For the last 20 years, Dennis Herrera has served as San Francisco’s elected city attorney, leading one of the most effective and groundbreaking public law offices in the nation. Herrera’s legal advocacy on issues such as same-sex marriage, environmental justice and consumer protection has not only benefited San Franciscans, but has also had consequential impacts beyond the City’s borders. Recently, Mayor London Breed tapped Herrera to run the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission — a billiondollar enterprise providing millions of Bay Area residents with water and power. It’s a position that will demand his full talent and attention the moment he steps into the job. On the first day City Hall reopened to the public, I sat down with the city attorney in his wood-paneled office, where he talked nostalgically about the last two decades, the team he built here, the big job that lies ahead — and the election that got away. Meet Dennis Herrera.
You’ve accomplished so much in 20 years as city attorney. But you are probably best known for your legal advocacy for same-sex marriage. When you look back on that, how important was San Francisco’s role in changing the political landscape on that issue?
It was huge. I don’t think we would have seen the rapidity of the acceptance, the change in the political dynamic [and] the legal dynamic but for San Francisco’s involvement in leading the fight. Gavin Newsom gave it that legitimacy from a political sense, and having our office involved, which is viewed as the premier municipal office in the country, gave it a legal and institutional heft. I don’t think there’s any other city or community that could have brought that complementary skill set — both the political and the legal — to the battle and public backing.
Do you still get asked about the case from other city attorneys or municipalities?
I don’t get so much asked about it as much as the random comment I’ll get from people on the street. This past weekend I was co-chairing the U.S. Women’s Open out at the Olympic Club and a security person came up to me and said, “I know you’re going to be leaving the city attorney’s office after 20 years, but I just want you to know because of you, my husband and I got married and we really, really appreciate what you did for our community.” It was totally out of the blue. It used to happen a lot more frequently, but in some ways now when I get it years after the fact, it almost means more because I don’t expect it.
You’ve taken on such a breadth of cases — from suing the Trump administration on its immigration policy, to suing investor- owned fossil fuel companies, to taking on the school district here locally. How do you decide which to go after?
I have a really simple rubric that I put every case through. Number one: Is it a case that having the imprimatur of the City Attorney’s Office of San Francisco involved is going to make a big difference? Number two: Is it a vacuum that the private bar or some other public entity is not already filling? If it doesn’t have either of those, I won’t consider it.
Which case do you think had the most impact on the greatest number of people?
Marriage equality was huge. I mean, that impacted millions and millions of people. It didn’t just impact people that got married; it didn’t just impact the LGBTQ community; it impacted loads of straight people who had family members. Also, those who may not have had any connection to a gay person, just in terms of educating them a little bit about equality. They probably don’t even know that case impacted them, but I do, because I look at my 19-year-old son’s generation and how he views equality. Those kids grew up during that time.
“Marriage equality was huge. I mean, that impacted millions and millions of people.”
Well, it’s a civil rights case.
Totally. It was the civil rights issue of our time, right? But what I think it demonstrates is what you see going on in this country right now with voting rights and whatnot. These battles are never over. The forces of bigotry, of racism, of exclusionary ideals … you see discrimination rearing its head again against lesbian and gay and transgender folks. These battles never really end because they’re always focused, unfortunately, on seeking to divide.
If you had to sum up in just a few words your 20 years here, what would those words be?
Exciting, always interesting, never boring, and incredibly challenging and fun.
What will you miss most?
The people. I’ve recruited and developed great talent to the point where we were able to build on what was here to become an even better and more nationally recognized law office. Everybody knows this office, and we’ve had people go on to do incredible things, become state senators, judges, vice president of the United States. I have come to appreciate my ability to recruit and retain, and the way I do that is: I stay incredibly connected to all my people. This really is like a family to me.
You grew up in Long Island, New York. Your father was a psychiatrist [who] emigrated from Colombia. Your mother was a nurse, the daughter of Italian immigrants. What is the most important lesson your parents taught you that you carry with you?
Number one, the importance of education. It was always education, education, education. To me, that was what [my dad] cared about. The importance of family and to be honest — honest with who you are and what you say. You know, that’s sort of guided everything that I’ve done. Just be straight with people; be transparent; be candid; tell it like it is. I mean, really: To live an honest life, don’t lie.
You got your start in maritime law. Where did that interest come from?
