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Last Days of the Surfing DA 

Heading into his final year in office, Paul Gallegos talks politics, family and The Smiths

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Photo by Ryan Burns

In less than a year, the Gallegos era will draw to a close. It came as a shock to most everyone when the surfing, pot-friendly, PALCO-challenging district attorney announced in November that he would not seek a fourth term.

Raised in Virginia, Gallegos worked as a Los Angeles County defense attorney before moving to Eureka with his wife Joan in 1994. He was barely out of his 30s when first elected DA. The fraud lawsuit he filed against the Pacific Lumber Co. shortly thereafter made him a hero to local lefties, though it was ultimately thrown out of court. The suit also triggered a divisive, PALCO-backed recall attempt, which he defeated handily.

Beloved and reviled in roughly equal measure, Gallegos has been hailed as a brave, progressive idealist and condemned as an incompetent, plea-bargain-happy bully. But at the ballot box he has defeated all comers, starting in 2002 with a startling upset over 20-year incumbent Terry Farmer.

North Coast Journal: Were you surprised to win that election?

Paul Gallegos: Uh, I was. [Long pause.] I was surprised. That's a fair thing to say. The odds were completely against me. I understood that from the outset. ... When I decided to run I figured, "I don't really know how any of this is going to play out. But I know that I'm going to put in the appropriate amount of effort." ... I literally spent about $38,000 [on the campaign], to put it in perspective. It was just a bunch of friends, and we'd meet every week and I'd say, "The greatest asset is we've never done this before. So everything we do is outside the box. So let's do this. Let's do what feels good. Let's run with it."

Then, when the vote came in, it was, "We did it." And we were all over at a friend's house. Our youngest kid had just been born, so I was actually outside skateboarding with some friends. And [KVIQ's] Dave Silverbrand arrived with the news. I don't know how they knew I was at my friend's house. ... I had to borrow a shirt and a tie and jacket from my friend. And I was on the news looking dressed up. And we have photos at home and I'm wearing, you know, trunks underneath it. And after Dave left, we put on the Smiths' "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now."

[Note: For those unfamiliar with the British sulk-rockers' 1984 single, the opening lines go: I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour/but heaven knows I'm miserable now/I was looking for a job, and then I found a job/and heaven knows I'm miserable now]

A lot of my close friends think that's hilarious, that that's the first song that I played.

NCJ: Was there some meaning to that?

PG: Yes, well, first of all I love the Smiths. But that's the way things often are: No sooner do you try something or begin something new than the patina instantly wears off, and then it becomes a job as opposed to an aspiration. I knew there were going to be immense responsibilities with the job. ... Most of us know that other people have opinions of us, and we're comfortable with them not sharing them with us. You get into politics, people share their opinion about you on a regular basis. So you have to accept that.

NCJ: Was it difficult coming into an office devoted to the previous boss?

PG: The short answer is "yes." The long answer is "Heck yes." It was difficult for a lot of reasons. With all due respect to Terry, while he was district attorney he certainly served this community, but he was so embittered over the results of the race that he completely refused to participate in effecting a transition. His staff would have to meet with me surreptitiously.

NCJ: Did you encounter any resistance working with his staff?

PG: Well, absolutely. ... The rumor was that I was going to fire everyone, and I would meet with them ahead of time — those that had the courage to come meet with me — and [I'd say], "Settle down. Why would I do that?" So by the time I came in, it was tense.

I, similarly, came in with very much hesitation. I remember talking with [former Deputy DA] Rob Wade, who I liked very much. He ultimately did not share those feelings for me after we worked together. ... I remember telling Rob that, "Hey, I'm a defense attorney. ... I'm giving everyone a fair shake; I'm keeping an open mind." And I attempted to do so.

A year after being in office, the top people — Linda Modell, Jim Dawson and Wes Keat — I pulled 'em in and said, "Hey, guys. I said I was going to keep an open mind, and I did. But I owe you guys all an apology." And I said, "I realize now, reflecting on my marriage, that keeping an open mind isn't what you do. You give trust. And although I kept an open mind, I did not give trust." ... So that was a watershed for me.

