San Francisco’s bitter D.A. recall could set back national justice reform movement

A man leans on the railing of an open-air walkway.
San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin, who was elected in 2019 as part of a movement to elect district attorneys who seek to reimagine public safety and the role of a prosecutor, faces a recall Tuesday.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

Hours after winning election as San Francisco district attorney in 2019, Chesa Boudin stood, beaming, inside a packed dive bar in the Mission District.

“What comes next is critical,” said the then-39-year-old public defender, part of the nationwide movement to elect district attorneys who seek to reimagine public safety and redefine the role of a prosecutor. “In many ways, getting here today was the easy part.”

Those words may have proved grimly prophetic for the newly minted D.A.

Boudin’s 2½-year tenure as San Francisco’s top prosecutor has resembled the “knife fight in a phone booth” adage often used to describe Bay Area politics. He has weathered attacks from across the city’s political spectrum; both the historically conservative police union and more moderate politicians such as Mayor London Breed have often criticized the would-be reformer.


His relationship with the city’s police department has faltered, and dozens of his own prosecutors have quit — some to help oust Boudin from office.

That fight comes to a head Tuesday, when San Francisco’s 500,000 registered voters will decide whether Boudin should keep his job.

The bitter, expensive recall election has turned into a referendum on some of San Francisco’s most painful and protracted problems, including homelessness, drug addiction and property crime. The election has also become a test for a liberal city’s appetite for continuing to pursue criminal justice reform.

Boudin described his 2019 victory as a sign of a “massive thirst for change.” But polls suggest he may not survive the recall. His supporters now fear a result that could have a chilling effect on the nationwide effort to elect reform-minded district attorneys.

Boudin’s predecessor, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, is also facing his second recall attempt in two years.

A group opposed to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón plans to file a notice of intent to begin the recall process in March.

Feb. 27, 2021

Boudin has sought to reshape a criminal justice system that he and his supporters see as profoundly unfair. He has refused to seek the death penalty or try juveniles as adults, significantly reduced the use of sentencing enhancements and sought to push people accused of low-level crimes fueled by drug addiction into treatment instead of a jail cell.


But his message has lost traction among an electorate that has grown increasingly concerned about visible crime and homelessness. Boudin’s background has made him an easy target for opponents who paint him as a fringe leader disconnected from his city.

Boudin is a Yale-educated Rhodes scholar who worked as a translator for Venezuelan socialist President Hugo Chávez. His parents were members of the radical left-wing group the Weather Underground. They went to prison when Boudin was a child for their roles in a 1981 armed robbery in New York that left three people dead, including two police officers. His mother, Kathy Boudin, was paroled in 2003 and died of cancer last month. Boudin’s father, David Gilbert, received parole last year.

Three polls funded by the recall campaign and its backers earlier this year found a majority of San Francisco voters favored removing Boudin. Polling paid for by the anti-recall campaign last month painted a slightly rosier picture, with 48% of voters described as pro-recall, 38% opposed and 14% undecided.

Criminal justice experts say a prosecutor’s policies are unlikely to cause immediate shifts in crime. Property and violent crimes fell in San Francisco during Boudin’s first two years in office. Homicides have increased since 2019, when the city had its fewest killings in 50 years.

But recall supporters have told a simple, yet effective, story of a radical district attorney who has worsened many of the city’s ills.

The campaign has highlighted shocking videos of smash-and-grab robberies from high-end retailers in Union Square and drug dealing in the city’s troubled Tenderloin neighborhood. Some have been featured on Tucker Carlson‘s Fox News show and in other conservative media.


“Never would I put all this on Chesa’s shoulders,” said Brooke Jenkins, a former prosecutor in Boudin’s office who is now a volunteer spokeswoman for the recall. “But citizens expect that their D.A. is going to try to serve as a deterrent to these criminals. ... He has never shown an interest in doing that — not verbally, and not in his actions.”

The recall also has blamed Boudin for several high-profile crimes, including a 2020 New Year’s Eve hit-and-run that killed two women. The defendant, Troy McAlister, was on parole for robbery and had been arrested several times in the months before the crash.

Boudin has said he did not charge McAlister in the earlier cases, instead referring them to parole officers in a move he believed was more likely to “protect the public and break this cycle of recidivism.”

Boudin’s supporters say he has taken meaningful steps to reduce mass incarceration and hold police accountable. A San Francisco police officer stood trial for excessive force this year for the first time in the city’s history, though the officer, Terrance Stangle, was ultimately acquitted.

Jim Ross, a consultant for Boudin’s anti-recall campaign, said the recall process puts the D.A. at a disadvantage. Unlike the recent attempt to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, those challenging Boudin do not have to run a replacement candidate. Breed will appoint Boudin’s successor if the recall is successful.

“It’s an attempt to redo the 2019 election,” Ross said. “But instead of making Chesa run against another candidate, where people have a contrast and they can see their records, they can see their policies, they’re making him run against himself.”


Reformers at the national level have pushed back on the idea that a Boudin loss would ripple beyond the Bay Area.

Why progressive district attorneys like L.A. D.A. George Gascón get so much heat

June 29, 2021

“It would be a mistake to view this as a stop sign to reform,” said Miriam Krinsky, the executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform.

Compared to other cities, San Francisco is atypical, Krinsky said: Fewer than 6% of city residents are Black, median home sales have topped $1.5 million, and the city has one of the world’s highest number of billionaires per capita.

