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Transcript: Fajitagate

The full episode transcript for Fajitagate.

Transcript

Kamala: Next in Line

Fajitagate

Reid: It's the morning of August 11th, 2020. With days to go before the Democratic National Convention, Joe Biden sits down at his desk to make a crucial phone call.

Kamala Harris: Hi. Hi. Hi. Hi. Sorry to keep you.

Joe Biden: That's all right.

Reid: All summer, Biden has been wrestling with a major decision. Now, finally, he'd made up his mind.

Biden: You ready to go to work?

Reid: On the other end of the line was Senator Kamala Harris.

Harris: Oh my god. I am so ready to go to work.

Lester Holt: NBC News has confirmed that Biden has picked California Senator Kamala Harris to be his running mate.

Reid: She had gone from district attorney to California attorney general to senator to presidential candidate to also-ran. Ninety minutes after that phone call with Joe Biden, she would be introduced for the first time to the country as candidate for vice president. But who is Kamala Harris?

Female Voice: So here's this California girl, absolutely beautiful, stunning. Tenacious.

Male Voice: She's somebody who didn't look like her predecessors. And really, that's been the story for her career. I mean, she's somebody who's kinda been the first in almost every job she's had.

Gary Delagnes: She, like, pushes me in the chest, you know, kiddingly. And she says, "You better get on board." (LAUGH) And I said, "Well, who are you?"

Reid: From MSNBC and Wondery, I'm Joy Reid. And this is Kamala: Next in Line. I first heard of Kamala Harris when President Obama got into a bit of hot water for commending her on her looks.

Male Voice: The president did speak with Attorney General Harris last night, after he came back from his trip. And he called her to apologize for the distraction created by his comments.

Reid: He apologized but I googled. Back then, she was just the attorney general of California, a brilliant, charismatic Black politician, someone to watch. Fast-forward to today and Senator Harris is the nominee to be the first Black and first Asian American woman vice president of the United States, and maybe a future president. But how did she get here? This is a six-part series on the making of Kamala Harris and how she went from Oakland to Washington, DC. This is episode one: Fajitagate.

Before she was a vice presidential candidate, before she was a senator, or a state attorney general, or even district attorney, Kamala Harris was a city attorney working in San Francisco, getting ready to run for office.

Deepa Shivaram: I don't think it's far off to say that her first campaign set the stage for who she was as a politician.

Reid: That's NBC reporter Deepa Shivaram who has been covering Kamala Harris on the campaign trail.

Shivaram: She didn't care about labels. She didn't wanna be branded as conservative or moderate or progressive; she didn't wanna deal with any of that when she ran that first race in 2003. Kamala Harris ran for district attorney with the message of getting things done.

Reid: And in San Francisco, getting things done sometimes meant learning how to fight. The city may only be seven square miles but it can contain a world of trouble. And back in 2002 when Kamala Harris launched her first campaign for office, the city was in an uproar all because of a box of fajitas.

It was around 2:00 a.m. in November in 2002 and Adam Snyder was just finishing up his shift at the Blue Light Bar in San Francisco. It was taco Tuesday, and Adam had set aside some food to take home with him that night: steak fajitas. Toward the end of the night, a friend, Jade Santoro, came in. And after Adam had locked up the bar, they began walking back to Adam's car. On the way, they passed three men outside a bar called the Bus Stop Saloon. One of the men saw Adam's box of food.

Delagnes: And he said, "Hey, give me your fajita. I want one of your fajitas."

Reid: Gary Delagnes was a San Francisco police officer at the time. Jade stepped in and told the man to leave his friend alone, and things escalated.

Delagnes: There was a fist fight.

Reid: More of a beating. Jade had a broken nose and concussion. The fajitas ended up in the trash. The police were called and the three men were detained. And that might have been it, except that when the cops questioned those three men, the ones who had started it--

Delagnes: They found out that these guys were cops. And then at the (UNINTEL) they found out that one of the cops was Alex Fagan's son.

Reid: Matthew Tonsing, David Lee, and Alex Fagan Jr. were all off-duty San Francisco police officers. In fact, they had been on their way back from a party to celebrate Alex's dad who had just been made assistant chief of police. And right from the very start, the way these three cops were treated raised questions.

Delagnes: The allegations were that it was covered up.