And there were decisions that had to be made; there was a budget cut [to the DA's office]. Historically it had never really played out that way. There was always the threat, [but it] didn't happen. This time it really happened. People had to go; there was anger, frustration ... all sorts of conflict, or just difficulty.

NCJ: Your decision not to run again surprised a lot of folks. Can you elaborate on your reasons?

PG: Sure, I can try. It's a more difficult decision than you can imagine. When I [first] ran I never anticipated doing this forever. My position was, "It's a job to do, not a job to have." My personal philosophy and opinion in life is, you do best in a job when your personal motivation is great, when that excitement level is there. We're often using that excitement level to learn, and then we get to a place where we just go into cruise control. ... So I always knew there was [going to be] a time when it's good to step down.

NCJ: I heard that you told one of your deputy DAs you were "tired of belonging to the public." Is that an accurate quote?

PG: I don't know if I said that. I may have said that; I may have said something like it. It's not that I'm tired of belonging to the public. ... What it is is that I also have an obligation to my family. ... You know, I remember where my kids were when I got elected, and I see where they're at now, and I reflect, as my oldest guy is getting ready to go to college, on all the parent-teacher meetings I missed, on all the things I didn't do. ... My youngest guy is 11 now. I just definitely want to spend some time with him. I spent a period of time with my oldest guy when I wasn't in public office. My middle daughter, she's a freshman in high school now.

NCJ: Do they ever get crap for being the DA's kids?

PG: Oh, absolutely. That cuts both ways, though. I know that. They don't! [laughs]

NCJ: In your resignation letter you said you're proud of what you've accomplished. Can you list your three most proud accomplishments?

PG: Um, there are a heckuva lot. The three most proud? I've never really done it that way. Um, I guess the most is, or the first one is that we're here today, 11 years later, and this office has continued to do its job despite budget cuts, the challenges that were placed upon us internally and externally. We've had people come and go, and the quality of work has been maintained. We've fulfilled our duties to the community.

NCJ: Could have done anything to improve your relationship with the Eureka Police Department?

PG: [Long pause] I suppose? But I'm not sure that I could do that and maintain or honor my obligation to the people of this community. ... But I think the Eureka Police Dept. is a fine establishment that prides itself on its élan, and there are many great officers there. I think there have been challenges within the department that have impacted their relationship with this office and with the community.

NCJ: There have been a couple of former deputy DAs [Worth Dikeman, Allison Jackson] who have run against you in previous elections.

PG: Oh, absolutely. All I have to do is get rid of people; they're gonna run against me next time, just about.

NCJ: They characterized you as a failed administrator and blamed you for the departure of some of the more experienced prosecutors. Can you respond to that?

PG: I think that, both times, that's been false. In regards to the "failed administrator," people are going to make their decision however that is. I'm number nine out of 11 kids. We all responded to our parents, the same parents, differently. We interpreted their parental skills differently. That's the way it is. You're a boss. You come in. Some people love ya, some people don't. ... They [critics] always throw these numbers out: "Well this many people have left." Well, unfortunately we have worked as a training ground for [other] offices. But certainly there are some people that I drove out — no ifs, ands or buts. Some I regret, some not at all.

NCJ: How many people did you fire or ask to leave?

PG: I don't know numbers, but there have been quite a few. I have seen them against me in campaigns, and that's fair. That's the process.

NCJ: I asked about your proudest accomplishments. What about mistakes?

PG: Many, many, many. I'll tell you something. After I worked here awhile I told Wes Keat, "It turns out I knew more about being a DA before I was a DA than after I became one."

NCJ: How do you mean?

PG: Everyone who's not the DA knows just how to be the DA [laughs]. That's the paradox of the job. I came in. There were [only] two other attorneys in this office younger than me. I said, "I can do it." The way I perceived myself was, "I'm here to help, and I can do this. I can get good results." But the way that played out to other people was, first, I was arrogant, that I minimized the skill set that they had accumulated over years. ... So I acknowledge that. I made mistakes all over the place. I've made mistakes at every endeavor in my life — as a husband, as a parent, individual mistakes with each kid at individual levels, as a sibling, as a child. You learn as you go. ...

