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Crosscurrents

From high school dropout to District Attorney: George Gascón's journey

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San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón has had a rapid rise in San Francisco politics. Gascón came into the city as Chief of Police, appointed by then-Mayor Gavin Newsom in August, 2009. After less than a year and a half, he was sworn in as the city’s first Latino D.A., replacing Kamala Harris. In 2011, voters elected him to the position.

But, it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the Cuban-born Gascón. He recalls when his family moved from Cuba to a suburb of Los Angeles in 1967.

GEORGE GASCON: I was a recent immigrant. English was still very difficult for me. I struggled a great deal with reading and writing. I had some really, I don’t know about bad experiences, but unsatisfying experiences with staff.

He says his problems with school continued into his teens.

GASCON: By the time I was in high school I started missing school a great deal. And in the transition between 10th and 11th grade, I met with a counselor who basically said in no uncertain terms that I was probably too dumb to go to college. He said I needed to think about a trade. And he was suggesting that I needed to go to wood shop, auto shop, and every shop in the world. Frankly, that didn’t sit well with me. Not that I think there’s anything demeaning about that. My folks were blue collar, but it was the way it was presented to me. I knew that I was not stupid. In fact, I had been in the top 10 percent of my class. I did well in Cuba. That really was sort of a seminal point for me in school. I felt there was nothing for me to do in school to improve myself there. And I wasn’t a good fit for it.

During his senior year, he dropped out of high school. And, ironically, that’s when he found his focus – by joining the army. He went on to earn a degree in history and another in law. He became a police officer and rose in the ranks until taking over as chief in Mesa, Arizona, in 2006. There he famously faced down Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio on issues unfairly tying crime to undocumented immigration. Today, the one-time high school dropout is the face of criminal justice in San Francisco.

KALW's Holly Kernan met District Attorney George Gascón at his office and asked him how his early struggles with school influence his approach to his job now.

 

Holly Kernan is the architect of the award-winning Public Interest Reporting Project. She is currently news director at KALW 91.7FM in San Francisco. In 2009 she was named Journalist of the Year by the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Kernan teaches journalism at Mills College and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and has taught at Santa Rosa Junior College, Youth Radio and San Francisco State University's Lifelong Learning Institute. She lives in Oakland with her husband, Mike, daughter, Julia, and retired greyhound Benjamin Franklin.