I always loved the water. Growing up on Long Island, I had the Long Island Sound five minutes from my house and I used to go on fishing boats all the time. In law school, I took an admiralty course. I was like, “Well, maybe I can combine both interests,” because admiralty law and maritime law are so intertwined with international trade. So I interviewed in 1986 for a summer job out here with what was the oldest maritime firm on the West Coast.
What was that?
Derby, Cook, Quinby & Tweedt.
Sounds like a maritime firm. Right?
I flew here and [thought]: “Wow. It’s really cool.” I thought it was going to be warm. Like everybody, right? No. It was cold. I liked San Francisco because it’s the most East Coast city west of the Mississippi. They gave me a job offer. I said, “All right. I’ll do that for a couple of years before I go back to New York,” and the rest is history.
What got you interested in public service and politics?
From the time I was a little kid, I was fascinated by government and politics. I was a political science major in college and I did an internship my senior year of college at the State Department in Washington and I loved it. And then, during law school, I continued to work in the State Department. … When I came out here and started practicing law, I got involved in politics locally. The late ’80s was the height of the club political movement in San Francisco. I figured, well, a way for me to meet people that have the same interests as me is to get involved in these local political clubs, right? And then, Carole Migden was running for supervisor in 1990. I said, “Oh, she’s interesting. I’m going to get involved in her campaign,” and then she appointed me to the Waterfront Plan Advisory Board. When Bill Clinton ran for president, I got involved in his campaign. Then I went back and served in his administration and came back out and got appointed to the transportation commission and then the police commission.
So that was your pathway to public office …
The interesting thing about that was: Then people said, “Well, you should run for office.” I’m like, “Well, for what?” They said, “You should run for community college board or a school board. They’re great stepping-stones.” The only thing I know about education is that I have one and I don’t think you should view those positions as stepping-stones. I want educators running for that. I always said the only job I would run for was the one I ran for, city attorney.
Unless you ran for third grade class rep or something I don’t know about, I know of only one election you’ve lost: the mayoral election of 2011. How do you think the City might be different if you had won?[Losing that election] was a hard thing. Still not easy for me. … In a lot of ways, I think it’s a shame I didn’t [win], because I think the City would have been much different. I think I would have had a great ability to negotiate and to bring people to get some common agreement on issues that were ignored for a number of years — housing issues, a lot of the tech boom. I think I would have been more responsive to things that we see going on out in the street. Look, I’m all for providing opportunity, but there’s got to be accountability too.
The biggest risk I ever took was: Running for office.
My biggest regret is: Not going to work in the embassy in Paris in law school because I was head-over-heels [for] a girl.
I’m happiest when: I’m with Anne on the water.
If I had a magic wand, I would: Solve hunger.
Soon, you will be stepping into a new role as general manager of the SFPUC, a billion-dollar enterprise that oversees the water and power and sewage of our city and beyond. What appeals to you about this job?
A number of things. Number one: I really like the issues, and I have a demonstrable record in dealing with those issues as city attorney. You know, I was shutting down the Mirant power plant, suing the world’s five largest fossil fuel companies. If you think about the issues of our time, they revolve around climate and water. The issues really interest me, number one. And number two: It’s an opportunity for me. A new challenge means to transform yourself and to go from being lawyer to utility executive, using a whole new different skill set, working with a whole new bunch of people and challenges.
You’re taking over this entity at a time when it’s under a lot of scrutiny, after the former GM resigned. What unique challenges is that going to bring to this position?
The PUC, the employees there, the folks on the ground, they do an incredible job. They run a water system that provides water to 2.7 million Bay Area residents and is depended upon by 28 water agencies around the Bay. You have power components, sewer components, and those folks on the street do unbelievable work. But there’s scrutiny, and what I can do is inspire by example and demand accountability of myself and my executive team. Let them know that I’ll support them 100 percent of the time and I’ll be their biggest advocate.
Your wife, Anne, and I are childhood friends. We grew up around the corner from one another in Sacramento. How is she doing with this change of career?
She’s the number one fan of it. Look, Anne never signed up for a political life. When I first ran for city attorney, she said, “You’re doing this for one term, right?” Then I ran for mayor. … she stepped in 100 percent and is a very good campaigner because she’s competitive, she hates to lose. She has been supportive my whole career. She wants me to be challenged, too. And she recognized in me that I was ready for a new challenge.
You still have many years of service ahead of you, but what do you want your legacy to be in San Francisco?
That I made a difference, whatever it was: city attorney, PUC, my community. The guy made a difference; the community is better off because of the stuff that he did. Pretty simple.