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Politics & Policy

Assemblymember David Chiu named San Francisco city attorney

David Chiu (D-San Francisco), who represents the eastern half of San Francisco in the California State Assembly, has been appointed by Mayor London Breed to serve as City Attorney.

Chiu, a longtime political fixture who served three terms as President of the Board of Supervisors before winning his current seat, will assume the position now occupied by City Attorney Dennis Herrera. Herrera, who has served as City Attorney since 2001, was nominated by Breed to lead the Public Utilities Commision and approved for that position on Tuesday. 

Chiu’s appointment opens up a coveted and rarely-available seat in the state assembly, setting the stage for a high-stakes campaign sprint and political shakeup in the legislature and City Hall.  David Campos, chief of staff to District Attorney Chesa Boudin and a former two-term city supervisor, announced a campaign for state assembly last month in advance of Chiu’s appointment. Campos ran unsuccessfully against Chiu for state assembly in 2013. 

Matt Haney, who represents District 6 on the Board of Supervisors, also announced a run for Chiu’s seat. Other candidates include Bilal Mahmood, a technology entrepreneur and former policy analyst at the U.S. Department of Commerce, and Thea Selby, a member of the City College Board of Trustees. 

As City Attorney, Chiu will serve as the top legal counsel for the City and County of San Francisco until at least 2023, when he will have to run for re-election. 

Chiu will be responsible for a wide range of litigation on behalf of the city, including claims, code enforcement, public contracts, drafting of legislation, and general legal advice for departments and policymakers. The City Attorney is also responsible for enforcing good government principles, and launched a local corruption probe in February 2020 stemming from the indictment of Mohammed Nuru, former head of Public Works, and a number of other public officials and city contractors. 

“I cant think of anyone better to serve as the next City Attorney of San Francisco than Assemblymember David Chiu,” said Breed on Wednesday.

Mayor London Breed, David Chiu and Dennis Herrera approach the podium on Sept. 29, 2021. | Photo by Sophie Bearman

Herrera, who will start at the Public Utilities Commission on Nov. 1, told reporters that the City Attorney’s investigations will continue. In conjunction with the Controller’s Office, the City Attorney plans to publish a public integrity assessment of the PUC in December 2021 and issued more than 20 subpoenas of various city contractors and nonprofits.

“We have been working diligently over the past year and a half, both with the Controller’s office and other law enforcement agencies, to make sure our departments live up to the highest ethical standards,” said Herrera. “We have some of the most dedicated legal professionals anywhere…[who] will guide and advise Assemblymember Chiu as the investigations continue. And they will continue.”

Chiu’s appointment triggers a special election for his Assembly seat that will take place sometime in the coming months.  

Governor Gavin Newsom has up to 14 days to set a special election date, according to California election rules. The election could happen between 126 and 140 days after the declaration, with a primary election calculated backwards from that date by nine or ten weeks. An election can be scheduled up to 200 days from the declaration if it can consolidated with another race.

“We could end up with an election around Thanksgiving, in late November or early December, which is a really difficult time to run a campaign,” said Jim Ross, a veteran political consultant. “That usually means that turnout is going to be lower.” 

Whoever wins the assembly race could occupy the seat for up to 12 years, the maximum allowed under the state constitution. That person will represent California’s Assembly District 17 (AD-17), which spans the eastern neighborhoods of San Francisco and is one of two assembly districts in the city. The other is AD-19, which spans the western half of San Francisco, Daly City and Colma. 

Candidates will have to rapidly raise money and capture the attention of voters in a short window of time—a tall order even for well-known figures like Campos and Haney. Looming in the background is the eventual retirement of 81-year-old House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). Whoever wins Chiu’s assembly seat could wind up a contender for that congressional seat, added Ross. 

Under California election rules, an assembly election could potentially be consolidated with any local elections coming up. There are two potential recall elections in the works, with a recall petition of three members of the San Francisco Board of Education expected to qualify for the ballot. Another campaign to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin has until Oct. 25 to collect 52,000 valid signatures.

The Department of Elections is due to certify the Board of Education recall petitions by Oct. 19. If it is consolidated with an Assembly election, “that could change the dynamics of the race,” said Ross.

“Since it’s a state race, and so much school policy comes out of the state, it could be an election on schools in San Francisco,” he said.

Annie Gaus can be reached at