How Much Can The Recall Of San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin Actually Tell Us About The National Mood?

Commentators say it’s part of a broader conservative backlash. That's wrong.
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 07: San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin looks on as he waits to greet potential voters outside of the Castro Street MUNI station on June 07, 2022 in San Francisco, California... SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 07: San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin looks on as he waits to greet potential voters outside of the Castro Street MUNI station on June 07, 2022 in San Francisco, California. Boudin is facing a recall election as San Francisco voters head to the polls on primary election day. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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Even before the votes were counted, some media outlets and political pundits had declared that the recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin reflects a national backlash against progressive politicians and policy. Boudin, who was elected in 2019, certainly espoused progressive ideas — reforming the criminal justice system, stopping the prosecution of minors as adults, ending the use of cash bail, lowering jail populations during the COVID-19 pandemic, and filing homicide charges against city police officers. About 60% of San Francisco voters supported the recall (called Proposition H), which by any measure is a landslide rejection of Boudin.

But does the recall have any wider significance outside San Francisco? Is it a warning to other Democrats to tamp down their progressive approaches to crime, homelessness, housing, poverty, and other issues?

In Alameda County, which is immediately adjacent to San Francisco and includes the city of Oakland (where the homicide rate is four times greater than San Francisco’s), civil rights attorney Pamela Price led the field of four candidates for the vacant district attorney job. Price, a progressive whose policy ideas are not much different than Boudin’s, received 40% of the vote. She will face Terry Wiley, an assistant DA who gained 31% of the vote, in November, since neither received more the half of all votes.

Voters in sprawling Contra Costa County, also in the Bay Area, gave a strong vote of confidence to incumbent District Attorney Diana Becton, a progressive former judge who was elected DA in 2018. Becton won outright, avoiding a November run-off, because she won 57% of the vote to 43% for Mary Knox, a career prosecutor who ran on a conservative law-and-order platform and who was backed by many local and national law enforcement groups across the county.

Becton made headlines last year when she won a conviction against Andrew Hall, a former Sheriff’s Deputy, in the fatal shooting of Laudemer Arboleda.

“Contra Costa County voters have spoken clearly to indicate that they really want a criminal justice system that is about safety, but that is always also about fairness and equality for everyone,” Becton said on election night. “We’ve adopted new and innovative approaches that move us beyond a singular reliance on incarceration.”

Boudin, Becton, and — if she wins in November — Price are part of a growing wave a progressive district attorneys who have won election — and re-election — in cities and counties across the country.

Many of their victories took place while Donald Trump was president and during the growing upsurge of protest over police misconduct and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which raised Americans’ awareness of the reality of systemic racism. Although most voters don’t want to “defund the police,” they’ve expressed growing concern over racial profiling and other forms of police misconduct, mass incarceration of people of color and the racial disparities stemming from the War on Drugs. Rising anger has led voters to elect progressive local district attorneys who pledged to prosecute police misconduct, limit, or eliminate the use of bail to keep people in jail while they await sentencing and reduce the overall prison population. 

Larry Krasner, a civil rights lawyer, was elected Philadelphia’s district attorney in 2017, signaling the start of what became recognized as a movement toward progressive DAs. He quickly shook up his office by firing attorneys who were considered too close to the police and by exonerating prisoners’ wrongful convictions based on the misconduct of police and prosecutors that mostly targeted people of color. He was re-elected last year.

Since his election, progressive prosecutors have also been elected or re-elected in Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, Orlando, Tucson, Westchester County (New York), Austin and Corpus Christi (Texas), Jefferson, Larimer, and Jackson counties in Colorado, and Oakland and Washetnaw counties in Michigan. Among them was Keith Higgins (in Glynn, Camden, Appling, Jeff Davis and Wayne counties in south Georgia), who in 2020 ousted incumbent Jackie Johnson, who gained national media attention for her mishandling of the murder of the Ahmaud Arbery, the black jogger who was chased and then fatally shot by a white former police officer and his son in Brunswick, Georgia. The same year, Gary Tyack, a former judge, told the Columbus Dispatch that he decided to run for Franklin County (Ohio) prosecutor because “I frankly have seen too many situations where people of color have been shot by police officers and nothing has come of it.” He won the seat with 53% of the vote, ousting Ron O’Brien, a Republican who served in that post for 24 years and was known for aggressively pursuing the death penalty,

The progressive prosecutor movement scored a big victory in 2020 when voters in Los Angeles County (the nation’s largest, with over 10 million residents) elected George Gascon as its District Attorney. Embraced by Black Lives Matter, the former LA cop and San Francisco DA beat incumbent Jackie Lacey, who was heavily supported by police unions, with 53.6% of the vote. Soon after taking office in December 2020, he began implementing progressive reforms such as not seeking cash bail or the death penalty and not prosecuting children as adults. Police unions, billionaire developers (like the Beverly Hills real estate baron Geoffrey Palmer), and Hollywood moguls quickly began a campaign to recall him. So far it has been unsuccessful in collecting enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot, but the recall of Boudin in San Francisco now has LA conservatives warning Gascon, “you’re next.” His opponents, like those of Boudin, have sought to blame him for a surge of crime, even though crime in cities with progressive prosecutors has not increased more than in cities with conservative law-and-order district attorneys.

Accordingly, commentators have been seeking signs that voters are turning against the progressive prosecutor movement that saw so many victories, particularly in response to the racial justice protests of 2020. This week, Boudin’s recall became exhibit A. But how much can it tell us about nationwide trends?

