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Mayor Breed Names Assemblymember David Chiu as SF City Attorney

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David Chiu, in a suit and tie, gestures as he speaks into a microphone at a podium.
San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu speaks at a rally in support of California Propositions 1 and 2 at the Swan's courtyard in downtown Oakland on Oct. 18, 2018. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)

Saying he has "the vision, integrity and experience" she wants, Mayor London Breed on Wednesday tapped San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu to be San Francisco's next city attorney, the first Asian American to hold the position.

In a statement to KQED, Breed said she was "proud" to announce Chiu's appointment, knowing that "he will continue to fight for the people in our community who are most in need."

"I know that he will bring that same approach to this new role, and I am confident that the city attorney’s office will be in good hands for years to come," she added.

Chiu will replace Dennis Herrera, who will leave the job in a few weeks after nearly two decades to become general manager of the city's troubled Public Utilities Commission, also an appointment by Breed.

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Chiu will have to run in next fall's election to keep the city attorney seat.

Chiu, a 51-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer who served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before being elected to the state Assembly in 2014, will take command of an independent branch of city government with sweeping legal authority over most civil matters involving the city and county of San Francisco.

"I view the city attorney's office as really the front line in defending our San Francisco values, defending our city government, but also standing up for who we are as a city and standing up for the most vulnerable," Chiu told KQED.

"We are in the wake of the MeToo, Black Lives Matter, anti-Asian hate time period," he said. "And I think it is more important than ever that every person has a place in our city, that everyone has an opportunity to succeed."

Chiu said he planned to use the office to tackle not just big, glamorous issues, but also things that affect everyday life for city residents.

"From homelessness to safety issues in our streets, people want government to work better," he said. "And I'm going to be looking for those opportunities for how the law can be used to help solve our city's most pressing issues."

As a member of the state Legislature, Chiu has long advocated for affordable housing and immigrants' rights. In a nod to that, Mayor Breed chose the Juan Pifarré Plaza housing development in the Mission District to make the announcement. In the 1990s, Chiu was the lead attorney in a suit filed by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights challenging a state rule requiring Mission Housing Development Corporation and other nonprofit developers that received public money to check the immigration status of its tenants. The lawsuit was successful and the requirement was dropped.

"This fight for civil rights is something that has always been important for me, and it's something that I will carry through as a city attorney," Chiu said.

The city attorney's office is a large public law firm, with more than 250 lawyers who provide legal advice and representation to city departments, the school district, the mayor, the Board of Supervisors and other elected officials.

The office advises departments on general legal issues, drafts legislation and reviews contracts and ethical matters while also representing the city in all civil claims and lawsuits filed against San Francisco. The office can also initiate litigation in the name of the people, as a plaintiff when it sues, as the office has in recent years over unlawful business practices, scams, consumer privacy and predatory landlords. Herrera's most well-known case was fighting on behalf of marriage equality.

Chiu spoke about his upbringing and political career on KQED's Political Breakdown podcast in 2019. He was born in Cleveland, to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan. He grew up in Boston and attended Harvard University, where he attained a bachelor's degree as well as a master's degree in public policy from the Kennedy School. Chiu graduated from Harvard Law School in 1995 and moved to San Francisco the following year.

Chiu, a Democrat known as a consensus builder with a low-key, steady demeanor, was chosen by his colleagues to be president of the Board of Supervisors after he was first elected to city government in 2009. He was the first Asian American to serve as the board's leader and later was reelected to a second term as board president.

In the state Assembly, Chiu has championed legislation promoting affordable housing, tenant protections, civil rights and public safety, among other things.

After graduating law school, Chiu worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and also served short stints as a prosecutor in the San Francisco District Attorney's Office and an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.

Chiu is a veteran of San Francisco's infamous rough-and-tumble politics, which he once described as being "like a knife fight in a phone booth."

In 2011, Chiu ran for mayor of San Francisco, where he finished fourth in a crowded field. The winner in the city's ranked-choice election system was Ed Lee.

Seen as relatively moderate by San Francisco's liberal standards, Chiu narrowly defeated the more progressive city Supervisor David Campos to win his Assembly seat in 2014. He has been easily reelected every two years since.

Campos, who currently serves as chief of staff to San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, has already announced a run to replace Chiu in the Assembly, and others, including District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney, are expected to jump into that race as well.

Kamala Harris, in a suit jacket and scarf, looks on as David Chiu, in a suit jacket and no tie, speaks in casual conversation indoors.
San Francisco Assemblymember David Chiu with then-Sen. Kamala Harris on Sept. 28, 2019, in Chinatown in San Francisco. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

Among other things, Chiu now will oversee the office's investigation into the PUC's contracting practices, a probe Herrera initiated in January 2020, just before the U.S. attorney's office announced indictments over alleged corruption in several city agencies. Those federal and state investigations led to the resignation of former SFPUC General Manager Harlan Kelly — whose job Herrera will now have — and are still ongoing.

Chiu pledged to follow through and hold public servants "to the highest ethical standards."

"I think it's important for us to root out corruption in city government wherever it exists, because it tarnishes everyone's faith in government," Chiu said.

Under Herrera and his predecessor, Louise Renne, the city attorney's office has gained national recognition as one of the prominent law offices in the country through its involvement in issues ranging from marriage equality to the health implications of tobacco, tax policy and San Francisco's sanctuary city status.

Ever since Breed selected Herrera as the new PUC general manager, Chiu's name has been floated almost exclusively as a likely replacement. The city attorney is an elected position, and Chiu will face the voters in 2022. In recent decades, the office has had tremendous stability, with Herrera serving nearly 20 years in the job while his predecessor Louise Renne was there for 15.

Chui's wife, Candace Chen, is a public interest lawyer who manages a refugee foster care youth program. They have one 5-year-old son, Lucas.

Chiu's new position will more than double his salary as a state assemblymember, which pays $114,877 per year. According to public documents, the San Francisco city attorney earned $283,099 plus benefits in 2019.

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