San Francisco voters recall progressive D.A. Boudin. Crime and homelessness at issue
Amid rising fears of crime and homelessness, progressive San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin is recalled after a bitter and pricey campaign.
Progressive Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin, who became a lightning rod for controversies over crime and homelessness in San Francisco, will not finish his first term as the city’s top prosecutor.
Some ballots remained to be counted Wednesday. But among the more than 123,000 votes tallied in the recall election, 60% of voters wanted to oust Boudin from office, an insurmountable margin.
The bitter, expensive recall became a referendum on some of San Francisco’s most painfully visible social problems, including homelessness, property crime and drug addiction.
The recall campaign painted Boudin as a soft-on-crime prosecutor who doesn’t care about public safety. And it tied his criminal reform policies to a wave of high-profile crimes, including a fatal hit-and-run involving a man on parole, a series of smash-and-grab robberies from high-end Union Square stores and a wave of attacks against elderly Asian American residents.
Mary Jung, the chair of the recall campaign, said Tuesday night that voters sent a “clear message” that they want a new district attorney who will hold “serious, violent and repeat offenders accountable while never forgetting the rights of victims and their families.”
“This election does not mean that San Francisco has drifted to the far right on our approach to criminal justice,” Jung said. “In fact, San Francisco has been a national beacon for progressive criminal justice reform for decades and will continue to do so with new leadership.”
At The Ramp restaurant in Mission Bay, Boudin told his supporters that the nationwide push for criminal justice reform was larger than any 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.”
Mayor London Breed will appoint an interim district attorney shortly after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors accepts the recall election results. Another election will be held in November to determine who will serve as district attorney through 2026.
Raj Marwah, 40, who lives in the Marina District and works in finance, said he voted to recall Boudin because “obviously, things have gotten worse in every way,” including homelessness. He said he is embarrassed when his parents from Texas visit the city.
“Safe is not a word I’d use to describe San Francisco,” Marwah said. Removing Boudin from office won’t solve everything, he said, but “when the player’s doing bad, you’ve got to pull ‘em.”
Property and violent crimes fell by double-digit percentages during Boudin’s first two years in office. But some individual categories of crime surged in the same time frame: Burglaries rose 47%; motor vehicle theft, 36%. Homicides also increased, though the city saw its lowest number of killings in more than a half-century in 2019.
Like other prosecutors in the nationwide movement to reimagine the criminal justice system, Boudin ran on a platform to reduce mass incarceration and divert low-level offenders into drug and mental health treatment instead of jail cells.
Fears about crime and homelessness have trumped the progressive ideals of San Francisco D.A. Chesa Boudin, who’s locked in a bruising recall election.
Boudin’s loss may have national implications, including for Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, who is facing his second recall attempt in two years.
Supporters of the Gascón recall effort were elated by Tuesday’s result. The campaign needs to collect at least 67,000 more signatures over the next month to qualify the recall effort for the ballot in Southern California.
Recall campaign spokesperson Tim Lineberger said the news out of the Bay Area would embolden volunteers.
“Voters from every community and every walk of life, regardless of political ideology, are rejecting pro-criminal policies that are masked as criminal justice reform,” Lineberger said. “George Gascón and Chesa Boudin’s failed social experiments have destroyed communities while doing nothing to meaningfully reform the system. If L.A. County voters sign and return their recall petitions, Gascón will be walking the same plank in the near future.”
During Boudin’s 2½-year tenure as San Francisco’s top prosecutor, he has refused to seek the death penalty or try juveniles as adults. He has significantly reduced the use of sentencing enhancements. A San Francisco police officer stood trial for excessive force this year for the first time, though the officer, Terrance Stangel, was acquitted.
“It’s tough to see this,” said Kaylah Williams-May, 29, who was Boudin’s campaign manager when he ran for district attorney in 2019, and now works with labor unions. “It’s really hard to see the recall being fueled around fear and funded by outside conservative money coming into our progressive city.”
Spending in the recall surpassed $10 million, according to city ethics filings. More than two-thirds of that — about $7.3 million — came from recall backers, including a political action committee partly funded by billionaire hedge-fund manager William Oberndorf. Oberndorf has given millions to Republican campaigns — including to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fund for Republican Senate candidates.
Boudin repeatedly tried to brand the recall as a Republican-led effort in dark blue San Francisco, a point he reiterated in defeat Tuesday night.
“I want to be very clear about what happened tonight. The right-wing billionaires outspent us 3 to 1. They exploited an environment in which people are appropriately upset. And they created an electoral dynamic where we were literally shadowboxing,” Boudin said. “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.”
Debra Walker, who was recently nominated to the San Francisco Police Commission and did not support the recall, said she saw the campaign as a visceral reaction from voters frustrated by the situation on the city’s streets, rather than a rebuke of criminal justice reform. The situation, she said, is more nuanced that “policing vs. reform.”
“People have really had it with things not changing around safety in the streets,” Walker said. “I don’t know that it’s anti-progressive, per se. I think it’s anti-extremist on the left. Just as there are extremes on the right, there are extremes on the left, and in general, they aren’t working very well.”
John Burris, a famed Bay Area civil rights attorney who supported Boudin, said he believed the district attorney delivered on his promise to hold police accountable, but struggled with “messaging” during the recall campaign.
While critics were able to seize on a number of high-profile crimes, including a series of alarming smash-and-grab robberies at high-end retailers during the Christmas season, Boudin was unable to counter the perception that crime was out of control despite police statistics that said otherwise.
“It’s a product of bad timing and political machinations. We’re in an era now where if you tell a lie often enough, it becomes the truth,” Burris said, adding that he also believed Boudin was blamed for citywide issues, including homelessness, that were beyond his control.
Michael Wald, 81, a retired Stanford law professor, voted to keep Boudin in office. Recalls “are a very bad way of addressing public policy,” and should be reserved for candidates who have done something unethical or illegal, he said.
“Crime is a part of life,” said Wald, whose home was burglarized last year. “What I want is the city to adopt policies that make it less likely to get into crime in the first place.”
Sosa reported from San Francisco, and Nelson and Queally from Los Angeles.
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