Female Reporter: Accusations that the San Francisco Police Department command staff blatantly interfered with the investigation of the off-duty officer-involved street brawl by failing to release phone records, conducting written interviews instead of verbal, and denying that the officers were drunk the night of the fight.

Delagnes: Did they cover it up? You know, I don't know if it was a cover-up. I'm sure they tried to cover their (BEEP).

Reid: But in 2002, Gary Delagnes had a problem. And his name was Terence Hallinan.

Delagnes: Oh yeah, Terence Hallinan and I hated each other. I had no use for Terence Hallinan. He was--

Reid: Hallinan had been DA since 1995, but he'd been a fixture in San Francisco politics for decades. His white head of hair and weathered face were a familiar sight at demonstrations and left-wing political gatherings.

Shivaram: Terence Hallinan had a complicated relationship with a lot of factions of law enforcement within San Francisco. Safe to say, he burned a lot of bridges. He was known to be really aggressive. He was a fighter. He was-- you know, hard edged.

Reid: His nickname was KO, as in Knock Out. Still, when he became district attorney, many in the city's police department felt he was too soft on crime.

Delagnes: And so, you know, the cops were consistently griping about the fact that, you know, he wouldn't prosecute the cases. He was kickin' too many cases. He was givin' too many people probation when they shoulda been getting prison. And so on and so on. And that's sorta the ongoing conversation between cops and district attorneys anyhow, but Terence Hallinan took it to a new low.

Reid: In fact, Hallinan described himself as the most progressive district attorney in the United States. Gary said he had several run-ins with KO.

Delagnes: It would go somethin' like, you know, "You don't like me, do ya?" And I'd say, "I don't have anything against ya, I just think you're a terrible prosecutor. Ya never shoulda been a prosecutor. Ya don't belong there. And we're gonna do everything we can to get rid of ya."

Reid: But Fajitagate would push the relationship between the DA and police to the breaking point. When allegations of a police cover-up over Fajitagate reached Hallinan, he directed investigators to spend hours looking into it. The resulting investigation ran to hundreds of pages, making it one of the largest investigations into an assault in the city's history.

Delagnes: They had a grand jury and-- what happened was the three cops were indicted.

Reid: In the end, Hallinan recommended that they charge the three officers involved in the beating. And as for the conspiracy by the top officials in the department, prosecutors took the unusual step of simply reading the definition of conspiracy to obstruct justice, and leaving the decision in the hands of the jury. And they came back and indicted the entire top brass of the department.

Delagnes: Hallinan had his big day in the sun. He indicted the command staff of the San Francisco Police Department.

Female Reporter: In a show of unity, all ten police personnel indicted on criminal charges marched together to the Hall of Justice today for their first day in court.

Earl Sanders: Innocent, Your Honor.

Female Reporter: Chief of Police Earl Sanders, seven members of his command staff, and the three officers all pled not guilty. Their attorneys later spoke for them, expressing outrage over the case.

Male Voice: It is absolutely ridiculous that the command staff of the San Francisco Police Department have to be removed in this time of war with Iraq and terrorism over this bunch of garbage. It is really sad.

Reid: But very quickly, the criminal case fell apart. The charges against the command staff were dropped. And in the end, the three officers involved in the brawl would be acquitted too. The whole thing was expensive and politically embarrassing.

Shivaram: And so, you know, while this whole Fajitagate thing is happening, everyone's got their eyes on the DA office. It's this scandal that just does not end because it just keeps happening. Everyone is extremely unhappy with Terence Hallinan.

Reid: Fajitagate wasn't the reason so many turned against Terence Hallinan, but for a lot of people, it was symptomatic of a wider problem in the district attorney's office.

Shivaram: And this is, you know, not the only scandal that was going on in Terence Hallinan's DA office, there were other big moments as well where a lotta people were looking at the way he was running things and just like, "Are you doing your job? Like, are you running this place at all?"

Reid: There weren't just tensions between police and the DA's office, but within the office itself. Kamala Harris had worked under Hallinan, but left to work in the city attorney's office where Suzy Loftus was an intern.

Suzy Loftus: And the lawyer that I was working with had an office right next to her. And she just struck me as someone very grounded, very smart. Accessible. And, you know, someone who definitely was going somewhere.

Reid: When the next election for district attorney came up, the controversy drove an "Anyone but Hallinan" campaign. "Find someone, anyone, to run against him."

