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Fear over crime and homelessness in California paid off in some primaries. Will it carry over to November?

A group of men kick around a soccer ball in May at a homeless encampment in Venice.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Less than three years after earning a major win for a national movement seeking to elect progressive prosecutors, San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin was recalled from office Tuesday night.

In Orange County, Republican Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer trounced his progressive challenger by a more than 3-1 margin and will avoid a November runoff despite multiple scandals, including the release of a video in which he used a racial slur.

And in a Los Angeles mayoral contest where U.S. Rep. Karen Bass once seemed dominant, it was billionaire developer Rick Caruso who wound up leading the primary field after a campaign focused heavily on public safety and policing.

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Tuesday’s primary results are by no means a death knell for California politicians focused on criminal justice reform. But outcomes in some of the most-watched races underscored how Democrats — particularly those on the party’s left flank — are scrambling to balance their goals of a reimagined justice system with rising voter anxiety about crime and homelessness.

“What voters are looking for is an acknowledgment of the concerns they face, whether it’s crime, public safety or the cost of living,” said David Binder, a pollster who has worked on Bass’ campaign and with other Democrats nationwide. “We have to acknowledge voters are scared, unhappy, feeling there is chaos in the streets and society that needs to be addressed.”

While there was near unanimity among Democratic strategists that crime has become a major issue, there’s less agreement on how to address it. Some at the party’s center are vowing to step up prosecutions, while those on the left have called for more patience and investment in alternatives to incarceration.

San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin addresses supporters at night.
San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin addresses supporters Tuesday night in San Francisco.
(Noah Berger / Associated Press)

Strong showings by progressive district attorney candidates in Alameda and Contra Costa counties on Tuesday night further muddled the post-primary diagnoses.

“The voters sent a clear message last night: Both parties have to step up and do something about crime, as well as gun violence,” President Biden said Wednesday. It’s time, he added, that states and cities “spend the money they have to deal with crime.”

A May poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and co-sponsored by The Times found that 75% of voters believe crime had increased statewide in the last two years and that 83% believed homelessness had worsened. Tuesday’s results showed that even in cities where crime had actually declined, voters cast their ballots with safety concerns in mind.

Boudin was painted as soft on crime by both local critics and national media despite the fact that overall property and violent crime decreased in San Francisco from 2019 to 2021. Some individual crimes such as burglary and motor vehicle theft increased dramatically under his term, and recall supporters told voters Boudin’s policies were to blame for a number of high-profile crimes.

Brian Van Riper, a Los Angeles political consultant who was not involved in any of the primary races, said crime statistics are less and less likely to gain traction with an electorate frustrated by homeless encampments or unrest they can see, feel and touch.

“The streets don’t look as well kept as they used to.… It just doesn’t feel safe in many ways, and we then see these outrageous crimes, the follow-home burglaries, and people fundamentally don’t feel safe,” he said.

Boudin’s defeat, and its potential to energize efforts to recall Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, might be setting off alarm bells for some Democrats, but Tuesday’s results were not universally strong for those running on traditional law-and-order campaigns.

Volunteers at a field office for the "Recall D.A. George Gascón" campaign in Los Angeles.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who pivoted to the right during his tenure and his reelection campaign and repeatedly attacked Gascón on the trail, appears to have fallen short of the 50%-plus-one vote tally he needed to avoid a November runoff. A head-to-head contest, probably with former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, could expose new vulnerabilities.

Sacramento Dist. Atty. Anne Marie Schubert, who spent months attacking Boudin and Gascón, finished last in the state attorney general’s race that was easily won by incumbent Rob Bonta. And in Alameda County, reform candidate Pamela Price garnered more than 40% of the vote and will enter a November runoff as the favorite to become Oakland’s chief prosecutor.

Miriam Krinsky, director of a national organization that supports progressive prosecutors, warned late Tuesday night against reading too much into Boudin’s defeat, which she argued was driven by heavy Republican spending in a low-turnout election.

Spending in the recall topped $10 million. More than two-thirds of that — about $7.3 million — came from recall backers, including billionaire hedge-fund manager William Oberndorf, who has given millions to Republican campaigns, including to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fund for Republican Senate candidates.

“Even in the face of this isolated result, the reform-minded prosecutor movement continues to grow stronger because communities recognize that criminal justice reform makes us safer,” Krinsky said.

Sean Clegg, an advisor to Caruso’s campaign, said Californians are recalibrating what they want in a criminal justice system, not rejecting reform wholesale.

“Most voters want racial justice. They want fair prosecutions. They want police accountability,” he said. “And they want the tents to come down. They want misdemeanors prosecuted.”

That view was echoed Wednesday by San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who will name Boudin’s replacement. She told reporters that although voters have been frustrated by a “lack of accountability” when crimes are committed, it is a “false choice to think that we have to give up on criminal justice reform or give up on police reform.”

 Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón speaks.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón addresses police accountability and the actions taken by his office in May.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

“It is not just about law and order and tough on crime and locking people up and throwing away the key,” Breed said. “That’s not what this is about. It’s about accountability ... and coming to a reasonable conclusion around justice and what that really means.”

The idiosyncrasies of the Boudin recall — including that the election was a referendum on Boudin instead of a choice between two candidates — should give pause to those who are trying to predict November outcomes, including in the Los Angeles mayoral race, Binder said.

Opponents, however, see blood in the water. Tim Lineberger, a spokesman for Spitzer’s reelection campaign and the Gascón recall effort, said Tuesday was a resounding defeat for politicians who he said are ignoring constituents’ cries for help with crime and homelessness. “None of it was a referendum on any particular candidate or race. I think it was all a referendum on soft-on-crime, pro-criminal policies that are devastating the communities where they’re being implemented,” he said. “People are reacting, and they’re pushing back.”

To force Gascón into a recall election, the campaign to oust him needs to collect roughly 567,000 signatures by July 6. As of May 31, it had 500,000. Experts, however, have warned the group will probably need to collect closer to 700,000 petitions to succeed, as some signatures will be dismissed during a verification process.

Boudin’s loss is an urgent reminder to advocates and donors backing progressive criminal justice reform that they can’t walk away from candidates once they take office, said DeAnna Hoskins, president of JustLeadershipUSA, a nonprofit working to halve the U.S. prison population by 2030.

She said progressive prosecutors grappling to undo “years of destruction, years of underinvestment, years of mass incarceration” face an uphill battle.

“We have to build an infrastructure to win, but we’ve got to have the infrastructure to defend reform,” Hoskins said. “We cannot walk away once a win is accomplished. We have to keep our collective foot on the gas pedal. That’s what we traditionally don’t do. The night of the election, we say, ‘Check, that’s done,’ and we move on to the next one.”


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