My guess is that GM CEO Mary Barra isn’t yet too familiar with San Francisco’s David Chiu. But when one of Barra’s driverless Cruise taxis is involved in a serious accident as San Francisco’s fire chief has predicted it inevitably will, Barra will fast learn the legal foe she’ll regret having to deal with.

The management folks at Walgreens learned that lesson the hard way.

Chiu is San Francisco’s city attorney, a job that in most cities doesn’t command much attention. But most cities don’t have star Harvard law school grads with impressive public service credentials running their legal affairs. Chiu has demonstrated that he can and will hold big and powerful companies accountable if they harm the San Francisco residents he represents.

Chiu was ultimately responsible for San Francisco’s landmark legal victories relating to the city’s opioid crisis, triumphs that will likely results in tens of millions of settlements for other jurisdictions. In a legal display of derring-do, Chiu sued various opioid manufacturers, distributors, and dispensers, alleging they were culpable for San Francisco’s opioid crisis and perpetuating a widespread public nuisance.

Chiu so far has secured more than $350 million in voluntary settlements. Walgreens mistakenly chose to do battle with Chiu and lost bigly in court. Chiu announced in May that Walgreens agreed to pay a $230 million settlement, far and away San Francisco’s biggest individual recovery.

Chiu, of course, didn’t argue the cases, nor did any of his legal deputies. But he was responsible for selecting the outside law firms that secured the landmark victories, a display of judgment that isn’t assured when dealing with politicians. As an example, Dana Nessel, Michigan’s legal welterweight attorney general, paid various law firms and attorneys, including her former law partner, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to pursue cases relating to the Flint water crisis, but most, if not all of them, suffered humiliating defeats.

Among the cases Chiu is focused on these days is preventing Barra’s driverless Cruise taxis and Google’s driverless Waymo taxis from expanding their operations in San Francisco. Given the outsized influence tech has on San Francisco, one might expect the city’s denizens would be leading the embrace of driverless taxis, furthering their opportunities to limit their daily human interactions. San Francisco residents not all that long ago were walking around with Google Glasses, which allowed them to use voice commands to communicate with the Internet while walking the streets of one of the most picturesque cities in America.  

The problem plagued technology of Cruise and Waymo taxis is disruptive in the old-fashioned sense, even for those who prefer to live a virtual world. The vehicles are involved in near daily mishaps that wreak havoc with traffic, admittedly more involving Cruise taxis than those operated by Waymo. Local resistance to the driverless technologies is so fierce that residents began placing traffic cones on Cruise and Waymo vehicles, which disabled them.

Underscoring the hubris and arrogance of their corporate parents, Cruise and Waymo want to ride roughshod over the will of San Francisco residents and expand their operations in that city. Driverless taxis are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, a five-member board appointed Gov. Gavin Newsom, who advocates for aggressive EV mandates. The CPUC earlier this month voted to allow Cruise and Waymo to expand their operations.

The CPUC is a controversial regulatory body whose five members have a history of questionable relationships with the companies they regulate, including sharing “bottles of good pinot” with executives they oversee. One CPUC commissioner is John Reynolds, Cruise’s former general counsel, who not surprisingly voted in favor of allowing his former employer to expand its operations.

Chiu promptly took up the cause of San Francisco’s residents, filing an administrative motion with the CPUC to pause its decision allowing unfettered expansion of Cruise’s and Waymo’s operations, pending a rehearing of the decision.

John Reynolds/CPUC

“When deploying powerful, new technology, safety should be the top priority,” Chiu said.  “We have seen that this technology is not yet ready, and poor (autonomous vehicle) performance has interfered with the life-saving operations of first responders. San Francisco will suffer serious harms from this unfettered expansion, which outweigh whatever impacts AV companies may experience from a minimal pause in commercial deployment.”

The uninitiated might conclude that representing the interests and wishes of their constituents is what is to be expected from public officials. That’s not always the case, as residents in rural Marshall, MI, know all too well.

Ford, in cahoots with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s economic development people, have ignored protests from Marshall residents who oppose the automaker’s destruction of century old trees and fertile farmland to build a lithium battery plant in the region. Marshall residents have filed a lawsuit and taken other measures to derail Ford’s project but are funding their efforts out of their own pockets.

Chiu, 53, meets my definition of a true public servant, as he is making a genuine economic sacrifice to work in government. Given his background and accomplishments to date, Chiu could stroll into the U.S. law firm of his choosing and easily get paid multiples of the $295,000 he was paid last year.

According to his bio and his Wikipedia profile, Chiu was born in Cleveland and raised in Boston, the son of Taiwanese immigrants. Harvard is the only college he experienced, having received an undergraduate, master’s in public policy, and a law degree from the university. Chiu clerked for Judge James R. Browning of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and worked as prosecutor in San Francisco’s District Attorney’s office.

Chiu’s various recognitions include being named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, and an American Memorial Marshall Fellow. In 2005, when Chiu was general counsel of a public affairs technology company he founded, the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association named him one of the best lawyers under 40.

Chiu’s spouse, Candace Chen, is a third generation San Franciscan, who works as a public interest lawyer managing a refugee foster care youth program. They live with their son in a diverse neighborhood called Bayview, which has some of the highest crime rates in the city.

Chiu and his family

Chiu has held various political posts, including serving three terms as president of San Francisco’s board of supervisors, the city’s legislative body. Chiu also spent seven years in California’s legislative assembly, where he authored 75 bills that were signed into law by the Governor. His bills addressed a wide spectrum of issues, including housing, homelessness, tenant protections, transportation, civil rights, consumer protections, education, the environment, health care, and public safety. Chiu authored the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, which brought forth the largest expansion of tenants’ rights in California.

Surprisingly, Chiu is a lifelong and diehard Republican.

Just kidding!

Chiu is pursuing other interesting cases of national significance, including investigating U.S. News & World Report for using “imprecise methodology and bias” in its “Best Hospitals” rankings. Chiu alleges the rankings incentivize hospitals to invest in areas that score more points instead of investing in primary care, other specialties, or ways to reduce the costs of care.

U.S. News denies the allegations.

For the most part, Chiu strikes me as a reasonable and responsible political official, although given San Francisco’s growing crime and open drug use, there are many who will question his support of pilot sites allowing consumption of illegal drugs under the supervision of health care workers. Even Gavin Newsom vetoed that legislation.

“Every day we don’t act, two more people will die tragically on our streets,” Chiu told KQED. “Overdose prevention programs have been proven in over 100 places around the world. There have been 22 studies of these sites that have found that they reduce deaths and improve access to care while not increasing public safety issues to the surrounding community.”

Even if one doesn’t agree or support Chiu’s policies, I found not even a hint of evidence that he doesn’t live his life in accordance with the principles and values he champions.

Chiu ran for mayor in 2011 but was defeated by Ed Lee, a respected civil rights attorney. Seems to me, Chiu has the experience and smarts to find ways to restore some of San Francisco’s glory without sacrificing its historic humanity and values.

Sadly, experience, smarts, and integrity are no longer qualities understood or valued by many U.S. voters.

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