Polls showed that Boudin’s policy prescriptions — such as ending cash bail, not prosecuting children as adults, and creating a workers’ protection unit in his office — were popular with voters.

The San Francisco recall campaign outspent Boudin’s defenders by a 3-to-1 margin. It was orchestrated by conservative billionaires and police unions, who raised at least $7.2 million to oust the progressive 41-year-old Boudin a year and half before his term ended. The largest donor was a political action committee, Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, which contributed close to $2 million. Its biggest donor, San Francisco-based hedge fund manager William Oberndorf, gave at least $600,000. He has been a major supporter of charter schools and a big Republican booster, and gave $1.5 million to Senator McConnell’s GOP Leadership Fund in 2020. Other major contributors to Neighbors for a Better San Francisco include the Shorenstein realty empire, venture capitalists Steven Merrill and Jason Moment, and investment banker Paul Holden Spaht, Jr.

Boudin’s ouster should not have been a surprise. He won election in 2019 under San Francisco’s non-partisan ranked-choice voting system. He came in first in a four-person race, but he won only 35.7% of the first-choice votes. Under the ranked-choice system, voters can rank multiple candidates. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the last-place candidate is eliminated and their voters’ votes are allocated to their next preferred candidate, until one candidate has a majority. Boudin won in the third round by a margin of only 2,825 votes, or 1.66 percentage points.

As a result, Boudin did not have a strong mandate for his progressive agenda and his hold on the citywide office was always tenuous, particularly since he was subject to attacks by the police and prosecutors in the DA’s office from the moment he arrived, many of which were echoed by the local media.

Moreover, the recall effort was not a typical election campaign. He did not have an opponent to run against. As Boudin acknowledged after conceding defeat, “Voters were not asked to choose between criminal justice reform and something else. They were given an opportunity to voice their frustration and their outrage, and they took that opportunity.”

Boudin’s opponents unfairly blamed him for San Francisco’s severe homelessness crisis, caused primarily by the city’s housing shortage, rising rents, the proliferation of low-wage jobs, and the lack of mental health services. Boudin’s office did not cause and had little control over those problems, but he became a lightning rod for these concerns.

Several high-profile incidents, including assaults against Asian Americans seniors, also raised fears about crime. In fact, rapes, robberies and assaults actually fell significantly during Boudin’s first two years in office, although some crime categories — including burglaries and motor vehicle theft — slightly increased. The number of homicides increased from 41 in 2019, to 48 in 2020, to 56 in 2021. San Francisco was not alone. Homicides have increased in cities across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, San Francisco’s crime rates are comparable or lower than that of most other big cities. People who sleep on the streets or in shelters are not responsible for most crimes, but Boudin’s critics conflated the two issues – crime and homelessness – and played on voters’ fears about safety, fueled by the well-funded campaign that scapegoated him for being soft on crime and disorder.

Even Boudin’s supporters acknowledge that while he was a smart policy wonk, he was not a very adept politician, unable to sell his ideas for criminal justice reform. As a result, the recall was essentially a referendum on whether voters were happy with the status quo.

Polls showed that Boudin’s policy prescriptions — such as ending cash bail, not prosecuting children as adults, and creating a workers’ protection unit in his office — were popular with voters. In his short stint as district attorney, he created an office to re-open suspected wrongful convictions, sought alternative sentencing arrangements, criticized police practices he viewed as racist, and prosecuted an on-duty police officer for manslaughter. Boudin’s reforms led to a 37% decline in the number of San Francisco adults in jail, a 57% decline in the juvenile jail population, and 35% fewer San Franciscans in state prisons.

But even Boudin’s supporters acknowledge that while he was a smart policy wonk, he was not a very adept politician, unable to sell his ideas for criminal justice reform. As a result, the recall was essentially a referendum on whether voters were happy with the status quo, not only homeless encampments and crime, but also broader frustrations over the restrictions impose by public officials during the pandemic and skyrocketing rents.

A poll of registered voters conducted from April 30 through May 4 found that two-thirds of Asian Americans (who make up 36% of the city’s population), one third of African Americans, and about half of whites and Latinos embraced the recall, although one-fifth of all voters were still undecided. A preliminary analysis of Tuesday’s vote by neighborhood found that support for the recall was strongest among affluent whites and Asians from across the economic spectrum. Black voters — who were key to the victories of progressive prosecutors in Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Oakland, and elsewhere — comprise only 6% of San Francisco’s residents.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed will appoint an interim DA to replace Boudin until November, when voters will elect a new DA to serve the remainder of Boudin’s term, which is set to expire in January 2024. 

The unusual circumstances of the Boudin recall suggest that Democrats should not take the outcome as a warning that voters have turned their backs on liberal and progressive policies, as the DA elections in Alameda and Contra Costa countries demonstrate. In the past year, in cities, counties, and states across the country, progressive Democrats have won offices and voters have embraced liberal ballot measures on criminal justice and other issues.

At an election eve gathering, Boudin told his supporters that the push for progressive criminal justice reform was part of a nationwide movement, bigger than one election or city.

“We know that people were writing the obituary of this election before our campaign even started,” he said. “But we are just getting started, because we knew that fixing a system that has systematically failed us — not just for decades, but for generations, for centuries — was not the work of one year, or one term. It’s certainly not the work of one man or woman or one office.”

Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College.

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