Loftus: I don't think she was a declared candidate, but there was always an air of inevitability that she was going to be a leader in San Francisco.

Reid: And amid the chaos of Fajitagate, Kamala Harris entered the race. A few months later, Gary was at a party thrown by a man named Gibbs Brown.

Delagnes: A San Francisco wannabe venture capitalist kinda guy.

Reid: It was a condo complex across the street from the Fairmont Hotel.

Delagnes: He would invite everybody, you know, the police union, the fire union, the politicians.

Reid: Because aside from being an officer in the narcotics department, Gary Delagnes was also vice president of the police union.

Delagnes: I was sorta the guy, everybody knew I was the guy that worked the political stuff.

Reid: So there he was, at this party, when across the room, he saw a woman walking towards him.

Delagnes: And I hadn't met her before. And when I saw her, I was like, "Wow. That is a really attractive woman."

Reid: She walked right up to him.

Delagnes: And she, like, pushes me in the chest, you know, kiddingly. And she says, "You better get on board." (LAUGH) And I said, "Well, who are you?" And she said, "I'm Kamala Harris. You know who I am."

Reid: Gary did know who she was, although they'd never met. He knew that, until recently, Kamala Harris had worked in the DA's office. Hallinan had been her boss. Now she was running to replace him. Gary had done a little background research. He'd called up some people in the Oakland Police Department.

Delagnes: They said, "Eh, she was good. She was tough. She was a prosecutor."

Reid: And in San Francisco.

Delagnes: Including the people in our own DA's office that we still spoke to, that would tell us on the QT what kind of a prosecutor she was. Her reputation was that she was an effective prosecutor, that, you know, she got it. She understood what the role of a prosecutor was.

Reid: The problem was the union had already decided to back a candidate in the race.

Delagnes: Level-headed, San Francisco native--

Reid: Named Bill Fazio.

Delagnes: And I go, "Well, I know. You're runnin' for DA. But we're gonna endorse Bill Fazio, you know that." And she said, "Well, you're makin' a big mistake. I'm gonna win, and you better get on board with me." I said somethin' to the effect of, "Hey, look, we're endorsin' Fazio. But, you know, if you get into a run-off with Terence, we'll endorse you." That was my first meeting with Kamala Harris.

Reid: Gary had heard from colleagues that Kamala was a good prosecutor. But everyone knew Kamala Harris was going to lose.

Reid: Around the same time Gary Delagnes met Kamala Harris, Rebecca Prozan got a phone call.

Rebecca Prozan: And, you know, the call that changed my life, Senator Harris called and was like, "Look. I'm looking for a campaign manager. Are you interested?"

Reid: She didn't know Kamala well, but she knew her reputation and that's she'd recently announced her run for district attorney.

Prozan: San Francisco political scene is literally like high school.

Reid: Rebecca had recently chaired a local election campaign and had worked in Willie Brown's office for five years. She hadn't been looking to run another campaign, but she agreed to come in and meet with Kamala and her political consultant.

Prozan: But it was like a redone basement office, like, there was maybe three desks in there. And there was like a little sitting around.

Reid: Kamala was there, along with Jim Stearns, the consultant.

Prozan: I don't feel like I had to sell myself as much as they had to sell it to me. 'Cause I think they knew that they needed a day-to-day campaign manager to, like, tie all the pieces together.

Reid: Rebecca listened.

Prozan: We sat in Jim Stearns' office and they were explaining how Senator Harris was gonna win.

Reid: She could see the campaign had a lot going for it.

Prozan: She was running against an entrenched incumbent who was extremely well known in both San Francisco political circles and was a progressive district attorney and wasn't the best manager and had some pretty good missteps. And everybody thought that he was very vulnerable.

Reid: On the other hand, the other candidate in the race, Bill Fazio, had already run against Hallinan twice before. He had more money and more name recognition than Kamala did.

Prozan: But Fazio was sort of seen as too far to the right for San Francisco. Now, that would mean, you know, anywhere else he would be seen as a fairly progressive prosecutor, not a full progressive prosecutor. But people thought Kamala was fierce. Like, they knew she was serious. They knew she was a talented trial attorney. But people questioned whether or not she could actually get it over the finish line. Was this right time/right place?

Reid: Then they shared the current polling numbers.

