2017 Writing Finalist

Nathan Ruiz

Oklahoma State University
$1,500 Scholarship and Hearst Medallion

Winning Stories

News Story from Interview | Personality/Profile | Spot News

News Story from Interview

City Attorney Herrera mulls 2019 mayoral run, remains undecided

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera is not yet ready to announce he will run for mayor in 2019, though he says he has considered it.

“I’d be a liar if I said I hadn’t thought about it,” Herrera said during a meeting with eight reporters Tuesday in City Hall. “I could be totally honest about that because the city attorney and the mayor’s race are up in the same year, which is a first.”

Herrera, a Democrat, has served as San Francisco’s city attorney since 2002 and previously ran for mayor in 2011, finishing third behind incumbent Edwin Lee and John Avalos. Lee was re-elected to the office in 2015.

Herrera’s work includes challenging Monster Energy and the National Rifle Association, as well as his efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in California.

Raised in New York, Herrera, 54, is a graduate of Villanova University and the George Washington University School of Law. Before becoming city attorney, Herrera worked in the U.S. Maritime Association under the Clinton administration, San Francisco Transportation Commission and San Francisco Police Commission, with then-Mayor Willie Brown appointing him to the latter two positions. Brown said Herrera would be a strong mayoral candidate should he run.

“He’s beloved as the city attorney,” Brown said. “He ran for mayor, but he ran at the wrong time. … I think he could win against anyone else except Ed Lee.

“He’s charming, he’s a good family man, seems to be healthy, and with a prospective great future.”

Lee originally said he would not run in 2011 when he was appointed to the position after Gavin Newsom resigned to be California’s lieutenant governor. That August, he announced his candidacy, months after Herrera began his campaign.

“He put his all into it,” said Therese Stewart, Herrera’s former chief deputy. “But it was kind of a difficult situation because incumbency tends to rule the day.”

Stewart, now an associate justice on the California First District Court of Appeal, volunteered for Herrera in 2011, going door to door for his campaign. She offered her support again, citing his interpersonal skills and quick thinking as strong traits for the office.

“I think Dennis would be a phenomenal mayor,” Stewart said.

Herrera says his mind has yet to completely shift that direction, however. Still 2 1/2 years from the election, his focus is on the city’s current cases, including clashes with Uber and the Trump administration. Former state legislator Mark Leno is the race’s only official candidate as of now.

“Presidents don’t ¬¬usually get out (their campaigns) that early,” Herrera said. “I think the best thing I could do is do a great job at being city attorney and focus on the issues that I’m focused on.

“You can’t control the uncontrollable. You can’t predict the unpredictable. If you do a good job at what you’re doing, opportunities present themselves. That’s kind of how I’m looking at it.”

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Edge of the spotlight: Herrera finding his place among dysfunction of politics

SAN FRANCISCO — When Dennis Herrera first came to the Bay Area, he hoped it would be like “Baywatch.” Now, San Francisco’s city attorney wants his job to be far from the spotlight of Hollywood.

At 54, Herrera says he’s not interested in the life of a political celebrity; it makes him “uncomfortable.” He is willing to share accomplishments with his staff, though he takes credit for surrounding himself with people smarter than him. He has legally challenged major companies who might have benefited him in future elections. Herrera is not one to glad-hand; there’s an authenticity to him.

In a city and field known for its eccentric figures, Herrera manages to stand out among his peers by doing the opposite: remaining grounded.

“The qualities that attract people to public office, to seek public office, to succeed are things that just make them awful people to be around,” said Matt Dorsey, Herrera’s former press secretary who was previously a political consultant.

“They’re needy and difficult and just obnoxious in so many different ways.

“Refreshingly, Dennis was the opposite.”

Herrera includes himself among a large group of flawed politicians, though he believes he’s in the right part of the spectrum.

“Maybe I’m just dysfunctional enough to be in it,” Herrera said, “but not dysfunctional enough to be really good at it.”

