerce cooperation from sanctuary cities like San Francisco—localities that limit their work with the federal government to enforce immigration law. Ultimately the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California decided in favor of San Francisco. The case is pending further appeals.
And while the San Francisco City Attorney’s office lawsuit led a nationwide spectacle of support and scorn, it’s only the latest for the bay city.
“People accept and expect that the city attorney’s office is going to get involved in issues of national significance,” said City Attorney Dennis Herrera.
For the past 30 years, the San Francisco city attorney’s office has become known as one of the country’s boldest municipal legal offices. Over the tenure of two city attorneys it’s tackled the tobacco industry, gun manufacturing, same-sex marriage and predatory marketing.
“There’s an affirmative job to protect the consumers and taxpayers,” said former San Francisco City Attorney Louise Renne. “I happen to think that’s a good thing. I wish that more city attorneys would do more of that frankly.”
Another factor that drives the city attorney’s office is its unique position.
While most city attorney’s are appointed, the San Francisco city attorney is an elected and provides council for not only issues in the city, but also the county. The city attorney can also file suits in the name of the people of California.
That gives the city attorney an opportunity to elevate their cases, however there is consequence to picking fights with large entities.
Had the Trump administration prevailed, San Francisco would have lost $1 billion in federal funding if they didn’t comply with Trump’s “Executive Order: Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” issued on Jan. 25. However, the administration has walked that number back to about $10 million, Herrera said. But no matter what the number, Herrera said he believes in the case’s veracity and doesn’t lose sleep over it.
For San Francisco, cases like these keep with a long tradition in the city attorney’s office. However, for many, the idea of a locality challenging the national government was an ephemeral notion that’s becoming evermore necessary.
In the opening months of his presidency, Trump has faced controversy for executive orders ranging from sanctuary cities to immigration bans. In those cases, localities, judges have stepped up.
For Herrera that’s a sign of great hope enveloped in the ideals he’s long championed in San Francisco.
“Now with the election of President Trump you have seen media pundits and others talk about how power was now going to have to be wielded by states, attorney generals and people like me,” Herrera said. “And I thought, ‘Oh good.’ Everyone’s coming late to the party.”
From maritime to marriage equality, SF City Attorney inspires with old-fashioned politics
In his hands are pamphlets and lists. He carries them as he knocks door-to-door and walks row-by-row up the steep San Francisco hills on a bad knee in the fall of 2011. John Graykowski, a maritime lawyer, has come a long way from his private practice in Washington D.C. to pound the pavement. But there’s a reason he’s here.
Whenever Graykowski, 63, hears of a new campaign for the friend he met doing maritime law in the Clinton Administration, he flies out. Whether it was a run for city attorney in 2001 or mayor in 2011, Graykowsi canvases for a man he sees as a steward of justice. A man that requires old-fashioned politicking because when looking for comparison, the first Graykowski draws is a personal hero—Bobby Kennedy.
“The attributes he has are sadly becoming more and more rare,” Graykowski said. “He has integrity, courage, and a persistence and perseverance and those are all qualities that are lacking in many other areas of political life.”
In his 16 years as San Francisco city attorney, Herrera, 55, has built a career tackling big issues and striving to impact state and nationwide policy.
That affirmative approach to litigation in cases surrounding legalizing same-sex marriage, ending predatory payday lending or ending gender discrimination in health insurance pricing has made Herrera popular among many. It’s allowed him to run unopposed as city attorney in every election since 2001 and finish third in a 2011 mayoral race.
The result is an unlikely hero: a former maritime lawyer who grew up in New York, worked in Washington and voted Republican in his first election that became a harbinger for social issues in the bay city.
But Herrera doesn’t subscribe to the celebrity, saying he’s only one mechanism of change in his office.
“I’m proud to lead pretty much what’s been recognized as the premier municipal law office in the country,” Herrera said. “And that’s because my philosophy is that I hire people smarter than me and they make me look good.”