Prozan: And so we sit down in the office and she's like, "I'm at 6%." And I was like, "Well, what the (BEEP) am I supposed to do with that?"

Reid: The election was just two months away. Rebecca was shocked.

Prozan: What's the plan? Do you have phone banks? Do you have a field operation? You know, what's the mail strategy?

Reid: Kamala looked at her.

Prozan: She was like, "Just get me in the run-off, Rebecca. I know I can win if you get me in the run-off."

Reid: And something about her confidence was impressive. Besides, Rebecca thought, it's a win/win situation.

Prozan: I was like, "I mean, I can't lose," right? So she loses, and I'm like, "She was at 6%." And she wins, and the city's gonna be a lot better off because of the talent and the leadership that she brings to the table because we needed sensible prosecution at the time.

Reid: Rebecca left Jim Stearns' office convinced. She'd take the position. She liked Kamala, and she could see she was a talented candidate.

Prozan: Honestly, at the time, I did not see that she was going to be an attorney general, a senator, a vice presidential nominee. Did I think she had the talent and the chops to be all those things? Absolutely.

Reid: But at that point, she hadn't been elected to anything yet. First, they would have to get to the run-off of this local city election. And even that seemed like a long shot. A week later, Rebecca was standing in the Bay View neighborhood of San Francisco.

Prozan: 3800 Third Street, Bay View, right by the post office, on Evans.

Reid: There was construction work on the new light rail all around so the streets were filled with dust. Rebecca had hustled to get everything set up in less than a week. But some things had to be improvised.

Prozan: There was no stage. There was no money to make a stage. And so I (LAUGH) actually took my coffee table and took it to the campaign, 'cause it was like a crappy coffee table that was from my dad's medical office. So sort of like high enough but not too high. And they all stood on it.

Reid: It was a start. Soon, the headquarters were buzzing with volunteers coming through to pick up campaign flyers. One flyer in particular stood out. It had a photo of Kamala on one side, and on the other, a photo of all the previous DAs.

Prozan: And so on the one side of the mailer, it was all white males, and you turned it over and it was, you know, "San Francisco has the possibility of changing the landscape," so to speak.

Reid: As Rebecca worked to get Kamala into the run-offs, one question began to surface: Kamala's relationship with the mayor.

Prozan: Willie Brown was an extremely popular mayor with a very vocal minority of people who disliked him, or thought that he was crooked.

Reid: Kamala and Willie Brown had dated back in the mid-'90s. Their relationship was over by the time she decided to run for district attorney, but the two still had a close political relationship.

Delagnes: So he was still very much a proponent of Kamala Harris and very much a backer of her career.

Reid: Gary says, in fact, Willie Brown would call him up.

Delagnes: So he wanted us to endorse her rather than Fazio. But our ties with Bill Fazio had run too deep.

Reid: The idea that Kamala had gotten a helping hand by once dating the older Willie Brown became a line of attack for her political opponents.

Prozan: Did it come up? Yes. Did we attack it head on? Yes. Did I think it was unfair? Yes. No one likes to be judged by who they're dating.

Reid: Unfair or not, it came up at a campaign event in the city's Noe Valley neighborhood. Hallinan was there, Fazio was there, Kamala was there. Rebecca wasn't.

Prozan: This is where I have to tell you my philosophy on debates. Very few people actually show up to a debate that are undecided. So Kamala and I would fight about this the entire race, where she would go (LAUGH) to these debates and it would be a big thing, and she would tell me like, "I had nobody there and Terence had, you know, 50 people there and Bill Fazio had 75 people there." And I was like, "That is amazing. You know what I did? I had 30 people phone banking for you."

Reid: For weeks, as the race had tightened, they had prepared for negative attacks from her opponents, and one question in particular. At the Noe Valley event, someone in the audience got up and asked Kamala how she would act independently of the mayor. Kamala walked over to Hallinan and told the audience that he had attacked Bill Fazio for getting caught at a massage parlor.

Then she walked over to Fazio and pointed out that he had attacked Hallinan over a scandal in which two of his employees had been caught having sex in his office. Then she delivered the punchline. "I want to make a commitment to you that my campaign is not going to be about negative attacks."

Delagnes: Bill Fazio was a nice guy and a smart guy, but he wasn't one of these guys that's gonna light up a room, if ya know what I mean. And Hallinan was just a boob. So, I mean, Hallinan never had any communication skills. So she kicked their (BEEP) in the debates, and that's what got her there, into the run-off.

