A Lawyer for the People

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by Kristin Smith

Dennis Herrera has made a name for himself on both the local and national stage. Most notably, as San Francisco’s City Attorney, Herrera filed the brief challenging Proposition 8, a move that made him a household name among people on both sides of the issue. While it was a larger case than others he had worked on, challenging Prop 8 was just one of many civil rights cases Herrera defended in his career. “I believe in protecting individual liberties,” he says. “It’s why I went to law school—to become a champion for civil rights.”

Herrera’s commitment to civil rights wasn’t just born in law school; it was taught to him at a very young age. Herrera’s father, a psychiatrist in Columbia, immigrated to the United States after serving with the UN Peace Keeping Troops in the Suez War. He instilled in Dennis a commitment to social justice that has carried him through his life—from the working class neighborhood in Long Island where his mother still lives, to the downtown San Francisco office he occupies today.

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Despite a commitment to social justice and his father’s peacekeeping role, politics wasn’t a huge part of the Herrera home (though there are rumored to be at least five Columbian presidents in his bloodline). “I think my father was interested in it, but I really found it on my own,” says Herrera. “I can remember watching the Watergate hearings as a teenager and having conversations with my football coach about what Nixon might say in his press conference. That fascinated me.”

What was most important in the Herrera home was a commitment to hard work and education. As the son of two immigrant parents (his father Columbian and mother Italian), working hard and taking advantage of all the options in America was crucial. “Education was highly important to my father,” says Herrera. “It’s why he left Columbia to come to America.” Herrera went on to get a BA from Villanova and a law degree from George Washington.

Despite his high-profile status, Herrera is a relatively low-key man. His campaign office is an understated street-level shop on California between the Polk Street gulch and busy Van Ness. He still lives in the Dogpatch, an area that can best be described as “transitional.” The Victorian house that he shares with his wife and 9-year-old son sits near a sea of high-rise lofts and the Hell’s Angels clubhouse. It’s an unlikely neighborhood for one of the city’s top political positions. “People always say, ‘Wow, you were a visionary to buy there.’ And I say, ‘I didn’t have foresight. I was poor,’” jokes Herrera. Even though he’s no longer poor, Herrera is still connected to the Dogpatch. Part of that connection is the industrial landscape, which is reminiscent of his childhood home in a working-class neighborhood of New York.

While Herrera’s political career was planned, establishing it in San Francisco was a bit of a surprise. “I thought I would be here a year or two and then go back to New York,” says Herrera, who claims it was an article about Striped Bass fishing off the Golden Gate Bridge that lured him here in the first place. “Truly, that’s what brought me out here,” he says, deadpan. “That and that San Francisco is the most East Coast city west of the Mississippi.”

Whatever the reason he came here, it’s clear why he has stayed: San Francisco has embraced Herrera. From his early days as an intern sliding resumes under the doors of law firms to his three terms as City Attorney and, quite possibly, mayor, this immigrant kid from Long Island has certainly found a home for himself in this city.

 

 

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