San Francisco asks: What makes a good district attorney? 

Are there any major issues the candidates for district attorney disagree on? Or is the race for The City’s top prosecutor destined to come down to experience, personality and name recognition?

Through several debates so far, District Attorney George Gascón, Sharmin Bock and David Onek have each expressed support for “progressive” San Francisco values, including programs emphasizing rehabilitation and community-based solutions rather than incarceration; San Francisco’s status as a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants; a collaborative relationship between law enforcement and The City’s entertainment industry; and opposition to the death penalty.

“It comes down to who runs the best campaign, who can define themselves with the voters better,” said political consultant Jim Ross, who is not affiliated with any of the three candidates’ campaigns.

Ross said with Gascón as the incumbent front-runner in the race, Onek and Bock need to create contrast.

“But on the issues, it’s difficult to do,” he said. “So it has to be personality- or experience-based.”

Gascón, 57, noted the position of district attorney is a largely managerial one, and as former police chief in San Francisco and Mesa, Ariz., he has experience heading large organizations. He said he is the only candidate with a proven track record of both reform and leadership.

“On the surface of policy issues, we may all agree on certain things,” he said in a recent interview. The distinction, he said, lies in “the ability to implement those policies.”

Bock, 49, has emphasized her 21 years of prosecutorial experience in Alameda County; in fact, she’s the only one of the three who’s ever prosecuted a case.

“To lead an army as a general, you need to have walked a day in the shoes of the soldiers,” she said at one debate.

As current head of the sexual assault, public integrity and unsolved crimes units of the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, Bock has made combating human trafficking and other violence against women and children a priority.

Bock insisted she was the only truly independent candidate and not part of the political system.

“I owe no one, and no owes me,” she said.

Onek, 41, a former police commissioner and founder of the UC Berkeley School of Law’s Center for Criminal Justice, stressed that his years of working on juvenile justice issues and crime strategies makes him the ideal reformer. He described the criminal justice system as broken and “driven by political opportunism and fear.”

“They are so set in a law-enforcement mindset, it’s like they have blinders on,” Onek said of Gascón and Bock.
Onek has hammered both Gascón and Bock for their position on the death penalty. Though they’ve both said they oppose it, they also intend to keep intact a panel in the District Attorney’s Office that reviews each potential death penalty case. Onek condemns that as an expensive and “sham” process and insists he’ll never pursue the death penalty.

“Who are we kidding here?” Onek said. “If we will not seek the death penalty, why not just come out and say it?”
Gascón’s stance that he would consider it only in “very heinous” cases may have suffered some recent revisioning.

All three candidates, when asked at recent debates, said they would not charge the death penalty for either “Night Stalker” murderer Richard Ramirez or for Anders Behring Breivik, the suspect in the recent Norwegian mass murder of 76 people. That left Onek to wonder aloud just what Gascón would consider more heinous crimes than those.

Gascón later denied he had changed his position, saying cases involving suspects whose sanity is in question would not be appropriate for the death penalty.

Onek and Bock have also challenged Gascón’s independence as district attorney to investigate alleged police misconduct, especially of officers he oversaw as police chief before his unprecedented appointment as district attorney in January. Gascón responded that he was the only one of the three “who has actually dealt with police corruption.”

Onek also has accused Gascón’s office of a lack of transparency when it comes to releasing information about officer-involved shooting investigations.

Gascón said recently he will publicly release the results of those investigations — including recent fatal shootings by BART officers at the Civic Center station on July 3 and by San Francisco police in the Bayview district on July 16 — when the investigations are concluded. He acknowledged that could take several months, because the final report from the medical examiner would be part of the investigation.

He also has taken aim at Onek’s recent policy proposal to realign the District Attorney’s Office to put greater emphasis on the juvenile prosecution unit.

Onek has suggested beefing up a rehabilitative approach to youth who commit crimes so they are less likely to commit crimes as adults. He wants greater training for prosecutors in the unit on restorative justice, where youth accused of crimes will meet directly with their victims and work out a way to repair the harm caused. He also says he will end the process of prosecutors “direct filing” on minors — charging them with adult crimes, without the benefit of the Probation Department and a judge weighing in.

Gascón said he had no disagreement with an emphasis on effective solutions for juvenile offenders, but rather accused Onek of being “uninformed, or purposely ignoring the facts.” He insisted his office was already pursuing those solutions, including more aggressive intervention and truancy reduction efforts.

While Gascón, Bock and Onek are currently the three major candidates, defense attorney Vu Trinh recently entered the race and ahead of the Friday filing deadline, defense attorney and former DA candidate Bill Fazio said he’s considering running.


Music to their ears

Having the right qualifications to be district attorney of San Francisco is crucial. With that in mind, we give you the musical tastes of the candidates.

George Gascón, David Onek and Sharmin Bock were asked that question during a debate before the California Music and Culture Association, an advocacy group for the entertainment industry, which took place at the Fillmore on July 25.

Bock answered that music was a very important part of her life, and that she used to play in a jazz band and “sang scat.” She said she also plays acoustic guitar. Her loves: Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Kings of Leon.

Onek, while not a musician himself, said his musical favorites were too numerous to mention, so he named his three favorite shows at the Fillmore: Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams and Los Super Seven.

Gascón played congas as a kid, and said that he liked all kinds of music, “but certainly, I’m a salsa person by nature,” he said. He also mentioned liking jazz — Kenny G was his example — and classic rock.

“The Stones are still one of my favorites,” he said.


How they stack up

Sharmin Bock

  • 49 years old
  • Born in Iran, immigrated to the U.S. at age 4
  • Grew up and went to school in San Francisco
  • Earned a law degree from Georgetown University
  • Has been a prosecutor in Alameda County for more than 20 years
  • Heads Alameda County sex assault, public integrity and unsolved crimes units
  • Lives with her husband and two children in the Richmond district


  • U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier
  • Former District Attorney Terence Hallinan
  • National Women’s Political Caucus
  • Emily’s List


George Gascón

  • 57 years old
  • Born in Havana, Cuba
  • Family immigrated to the U.S. as political refugees in 1967
  • Grew up in Los Angeles
  • Former Los Angeles Police Department assistant chief
  • Former police chief in Mesa, Ariz., and San Francisco
  • Has a law degree from Western State University College of Law
  • He and his wife live in the Marina district; they have two adult children


  • U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein
  • Former Mayor and current Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom
  • Former District Attorney and current Attorney General Kamala Harris
  • Supervisors Sean Elsbernd, Mark Farrell and Scott Wiener, former Supervisor Bevan Dufty


David Onek

  • 41 years old
  • Grew up on the East Coast and moved to San Francisco 20 years ago
  • Graduated from Stanford Law School
  • Has worked for San Francisco youth-advocacy groups including Walden House and Legal Services for Children
  • Senior fellow at UC Berkeley, where he founded the Center for Criminal Justice
  • Worked in the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice under Gavin Newsom and on the Police Commission
  • Lives in Bernal Heights with his wife — who is the daughter of former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis — and two children


  • State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano
  • Supervisors Carmen Chu, John Avalos and Eric Mar
  • Board of Education President Hydra Mendoza
  • California Police Chiefs Association
  • Former San Francisco police chiefs Heather Fong and Tony Ribera

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Ari Burack

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