Column: San Francisco voters had heard and seen enough of Chesa Boudin

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin
Then-San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin poses outside his office in San Francisco in January 2020. Boudin was recalled from office on Tuesday.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

The San Francisco earthquake Tuesday should have rattled liberal Democratic politicians all over America, especially in California’s state capital and Los Angeles.

That’s because Democratic voters — not Republican Trumpsters — yanked from office a liberal district attorney in arguably the nation’s most liberal city.

Or, if you’d like, substitute the liberals’ current preferred tag “progressive.” It makes no difference to voters. The labels are synonyms.


San Francisco voters had heard and seen enough: a prosecutor seemingly more focused on criminal justice reform than in prosecuting criminals.

This wasn’t Frisco, Texas, after all, where most voters are Republicans. In San Francisco, Republicans make up only 7% of registered voters. Democrats are 63% of the electorate.

And as happens periodically in America — including in California — a liberal politician got too far ahead of the citizenry, and the voters rebelled. Yes, it happens even in San Francisco.

In a landslide, voters recalled Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin, a former public defender who ran for office promising to reduce mass incarcerations and divert low-level offenders into drug and mental health treatment rather than lock them in jail cells.

But homicides, car thefts and burglaries increased. So did smash-and-grab thefts at high-end stores. Homeless encampments grew, becoming staging grounds for crime. Boudin was increasingly attacked for being a soft-on-crime prosecutor. And voters dumped him.

“It’s a warning light” to the Democratic Party, says veteran L.A.-based Democratic strategist Garry South.


“All this crime taking place — smash-and-grab robberies, people breaking into cars, stealing catalytic converters under cars — it conveys the message that crime is out of control.”

Progressive San Francisco Dist. Atty. Chesa Boudin is recalled after a bitter and pricey campaign amid rising fears over crime and homelessness.

June 8, 2022

South adds: “The reason we call district attorneys ‘prosecutors’ is because that’s their job. They are not elected to be criminal justice reformers. Or public defenders. We already have them. They’re not elected to make excuses for some murderer because potty training was hard, or he was bullied in school. People are fed up with those excuses.

“A D.A. can carry out the job with some compassion. But they’re elected to put bad guys behind bars. And if they don’t see that, and are perceived as making excuses for bad guys, they’re going to pay a price.”

Former Democratic strategist Darry Sragow says that the combination of Boudin’s recall and real estate developer Rick Caruso’s strong showing in the L.A. mayoral race should remind the party that “its fortunes fade when officeholders ignore the concerns and needs of the vast majority of working Americans who wake up in the morning wanting to pay their bills, send their kids to good schools and live and work in a safe place.

“For most voters, those needs and priorities never change.”

Sragow, who publishes the California Target Book, which monitors congressional and legislative races, says he conducted a series of focus groups around L.A. in winter and found that “most voters are fearful, petrified, for their own safety. So many recidivists and dangerous people have been let out on the street. Repeat offenders killing people.”

“People are just fed up and beyond anger,” Sragow says. “They feel hopelessness.”

Hopelessness was a major reason for the low voter turnout Tuesday, Sragow believes — not merely because the primary was terribly boring, except perhaps for the L.A. mayoral and San Francisco recall elections.

“Voters have given up hope,” he says. “There’s no confidence in elected officials. For them it doesn’t make any sense to vote. It’s not going to change anything.”

What the San Francisco recall means for L.A. politics is hot fodder for speculation among political junkies.

It seems certain to provide momentum for a second effort to recall L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, a liberal reformer who once was San Francisco D.A.

Caruso has built his mayoral campaign — the billionaire’s first bid for elected office — on a promise to control crime and clean the streets of homeless people. He finished slightly ahead of U.S. Rep. Karen Bass in the race for the two November runoff spots.

Billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso holds a narrow lead over U.S. Rep. Karen Bass in the race to replace Mayor Eric Garcetti.

June 8, 2022

Tuesday’s voting “means that Bass has to have a strong platform about addressing crime,” says San Francisco-based Democratic pollster David Binder.

“Voters will support rehabilitation more than punishment for low-level, nonviolent crime. But they want to see criminals prosecuted.”

Binder thinks too much can be made of the San Francisco results.

“It doesn’t mean that Democrats around the state are ready to throw out liberals,” he says. “This was one case specific to one individual. He was a weak incumbent. San Franciscans are not about to start electing Republicans. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that Karen Bass is going to lose in November.”

There’ll be a significantly different L.A. electorate in the general election — larger, younger, more diverse. More apt to vote Democratic.

“Midterm elections have become nationalized. There’ll be a lot more interest,” says veteran L.A.-based Democratic strategist Bill Carrick.

Caruso is a former Republican who changed his voter registration from “no party reference” to Democrat only when he started running for mayor in a highly Democratic city.

“Democrats are not sure Rick is a real Democrat,” Carrick says.

Caruso will greatly outspend Bass again.

But Los Angeles doesn’t have many more Republicans than San Francisco does.

Bass should have the advantage among Democrats — if they can be convinced she’s capable of combating crime and homelessness. No cinch.