Maurice Chenier thinks that criminal justice reforms have made San Francisco unsafe, which inspired his latest bid to become the city’s next top prosecutor.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Chenier moved to Los Angeles after law school and only returned to the city more than a decade later to take care of his ailing father.
In the mid-2000s, because of separate murder cases involving a friend and family member, his discontent with the criminal justice system led to his political debut in 2007. But he wound up dropping out of the DA race against then-incumbent Kamala Harris.
This time, the Democrat-turned-independent is billing himself as the “most pro-police” candidate in the running.
The Standard caught up with all four contenders in the November DA race. Below is a transcript of the conversation with Chenier, edited for clarity and length.
Mr. Chenier, as a relative newcomer to San Francisco politics, can you tell us a bit more about yourself—like who you are, where you’re from and what’s your legal background?
In terms of me being a newcomer, I would somewhat disagree with that.
I’m a native of San Francisco. I was born here. I went to Saint Ignatius College Prep, USF, and ultimately graduated from University of Santa Clara Law School. After law school, there was a big recession and there were no jobs. I went down to Los Angeles and ended up staying there for a long time.
I have extensive legal experience, including being a trial attorney. Most of my experiences are in the private sectors.
This isn’t your first bid for DA. Fifteen years ago, you tried to unseat DA Kamala Harris, but eventually dropped out. This time you’re officially a candidate. What made you quit last time but want to run again in this current race?
In 2004, one of my friends was killed in San Francisco, and I was trying to get justice for him. And then, less than a year later, my nephew was murdered here.
I had made plans back then to get involved in politics. I wasn’t aware exactly what the financial commitment it would be, so I had to drop out because I didn’t have the money.
All I cared about was let’s prosecute these murders. I’m familiar with the crime here extensively, because I became involved in the shenanigans that were going on in 2004 and 2005.
I’m running because I’ve seen in the last four years what I think is the deterioration of the city—big time.
In my opinion, the progressive approach to prosecuting crimes does not work for violent crimes. I’m not saying anything about the DA. I applaud her for wanting to do something about this mess, but I think, in my opinion, I can do the job better, primarily because I paid the price in blood out here.
When you talked about progressive approach, did you refer to former District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s approach?
No. I have no criticism of Chesa Boudin at all.
I believe that this city should change from an elected DA to an appointed DA. In that manner, if the person is not competent, you can get rid of him much easier than spending millions of dollars in an election. But that’s not what’s going to go on right here, right now.
I’m referring to [how] since 2004, 2005 there’s been a progressive approach to crime. And I’m saying, “OK, we tried that. So why don’t we try a new approach?” Because a progressive approach obviously is not working, especially as it goes to violent crimes.
This is not an indictment of … Kamala Harris, George Gascon, Chesa Boudin, or Brooke Jenkins. I’m just saying, you’ve had 20 years to make the difference. In 20 years, since 2004, roughly 20 years, nothing. It hasn’t changed. It’s gotten worse. So I’m saying, “Well, let me try.”
Did you support or oppose the recall of Chesa Boudin?
Voting history is absolutely confidential. I don’t discuss who I voted for, and what I voted against.
I could tell you in general, I vote for conservative measures, especially with respect to crime. That’s all I can tell you.
You mentioned your nephew was killed in San Francisco in 2005 and how you were upset about the way prosecutors handled the case. What do you think the DA’s office did wrong?
They didn’t put on several witnesses at the grand jury. Plain and simple. Multiple witnesses were not called. And I got excuses about that.
In fact, I went down the street and found a witness and took the statement. So it wasn’t that hard. I found him in less than 30 minutes. So I just think there were a lot of things that could have been done.
There are four candidates in this race. We have a criminal defense attorney, civil rights attorney, an appointed DA who’s a prosecutor. So who do you think might be the most law-and-order, tough-on-crime, pro-police candidate?
I think I’m the most pro-police candidate. What I saw in 2004, 2005 was shameful—the fighting between the DA and the police department. You can tell the police, “I’m not going to fight with you. I’m going to have an open-door policy.”
I want to be clear: if you’re looking for someone who’s going to pacify the criminals and try to make excuses, I’m not the guy. I wouldn’t describe myself as progressive.
You’re not a fan of progressive reform in the criminal justice system, I guess.
I didn’t say that. I said I’m not a fan of it as it pertains to violent crimes.
My nephew was murdered in 2005. Earlier that year, the suspect was arrested with a loaded modified weapon, and he already had some violations, and he was charged with a crime. He was convicted, but he had no felony time. He gets out. Six months later, he kills my nephew. That is the type of progressive crime approach that I’m targeting.
As far as helping people get better, I’m OK with that. I think that I am a fan of getting better, but to me, there are certain crimes that go beyond the scope of rehabilitation.
As you may know, the Asian community has been increasingly influential in the city’s politics. And the Stop Asian Hate Movement has been pushing a narrative on tougher prosecution, tougher policing. So what do you think of that kind of approach to public safety?
I’m all for it. I’ve been reading up on what was happening. I thought it was a disgrace. I think that any kind of hate crime should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
I think that the Asian American community is tired of a lot of this crime, seeing the same thing that I’m seeing. They’re generally hardworking people, and they want law and order, and I fully support that.
Since 2004, I noticed that the neighborhood where I’m at now is gradually becoming more Asian. So I’ve seen the influx of a lot of Asian Americans, and they’re hard-working people.
I am French, Indian and Black. And to my Asian brothers and sisters, I love all of them. And I do support their position of more stringent law enforcement, and I plan to do that. And if someone commits a hate crime, be it against a Black person, an Asian person, or an Indian person, believe me, they’ll get the same treatment. I will do what I can to see that that person pays for the crime.
You mentioned a lot of your experiences in 2004 and ‘05. Do you feel there’s a disconnection between you and the current politics, current state of the city?
No, I don’t. I’ve voted in all the elections. I’ve been up here a lot. Before I moved here in 2019, I was here literally probably five to six months out of the year because I was helping with my little niece’s basketball team and all kinds of things like that. So I was involved in a lot of activities here. And I’ve been seeing the crime. I’ve seen the gradual deterioration.
I’m a native here. I grew up here. I left for a while, but I’m back.
Last question. You moved back to live here in 2019. Do you feel safe in the city?
No, I don’t. In fact, it’s funny you asked me that. When I lived in LA, I could just go to the store in the middle of the night. I think twice about that here. I feel like I can get shot or stabbed or robbed.
With the state of the city now, I do not feel safe.
However, I’m a male and I’m strong, and I’m not afraid. But you can imagine someone who’s not.
I think that I can definitely make the city safer, because the message that will be sent will be, I’m cooperating with the police and I plan to prosecute you if you commit a crime.
Han Li can be reached at [email protected]