Reid: On election night 2003, the results came in. They were close, but Rebecca had done what Kamala had asked. She was through to the run-off.

Shivaram: Can I ask, is she someone who would have wanted to celebrate getting to the run-off? Like, was there, like, a little bit of a party? Or was it kinda just like, "Oh no, we're digging deeper. Like, it's not over till it's over"?

Prozan: Oh no, there was a party. (LAUGH) There was a party.

Reid: Bill Fazio, the candidate Gary and the police officer's union had backed, was out. Still, Gary says Kamala seemed like a good second choice.

Delagnes: We called her in and we said, "Okay, you're our candidate."

Michael Krasny: From KQED public radio in San Francisco, I'm Michael Krasny. Good morning and welcome to this morning's Forum program. A race for San Francisco district attorney is down to two candidates: the incumbent, Terence Hallinan, and challenger Kamala Harris. We'll hear from both of them.

Reid: The final few weeks of the election campaign were intense. But with just two candidates in the race, it was easier to draw a contrast between incumbent and challenger.

Prozan: Everyone just had to fall in line.

Krasny: You've also charged, in your campaign, that there's a backlog of murder cases. And you've put the number at about 50 awaiting trial. And Jim Hammer, from the DA's office, said it's closer to 40 and they are relentlessly trying to clear their backlog. Let's get ya on record on this.

Harris: Sure. As you know, Mike Hennessey, who is the sheriff of San Francisco, endorsed me recently. And one of the reasons he endorsed me, as he stated, is because we have an absolute backlog of cases sitting waiting trial, defendants who some are waiting and have been sitting in the county jail for four or more years, awaiting trial. And it is because of the district attorney's inability, or incapacity to prosecute those cases that we see them just languishing. You know, each one represents a life, Michael.

Reid: On the night of the election, Kamala and her team gathered to wait for the results.

Prozan: And I think it was like the first or second round of numbers where we felt pretty confident that it was lookin' really good. It might have been around 9:00, 9:15-ish. And I called and said, "We just got another round of numbers." And, again, this wasn't the time where people had smartphones where you could hit "refresh" every second. And I was like, "You won."

Crowd: Kamala. Kamala. Kamala.

Male Reporter: Thirty-eight-year-old Kamala Harris came out of nowhere and was swept into office as San Francisco's district attorney. And as she did, she made history. She's the first woman ever to be the city's top prosecutor.

Reid: From 6% in the polls, she had unseated a man who described himself as the most progressive district attorney in the country.

Male Reporter: She was virtually unknown when she entered the race earlier this year.

Reid: Gary Delagnes was happy, and optimistic. He remembers talking with her soon afterward.

Delagnes: And it was just the, you know, "Hey, look, lookin' forward to workin' with ya. And, you know, I hope you're a marked improvement over Terence Hallinan and, you know, let's get to work."

Reid: Kamala Harris was the 27th district attorney of San Francisco, and the first who wasn't a white man. The good mood lasted for exactly four months. Coming up on Kamala: Next in Line.

Female Voice: She said, "Well, don't you think that's a problem? And don't you think we should fix it?"

Delagnes: When Kamala walked outta that church, you could see that she was hot. She was pissed off, man.

Prozan: I noticed that she had an ability to spar with the guys, in particular.

Male Voice: We're all huddled around, clicking "refresh," trying to will votes to come in.

Harris: She'd say to me all the time, "Kamala, you may be the first to do many things; make sure you're not the last."

Delagnes: "Oh yeah, by the way, we consider her to be dangerous. We need someone to run against her."

Reid: From MSNBC and Wondery, this is episode one of six of Kamala: Next in Line. This is a six-part series about the making of Kamala Harris. If you want to help us spread the word, please give us a five-star rating and a review on Apple Podcasts, and be sure to tell your friends.

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you're listening right now. Join Wondery+ in the Wondery app to listen ad-free. Associate producers are Chris Seigal and Allison Bailey. Production and research help from Carrie Dann and Julie Tsirkin. Production assistance from Hank Butler. Music supervisor Scott Velasquez. Managing producer Lata Pandya. Executive produced for MSNBC by Steve Lickteig. Executive produced by George Lavender, Marshall Lewy, and Hernan Lopez for Wondery.