Indeed that ability to attract the best is what won over his predecessor in 2001. Although he’d only litigated cases in the city attorney’s office for six months, Louise Renne, San Francisco city attorney from 1986 to 2001, saw a “spark” of leadership in Herrera.
“You have to select good people around you because there’s no way a city attorney alone can make all the decisions, do all the research and have all the answers,” she said.
When Herrera first ran for city attorney, Renne also told the San Francisco Chronicle that he had the kind of sturdy sense of justice to “wade through piranha-and-alligator-and-shark-infested waters that are called San Francisco politics.”
Having that mentality is important because while Herrera drives his cases to influence the political sphere, he’s not the first to do so.
“San Francisco has always been at the forefront of movements,” she said.
That tenacity also comes at a cost. Herrera said his job causes tension between different offices in city government as some officials expect him to promote them exclusively, when really his allegiance is to the city.
Herrera also receives lots of mail. During the 10-year and multiple case battle to legalize same sex marriage, he got lots of hate, as well as well as support, in letters he’s kept to this day.
Recently his office has also come under scrutiny in a lawsuit filed against it by a former employee, alleging the city attorney’s office was benefitting from kickbacks on the taxpayers’ dime. While Herrera maintains the case has no veracity, his office recently lost in court.
The plaintiff’s attorneys estimate the payout—which factors in back pay, attorney compensation and fees for the outside firm the city attorney’s office hired—to cost the city at least $9 million.
“The results of the case show that while he has a very active press office that like to get him on the front page, in this instance he was wasting tax payer money and fired a dedicated public servant who was just doing her job,” said the plaintiff’s attorney Karl Olson.
While a judge denied a motion for a new trial on Friday, Herrera said his office will continue to appeal the case.
“This office has a reputation for integrity, for doing things the right way,” Herrera said. “That has never changed and it never will while I’m here.”
When it comes to dealing with criticism, Renne said it’s inevitable. All the city attorney can do is come away confident he or she did the right thing.
Anne Herrera, his wife and a real estate agent in San Francisco, said her husband has done just that throughout his career. If he has baggage or doubts, they’re overshadowed by the importance of the work.
“The thing that keeps him in the job and energized is to sue on behalf of the people,” she said.
Graykowski said another quality that keeps Herrera going is one that’s always been integral to his friend’s character: moxie.
Graykowski said Herrera has an unrelenting fearlessness in approaching cases that’s grounded in a central belief.
“He feels when there is a wrong being done, he has a ability to almost make it personal in the sense of his ability to empathize,” Graykowski said.
That’s why Graykowski doesn’t see an end for Herrera anytime soon. Whether he’s city attorney or makes another bid for mayor, Graykowski said any challenger would have to make a good case for how they can do it better.
“I think the chances of that are the same as Donald Trump winning the noble peace prize or Dennis saying ‘I’m done,’” Graykowski said. “But that hasn’t occurred.”
That’s why he’s still looking forward to that next call. Looking forward to catching a flight to a west coast city where the hills are populated with people to convince and doors to knock on. There he will do his best to sell his friend, ensuring the mission of what he sees as one the last principled politicians.
In wake of Trump takeover, biweekly Mission District newspaper bites back
As he ambles down the sidewalk in the early spring sun, he sees colorful murals and bold signs peppered along the cement corridor of buildings. They herald restaurants, boutiques and businesses with names that mix heritage and home.
Typically people flood the streets of this nearly two-square-mile neighborhood in San Francisco where his father and grandmother were born. But this morning there’s nothing.
“That’s the only time I’ve ever seen this neighborhood look like a ghost town,” Alexis Terrazas said.
But while the Mission District—a haven of Latino culture in the heart of the bay city—lay still on May 1 during “A Day without Immigrants” to protest President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and show the economic impact if that vision was realized, Terrazas couldn’t bask in the solidarity. The 29-year-old editor-in-chief of El Tecolote, a bilingual newspaper in the Mission, had work to do.