Former Mayor Willie Brown said Herrera’s most important action for San Francisco was getting elected in 2001, enabling Herrera to have an impact. Now in his 16th year as city attorney, Herrera takes pride in several cases, facing gun manufacturers, pay-day lenders and proponents of the use of gender rating. Most notably, his office was the only involved in each step of the nine-year process for marriage equality in the state.

After then-Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples in February 2004, umbrellas, lawn chairs and tents surrounded San Francisco’s City Hall, symbols of the hundreds braving the rain as they waited to be married.

Herrera, in his first term as city attorney, walked the line encompassing City Hall.

“You felt the euphoria of these couples being married, real energy,” Herrera said. “You get a sense of how much it meant to them.”

For the next month, Herrera introduced himself to each day’s new faces. He watched as they changed from young, energetic couples who wanted to make a statement to families spanning generations, coming to see the affirmation of decades-long love.

That March, California’s Supreme Court ordered an end to the weddings. The lines at City Hall were gone.

“It felt like a mausoleum,” Dorsey said. “When the marriages stopped, it was like everything stopped.”

Not Herrera. His office sued the state in San Francisco Superior Court the same day, arguing the constitutionality of the marriage ban.
Dorsey and Therese Stewart, Herrera’s chief deputy, were among several gay staff members in the city attorney’s office. Herrera, raised in a Catholic, bipartisan household in New York, was comfortable and connected with the LGBT community. He grew up with a family friend, so close he calls her a cousin, who was a lesbian. A boyhood friend later came out to him as transgender.

It’s those connections, founded in life and around City Hall, that made marriage equality an important issue to Herrera. He cried on May 15, 2008, when the California Supreme Court ruled the ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutional after a series of legal battles. Herrera called it “one of the most moving days of my life.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s dismissal of the case June 26, 2013, effectively legalized same-sex marriage in California and brought an end to the nearly decadelong efforts of Herrera and his team.

It propelled him to the center of the public’s attention.

“I think by the end of that case, everybody knew him,” Dorsey said. “There was a mounting sense of ‘There’s our guy. He’s going to fight for us.’”

Still, Dorsey was often concerned Herrera was underselling his political career. The father of a 15-year-old, Herrera prioritized his son Declan’s sporting events over various governmental outings.

“People who succeed in politics are often not going to make their kids a priority in their office, not when their name is on the ballot,” Dorsey said. “Dennis is going to choose the soccer game every time.”

Herrera first visited the Bay Area during Thanksgiving weekend in 1986 after a Washington Post article about striped bass fishing in the San Francisco Bay drew him toward the region as a summer work destination. Armed with copies of his resume, Herrera, then a student at George Washington University School of Law, spent the holiday sliding his qualifications under the doors of firms he was interesting in working for. Herrera wanted to be known, but as it is today, it was as someone who did good work, not a transcendent political figure.

“I don’t think Dennis is a politician, fundamentally,” Stewart said. “They lead by following. Dennis leads by leading.”

After working with the U.S. Maritime Association, San Francisco Transportation Commission and San Francisco Police Commission, Herrera has challenged major companies as city attorney, including PG&E, Monster Energy and Bank of America. Dorsey figures that might be why Herrera is not San Francisco’s mayor, finishing third in 2011’s runoff election, but adds Herrera doesn’t get enough respect for his boldness.

“Dennis doesn’t flinch,” Dorsey said. “I think people don’t appreciate that Dennis has been fearless in ways that most politicians aren’t.”

Superiors and peers say Herrera has not sought the spotlight, yet he has managed to differentiate himself. He not only defends his clients, but also has pursued affirmative litigation to advance their causes, following the path of his predecessor, Louise Renne. He has worked for balance in his dysfunction, dodging celebrity status but finding it all the same.

Herrera has spent his career walking the line, teetering on the edge of the spotlight and all that comes with it.

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Undocumented student forced to choose between family, future as he faces Trump administration

SAN FRANCISCO — They chase David Cruz through the streets of San Francisco. They yell his name, desperate to take him out of this country, the one that has become his home.

