Column: How a progressive Bay Area prosecutor was reelected while San Francisco tossed its liberal D.A.
There’s not much that disturbs the peace in the comfortable confines of Contra Costa County, so when a thieving flash mob set upon the Nordstrom at an upscale mall, smashing and grabbing, it was big news for days on end.
The attack in November coincided with a series of brazen robberies across the bay at posh retailers in San Francisco’s Union Square, which also drew national headlines.
The rampage contributed to a gnawing sense of lawlessness in the city and helped lead to the June 7 recall of its left-leaning district attorney. Yet on the same day Chesa Boudin was ousted, voters in the more moderate Contra Costa suburbs decisively reelected his progressive peer, Dist. Atty. Diana Becton, despite attempts to wrap the plundered Nordstrom around her neck.
Becton’s victory, along with strong election day showings by liberal-leaning prosecutors such as state Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, belied claims that Boudin’s defeat — in lefty San Francisco, no less — proved the post-George Floyd justice reform movement had run its course.
It also showed that a campaign emphasizing public safety and accountability alongside reform can prevail even in a climate where crime has become one of voters’ topmost concerns.
Like Boudin, Becton faced accusations of coddling criminals and compromising the well-being of residents with her push to rethink how justice is done. Similar sentiments are fueling efforts to recall Los Angeles’ district attorney, George Gascón.
But to hear Becton tell it, her victory shows that protecting the public and addressing racial and social inequities are not mutually exclusive.
Some say Chesa Boudin’s recall spells doom for reformist prosecutors. But would we really return to the days of over-incarceration and bias?
“I think the message is we can have safe communities, but we can also work on reforming our criminal justice system,” Becton said in a recent interview, leveling her hands to resemble the scales of justice. It’s not simple, she said, but it’s doable.
There were important differences between the contests in Contra Costa County and San Francisco.
Boudin lacked a strong base of support among the city’s political establishment and was blitzed with millions of dollars in negative advertising. More significantly, the recall was an up-or-down vote on Boudin’s performance, effectively pitting the besieged D.A. against himself.
Becton’s race offered a choice, and she had the benefit of an opponent, veteran prosecutor Mary Knox, who appeared too resistant to change.
In a case of grave misconduct, former Sheriff’s Deputy Andrew Hall was convicted and sentenced in March to six years in prison for the 2018 shooting of an unarmed motorist in Danville. It was the first time in county history a law enforcement officer faced felony charges for an on-the-job shooting.
Knox said Hall never should have been charged because he was “under no duty” to move away from a car accelerating toward him. Knox admitted, however, she had never watched a video of the shooting, a damning piece of evidence that showed Hall stepping into the path of the slow-moving vehicle before firing.
“The last thing Contra Costa needs is an apologist for bad cops as the top prosecutor,” the East Bay Times wrote in a scathing editorial endorsing Becton’s reelection.
A former judge and the county’s first Black and female district attorney, Becton was appointed by the Board of Supervisors in 2017 after her predecessor was convicted for misusing campaign funds. She ran for election the next year as a reform-minded prosecutor — two years before Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis policeman galvanized the movement — and has followed through in several ways.
Among them, Becton moved away from charging people for low-level, nonviolent offenses; acted to eliminate racial disparities in sentencing; and established “Clean Slate Day” for ex-offenders to clear their criminal records.
At the same time, her campaign emphasized that crime prevention and public safety remained Becton’s top priorities. (Violent and property crime rates were both down in Contra Costa County in 2020, the last year for which state crime statistics are available, compared with the year before Becton became district attorney.)
That two-part message — it’s possible to have safety and reform — is not one proponents can easily reduce to a pithy campaign slogan. But Becton suggested most voters understand that, even if some political analysts and advocates on both sides try to reduce the choice to one or the other.
“I call myself a prosecutor who’s first and foremost about community safety,” Becton said, “but also about changing the criminal justice system so it’s fair and ... works for everyone.”
Energized by the ouster of San Francisco’s D.A.,opponents of George Gascón in Los Angeles County are close to putting his recall on the ballot.
Surrounded in her office by renderings of Lady Justice, Becton wouldn’t touch questions about Boudin’s defeat or the attempt to short-circuit Gascón’s prosecutorial career.
“I think there’s a lot of dynamics that could have happened in San Francisco,” Becton said vaguely. She smiled, politely, when asked about Gascón, and waited for another question.
But even though she declined to speak up, Becton’s experience offers a lesson Gascón and others seeking to remediate the justice system might well heed: Support for reform efforts, however necessary or well-intentioned, quickly evaporates when voters feel threatened.
Safety matters. You can’t change hearts and minds when people are worried about being clubbed over the head.
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