Monday, October 27, 2014

All Men Are Equal Before Fish : Meet SF City Attorney and Dogpatch Resident, Dennis Herrera

Dogpatch resident and SF City Attorney Dennis Herrera stands in front of the former Bethlehem Steel Administration building. The building is part of Dennis' home neighborhood and the center of the Pier 70 development coming soon.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera is on the short list of Dogpatch residents who could be considered an unofficial mayor of the neighborhood. 

He is also known not only in San Francisco, but also nationally for the efforts of his office to advance civil rights and affirmative litigation -- the high profile fight for the Case Against Proposition 8 being only one example.  He is also in the forefront of legal efforts to protect consumers.

But in Dogpatch he is known as that guy in shorts and a SF Giants baseball hat who can tell great stories and is also quick with a joke and who turns up to support numerous neighborhood events such as the opening of the new playground or restaurant.

Given the busy nature of his job as City Attorney for the City and County of San Francisco, it is not surprising that it took us almost three years to catch up with him to chat.

Why do you do what you do?

I love being involved in issues that make a difference to people in the community and in the state.

And since I'm independently elected -- only one of ten in the state has this status, the rest are appointed -- I have tremendous independence when I get involved in an issue.  I can get involved in any issue from local to national.

I grew up in New York -- on Long Island -- where I did a lot of fishing.  I pursued an expertise in maritime law because it allowed me to combine my love of international law and fishing -- the love of law and water!

While I was in law school in Washington, D.C. I read an article about rock fishing in San Francisco.  I needed a summer job so my best friend and I came to San Francisco during Thanksgiving week and slid our resumes under doors at various law firms around town.  I actually got hired by one of those law firms.  The internship was during the summer of 1987 and it was the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge -- I will never forget that -- it  made a huge impression on me as did this city.  The law firm gave me an offer after law school and here I am!
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera has lived in Dogpatch since 1993. 

Why Dogpatch?

In 1993 I was single and was living in a great place near Coit Tower.  I saw a real estate ad featuring a Victorian home for sale in Potrero Hill.  I told my real estate agent I wanted to look at it.  It was of course actually in Dogpatch, not Potrero Hill but real estate agents at that time didn't think anyone would know where Dogpatch was.

The Victorian was built in 1884 and was surrounded by the Hells Angels clubhouse, empty lots and was accessed by a dirt road which real estate agents call "an unimproved road!"

It was a neighborhood that was almost in hibernation because at that time there weren't that many places for residents to gather.  But it was affordable and I loved the sunny weather. 

I looked at it once and told my agent to make an offer which she was very surprised about.  I have actually lived in the neighborhood longer than Susan Eslick!

Right before I closed on the house I received an offer to work in the Clinton Administration.  The offer really made me stop and think if I wanted to be in SF or D.C. long term.  I knew others who had gone to D.C. for supposedly a short period of time but ended up staying permanently if they stayed longer than two years.  I offered my girlfriend the house to live in while I was gone -- I would come back every six weeks.  She agreed and I did this for 2.5 years.

Over time the limitations of the geography of the area contributed to making it feel like a real neighborhood.  I think the sense of community comes from having those boundaries.  I like that not only are the residents activists but so are the local businesses. 

What would you be doing if you weren't a lawyer?

I would be a fishing boat captain or drive a cab.  When you campaign as I did for Mayor of San Francisco, you really get to know your way around the city.

(editor's note: "all men are equal before fish" quote taken from an essay by Herbert Hoover)