A friendly face offers Cruz assistance and a place to hide. As the men chasing him disappear into the darkness, the woman calls immigration services to send Cruz back to Mexico.

He’s fortunate it’s only a recurring nightmare.

“I don’t know why I have that dream so often,” Cruz said, “but it’s not that far from reality.”

Cruz, a 28-year-old who recently earned his master’s in stem cell biology at San Francisco State University, is an undocumented immigrant from Tlacolula de Matamoros in Oaxaca. He crossed the border three months before his 17th birthday, joining his family in Watsonville.

But after the election of President Donald Trump, Cruz is considering leaving them again. Without a social security number, he is unable to pursue his scientific goals. He plans to earn his doctorate in the United Kingdom.

“It’s heartbreaking to leave the country where my family is,” Cruz said. “It’s where I call home.”

San Francisco is one of more than 500 sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States. It finds itself at the center of the Trump administration’s attempt to strengthen immigration policies. After Trump issued an executive order that threatened to take federal grants from sanctuary cities, City Attorney Dennis Herrera joined the City of Santa Clara in challenging the order. The administration recently buried a change to section 1373, which the executive order relied on, inside its budget, which Herrera’s office was sure to highlight to the public.

“I think we’re ultimately going to be successful on the merits, and that executive order will not go into effect at all,” Herrera said Tuesday in City Hall. “… It showed how you really can’t trust what this administration’s approach and what it says. You’ve gotta double-check everything.”

Herrera later referred to the Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986, which granted amnesty and citizenship to all undocumented immigrants who met certain requirements.

Cruz does not see a sweeping change such as this in his future, especially with Trump in office.

“There’s no defined pathway for citizenship in this country,” Cruz said. “This country has the worst, broken immigration system.”

As a 16-year-old, Cruz made the 3 1/2-hour walk from Tijuana to Chula Vista. A cab ride took him to San Diego before a pair of drives got him to Santa Cruz. His father moved to the U.S. when Cruz was 11, his mother when he was 13. After years alone, doing little but going to school and cultivating agave for money, Cruz was reunited with his family.

He continued his pursuit of an education in the U.S., wanting a career that rewarded his efforts. About 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year, but less than 10 percent then enroll in a higher education institution. About one in 15 who attend college are expected to graduate.

Cruz worked as a busboy and gardener to pay for his undergrad at the University of California, Santa Cruz, receiving academic scholarships along the way. He earned degrees in chemistry and molecular biology.

In the United Kingdom, he’ll be able to easily apply for a work visa and send money home to his family in California. To work in the United States, he needs an H-1B visa; of more than 200,000 applicants, only 85,000 receive the three-year work permit.

After his arrival in the Bay Area, Cruz connected with Educators for Fair Consideration, a San Francisco organization focused on providing opportunities to undocumented youth. Katharine Gin, E4FC’s executive director, said the organization has sensed the impact of the election.

“I think some of the calculus for people has definitely changed since the Trump administration,” she said.

Cruz watched the election with fellow members of SFSU’s IDEAS organization, short for “Improving Dreams, Equity, Access and Success.” It began as a fun night of pizza and soda, but as state-by-state results came in, the mood fatigued. Cruz went to bed before the results.
When he awoke, his nightmare was more likely a reality. He checked Facebook and saw discussions of Trump’s election. He began to cry, unsure of what it meant for him and other undocumented immigrants.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen to my family now,” Cruz said. “My future’s more blurry than it was before.”

In the months since Trump became president, Cruz has become more wary of his actions. He declined to attend a conference in San Diego that was part of his master’s program; although he was excited to show off his studies, the risk of deportation while traveling was too great.

By going to the U.K., Cruz takes responsibility for his future out of the government’s hands, but he risks being unable to return to the U.S. He will leave his loved ones behind, his undocumented status forcing him to pick between family and future. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever see them again.

But this is his chase. For all the effort he has put forth, he wants to ensure this educational pursuit is the dream that becomes his reality.

“I need to find ways to actually make it happen,” Cruz said. “I already achieved so much. I cannot just give up now.”

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