Since President Trump won the election, the 4-member staff and fluctuating group of volunteer writers and photographers at the biweekly paper, which circulates 10,000 copies, has scorched their coverage with a renewed intensity. Terrazas and his staff have gone after bay-area white supremacists, increased threats of deportation and sought to tell the stories of immigrants and members of the Latino community like never before.
“After the election, there was a general feeling that whatever we’re doing, we have to push on the gas harder,” said photo editor Mabel Jiménez.
But getting to that point was difficult. Like many in the district, Trump’s win dropped like a bombshell that left staffers numb.
Terrazas said Nov. 9 was one of the hardest days of his career. As a community newspaper, he said it’s their job to inform the community and tell stories that aren’t usually told. Trumps victory robbed them of that feeling, he said.
“It just felt like, for a moment, all of our work didn’t mean anything,” said Terrazas, who’s edited the 47-year-old newspaper since June 2014.
The community they cover mirrored that feeling. Following the election there was disbelief, Terrazas said, and it led many, especially undocumented sources, to become less vocal. Terrazas remembers specifically before the election, El Tecolote planned to partner with an area high school to allow undocumented students to share their stories through an editorial. The students killed the piece after Nov. 8.
“It shook them that much,” Terrazas said.
But as weeks passed, passivity turned to action. The former executive director of Acción Latina, the nonprofit that owns El Tecolote, told the staff their work was important now more than ever.
Every issue now carries either a story about Trump or how his actions affect the Mission. The paper has also published stories about what to do if a reader faces deportation, including taking care of their children.
But one project has taken a special spot in the paper.
While Trump’s meteoric rise was constantly discounted during his candidacy, the election sent a message loud and clear to Terrazas: We don’t know our neighbors.
That became even clearer when he started researching white nationalists associated with the alt-right, a political movement that gained traction during Trump’s election. After reading arrest reports that resulted from a white nationalist rally, he was shocked to find one lived in San Francisco—what Terrazas always saw as a liberal bastion with a history of diversity and tolerance.
So he started digging, trying to piece together a narrative.
“I’m not the kind of reporter that has people in the crosshairs, I’m really trying to understand how people are the way they are,” Terrazas said.
Through his work he profiled Nathan Damigo, a prominent white nationalist who was caught on video punching a woman in April at a rally in Berkeley.
He also pieced together a story of a white nationalist blogger who worked for the nonprofit Californians for Population Stabilization and was previously found with Nazi paraphernalia and bomb-making materials but not arrested, according to a police report. The story was picked up by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Occasionally people ask Terrazas why he fills El Tecolote with Trump, white nationalists and similar stories. To him, though, they’re vital.
“These are people with the alt-right, who say this country should only be for white people, that immigrants should go back to their countries,” Terrazas said. “I think you should know that we have people here, who hold public rallies here. You should get to know who they are.”
However, those responses are rare. For the most part, El Tecolote’s active role mirrors a Mission that’s becoming more politically charged than ever.
With protests like national “A Day without Immigrants,” a blooming scene of resistance-related art and music and donations to Acción Latina, many in the Mission are fighting back.
“So far, if anything, I think people are reenergized,” Jiménez said. “I think we took for granted a lot.
Even in undocumented communities where some have taken a silent role in the wake of Trump’s presidency, Terrazas said an equal population has taken shape and is making it their mission to be “undocumented and unafraid.”
And whether it’s capturing those voices, trying to inform a community of white nationalism in their city or cataloging the daily life of a Latino community under President Trump, El Tecolote is sending out reporters, chasing stories and using resources that always pale in comparison to the dailies.
But Terrazas tells all his reporters this work is imperative.
“I really believe that reporters and journalists are the first ones who get that crack at writing history,” Terrazas said. “When people look back, they’re going to know how we reacted so it’s really on us to document this.”