Newsletter: What does it mean to be a progressive prosecutor?

Chesa Boudin will be the next district attorney of San Francisco.
(Mark Z. Barabak / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Nov. 12, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

In San Francisco, former public defender Chesa Boudin’s ascent to the district attorney’s office is being heralded as a victory for the progressive prosecutor movement.

Boudin’s predecessor, former San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón, is challenging Los Angeles D.A. Jackie Lacey for her seat from the left. L.A. voters won’t make a decision until March 2020, but the race is already being billed as the next major bellwether in the broader criminal justice reform movement.

Last week, Politico wrote that the 2020 L.A. district attorney race “poses a prominent test for the movement in a massive and influential jurisdiction that was once among the principal drivers of mass incarceration,” and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors posited that it could serve as a “tipping point” nationally.

“Progressive prosecutor” has clearly become a buzzword as of late, but what exactly does it mean to be one?


Progressive prosecutors tend to sound “more like liberal activists and civil rights lawyers than traditional hard-nosed DAs,” and are seeking to transform criminal justice systems, as my colleague Del Quentin Wilber put it a few months ago.

[Read the story: “Once tough-on-crime prosecutors now push progressive reforms” in the Los Angeles Times]

They espouse a very different calculus, where the sum total of convictions becomes much less important than fundamental questions about the system itself — and whether decades-old policies that focus on locking people up are effective, or even just.

Boudin ran on a platform of ending mass incarceration and the racial disparities that plague the criminal justice system, eliminating cash bail and holding police accountable.

The San Francisco district attorney race became a national conversation piece, with Boudin garnering support from prominent figures on the left like Sen. Bernie Sanders and activist Angela Davis. His opponent Suzy Loftus had the backing of the California political establishment, including endorsements from the governor and both California senators.

Boudin’s unique origin story as a child of the far-left Weather Underground also intensified the national media attention on the race.

When the district attorney-elect was still in diapers, his mother dropped him off at babysitter on New York’s Upper West Side. She never came to pick him up. Both his parents were imprisoned for their role in a 1981 armed robbery — characterized as “a last gasp of Vietnam-era radicalism” — that killed three men.

The young Boudin was adopted and raised by Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, also members of the Weather Underground. Boudin has said that his earliest memories are of visiting his parents in prison, and his prosecutorial worldview is deeply shaped by his personal experience with the justice system.

His mother was paroled in 2003, and his father remains incarcerated in upstate New York. Boudin was on a plane home from visiting his father in prison when the razor-thin race was finally decided on Saturday afternoon, four days after the election.

[Read the story: “San Francisco’s new D.A. learned he won the job while visiting his dad in prison” in the Los Angeles Times]

Outside California, the progressive prosecutor movement gained steam with Kim Foxx’s 2016 election victory to lead the state’s attorney office in Cook County, Ill., and Larry Krasner’s 2017 win to lead the Philadelphia D.A.’s office. Foxx and Krasner are among the best known of this new guard, but progressive prosecutors have also been elected in Houston; Boston;, St. Louis; Tampa, Fla.; and Durham, N.C., among other places.

The exact semantics of “progressive prosecutor” can also vary depending on the jurisdiction. After all, what’s possible in San Francisco is probably very different from Houston or St. Louis. But, broadly speaking, progressive prosecutors believe in adjusting priorities away from incarceration, reforming the cash bail system and holding law enforcement accountable for potential abuses.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


The Conception dive boat accident that killed 34 people on Labor Day was one of the worst maritime disasters in California history, but the safety lapses that led to it were hardly unprecedented. An L.A. Times review of federal documents shows the National Transportation Safety Board has repeatedly called for stronger regulations aimed at improving safety after serious boat fires, only to see the Coast Guard not implement them. Los Angeles Times

The first fire engine headed to last year’s Woolsey fire broke down en route to the scene. It would prove to be just one in a chain of things that went wrong in the early battle against what would become the most destructive fire in modern Los Angeles County history. Los Angeles Times


Amazon is planning a new grocery store in Woodland Hills, another step in the e-commerce giant’s multi-pronged effort to capture a larger piece of the massive U.S. grocery business. Los Angeles Times

Hollywood talent giant Endeavor purchased the speaking agency that reps the Obamas and Clintons. The deal is the first acquisition Endeavor has made since calling off its IPO in September. Bloomberg

Arizona’s famed Pizzeria Bianco will soon expand to downtown Los Angeles. The world-renowned restaurant will open an outpost at the Row. Eater LA

The Biancoverde pizza
The Biancoverde pizza topped with fresh mozzarella, Parmigiano Reggiano, ricotta and arugula at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix.
(Paul Boorstin)

Is Los Angeles actually dotted with vacant properties that could ease its chronic housing shortage? It depends on who is doing the math. Crosstown LA

At least eight USC students have died in the last three months. The university community has been struggling to cope with the losses, as well as questions about how the information should be conveyed. Daily Trojan

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DACA changed a generation of California immigrants. These are some of their stories. Los Angeles Times


How liberal or conservative is your community? Search every California city here. Sacramento Bee


Four LAPD officers were injured after a pursuit of carjacking suspects ended in a violent crash on a freeway on-ramp in Pacoima. Los Angeles Times

Mysterious “high velocity” projectiles have been hitting cars on the Central Coast, and authorities are trying to figure out what’s going on. San Luis Obispo Tribune


California might not require solar panels on new homes after all. It’s starting to look as if the mandate instituted last year wasn’t quite a mandate. Los Angeles Times

In Northern California logging country, residents brace for a fight over their “magical” redwood-lined road. Los Angeles Times


A California brewery released a profanely named anti-PG&E beer. That prompted backlash — and an apology. Sacramento Bee

Sixty years after it was first proposed, the Palm Springs International Jazz Festival is finally a go. The new jazz festival will be held Nov. 23 and 24 at the Annenberg Theater, not far from where the Chi Chi Starlite Room once showcased jazz legends. Desert Sun

A new mural in Chicano Park celebrates the history of lowriding. The park is in San Diego’s Barrio Logan neighborhood. San Diego Union-Tribune

Will single-use coffee cups soon get the heave-ho amid sustainability pushes in the Bay Area? San Francisco Chronicle


Los Angeles: sunny, 80. San Diego: sunny, 74. San Francisco: cloudy, 67. San Jose: partly sunny, 76. Sacramento: partly sunny, 77. More weather is here.


Today’s California memory comes from China Frazier:

“I grew up in View Park not far from Culver City. Mom and Dad would pile all four of us in the back of our Chevy station wagon padded with blankets and pillows. Off we went to the Studio Drive-In. Drive up, pay and park on that little hill that allows the car to tip up toward the screen, hang the audio box on the window and then off to the snack bar for popcorn and candy! The best family fun ever!

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.