Krinsky also pointed to the recent reelections of Philadelphia Dist. Atty. Larry Krasner and Cook County State’s Atty. Kim Foxx in Chicago after they faced similar criticisms as Boudin and Gascón.

The recall is one of the most expensive elections in San Francisco history, according to filings with the city’s Ethics Commission. Spending has passed $10 million, with more than two-thirds of that — about $7.3 million — coming from recall backers, including a political action committee partly funded by billionaire hedge-fund manager William Oberndorf. Organizations backing Boudin, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, have spent about $3 million.

Oberndorf has given millions to Republican campaigns — including to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fund for Republican Senate candidates — and to pro-charter school campaigns and candidates of both political parties.


Boudin’s supporters have flooded neighborhoods with mailers that encourage voters to reject the “Republican-funded recall,” telling voters that “conservative billionaires” want to “impose their radical conservative agenda in San Francisco.”

If Boudin is recalled, Jenkins said, “it will be Democrats that vote him out.” Just 6.7% of San Francisco voters are registered Republicans.

San Francisco is viewed nationally as a bastion of liberalism, but the reality is more complicated, said John Hamasaki, a defense attorney and former police commissioner who frequently tangles with recall supporters.

“You could call it the bluest city, but I don’t know that it’s the most progressive city,” Hamasaki said. “It’s a city that has become really inundated with tech wealth, and within tech and Silicon Valley there’s always been a connection to center-right politics,” including billionaires such as Peter Thiel and Elon Musk.

Janice Li, who lives in the city’s Inner Richmond neighborhood and sits on the Bay Area Rapid Transit system board of directors, said housing was the top issue for San Francisco residents for years. But since the pandemic, she said, crime and public safety have jumped to the top of the list.

The flurry of campaign messaging has made it hard for residents to understand whether the city faces an actual crime wave, or a few anecdotes have been weaponized to whip up fear, she said.


“What’s been really hard about this recall is that most people don’t really know what’s happening,” said Li, who is voting against the recall. “You can read articles, you can watch TV news, you can look at data. But it’s really hard to understand who’s at fault.”

That’s in part because both campaigns have been able to slice the crime data to tell the stories they want.

Property and violent crime both dropped by double-digit percentages from 2019 to 2021, city data show. But some types of crime have exploded in the same time frame. Burglaries are up 47%. Motor vehicle theft increased by 36%. Homicides have also increased since 2019 — a national trend — but the city experienced its lowest number of killings in more than a half-century that year.

The rate at which the district attorney’s office files charges has also remained relatively stable under Boudin. In Gascón’s final two years in office, prosecutors filed approximately 56% of felonies presented by police and 36% of misdemeanors. Last year, prosecutors filed 57% of felonies presented and the share of misdemeanor cases prosecuted jumped to 46%.

Randy Shaw, director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, said the long-blighted neighborhood has gotten worse since Boudin took office. If crime is declining, he said, it’s because people have stopped reporting it.

The Tenderloin has become an “open-air drug supermarket,” said Shaw, and the district attorney doesn’t seem to care. He cited an interview Boudin gave to the Washington Post in February, in which he said that Tenderloin residents “aren’t particularly upset that there are drug sales happening.” The quote later appeared on a billboard attacking Boudin.

Questions remain about police effectiveness during Boudin’s tenure. The rate at which San Francisco police solve robberies, thefts and assaults has fallen from 2019 to 2021, though arrest and solve rates did dip for most police agencies during the pandemic.


Andy Solomon, a 43-year-old high school teacher who lives in Haight-Ashbury, said he decided to vote against the recall after listening to a recent Boudin interview. Crime has become a more tangible issue for the average San Franciscan, Solomon said — a gun fight left bullet holes in his car in October — but he questioned why those issues were not being blamed on the police.

Boudin’s “hands are sort of tied on some of that stuff,” Solomon said.

As of Friday, about 17% of voters had returned ballots, a far lower turnout rate than during the school board recall held in February. The participation rate was highest among the city’s small slice of Republican voters, more than 22% of whom have cast ballots already, officials said.

“People are just fatigued,” said Tinisch Hollins, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, a criminal justice reform organization. “If it’s not about a tangible solution, or a tangible resource, it’s not a priority for their attention. That’s why this recall effort is hyperpoliticized. It’s about people who have the money and have the time to make an issue of something that the majority of them are not affected by.”

The city has had three recall elections in the last nine months, including the failed attempt to recall Newsom and the heated February election that unseated three of the seven members of San Francisco’s scandal-plagued school board.

San Francisco’s ranked-choice election system, in which voters rank the candidates in order of preference, may also have left Boudin vulnerable, said Joshua Spivak, a senior research fellow at UC Berkeley Law School’s California Constitution Center.

Boudin was the first choice for 35.6% of voters in 2019. He eventually beat interim Dist. Atty. Suzy Loftus by 2,832 votes, a difference of about 1.66%. That means plenty of people “are opposed to you or not that interested in you and are susceptible to having their mind changed,” Spivak said.


Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s election, Hamasaki said the recall may already have changed how politicians seek to run on criminal justice reform platforms in San Francisco.

“I think the impact locally has already happened,” he said. “Democratic politicians in San Francisco are less vocal or are silent on police reform, police misconduct and criminal justice reform. ... The first school board recall really put progressive politicians on notice that ‘Hey, we’re a target.’”

Wiley reported from San Francisco and Nelson and Queally from Los Angeles.