NCJ: How has public safety realignment affected your job? And what do you think of it as a solution to prison overcrowding?

PG: It's a great question. When Kamala [Harris] became the [state's] attorney general, she asked me to be on her "smart on crime" group. She assigned me to work with these physicians, top physicians here in the state. ... Working with these medical care providers caused a perspective shift for me: Maybe we have been looking at crime wrong, and we need to adopt a health care model. ...

That's exactly what the governor has done, because realignment is completely shifting the paradigm of the criminal justice system. And what he did was he turned it from the carrot/stick, punishment/reward paradigm into the health care model. Now we use data as opposed to raw emotion, satisfying people's impulsive responses to being victimized or to their fears of crime. ... Is it always going to be right? No. Will dangerous people get out? Yes. Will people be hurt from it? Yes. ... I understand the emotion here, but let's be analytical, pragmatic. Let's solve the problem. The philosophy I understand; the philosophy I agree with. The details are tough. ... In the short run what we've seen is no significant impact on violent crime.

NCJ: Property crime has gone up pretty significantly, though.

PG: [Makes rocket-like hand gesture.] Ratcheted up. Statewide. The question is, "What do you do?" The perception is that with this health care model, over time, with a certain percentage of those people you will change their behavior. ...

I am prepared to clearly join myself with the governor and my colleagues here in the state to make this happen in a positive way. And I think in Humboldt County we're really fortunate because we have a lot of good people in good places right now — with [Chief Probation Officer] Bill Damiano, the sheriff, chiefs [of police]. Law enforcement is in a good place where technologically we're starting to access and utilize data more. So I am optimistic, but it will be tough.

NCJ: Will you endorse any of the candidates running to succeed you?

PG: I was asked that when I announced [I wouldn't run again] to my office here, and I said, "You know, I think I'm happy sitting back and letting it play out." It's not my decision; it's the people's decision. It may be as things play out I'll arrive at a conclusion about one or the other.

NCJ: I heard that Richard Salzman [Gallegos' former campaign manager] will be working for Elan Firpo's campaign.

I understand that too. Richard's a dear friend. ... I think that Richard certainly is a dynamic person, a good person to know. And I don't think that's a bad find for her.

NCJ: His ethics have been questioned. Do you care to weigh in on that?

PG: In politics, they attack you all the time, for everything. ... Richard is a political powerhouse, a force. So what do they do? They always attack the messenger. Do I think that Richard's ethics are questionable? Has he made some decisions — the letter thing? Stupid. Sorry about that — Richard's heard that from me. He sent in letters praising himself under someone else's name! It's like, dude. That's embarrassing. Fair enough; we've all done stupid things. Do I think he is unethical? Um, I have not seen evidence of that. ... He's someone that forms deep friendships, and he also alienates a lot of people. Why? Because he's opinionated; he's abrupt; he can be abrasive; he does not mince words; he lacks diplomacy in many ways. But to me, I have no problem with that. Because when I talk to Richard, I know just exactly where he stands on something.

NCJ: A year from now you'll be about done. What's next? Will you join your wife's practice?

PG: Oh, I don't know if she'll have me [laughs]. No, I'm playing. I don't know. I keep getting asked that. My mom said, "Chew what's in your mouth before you take another bite." ... I really haven't thought about it that much. I know it's just around the corner. At the end of the day, what do I know? I know I can practice law. ... I'll probably go into civil work. ... Who knows? ... I tell people, "I knew a kid named Paul once who surfed." That's precious time for me — time out in the water with my kids.

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About The Author

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns

Ryan Burns worked for the Journal from 2008 to 2013, covering a diverse mix of North Coast subjects, from education, politics and marijuana to human suspension, sex parties and amateur fight contests. He won awards for investigative reporting, feature stories and news coverage.

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