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Politics & Policy

The symbolism of Chesa Boudin: How the national media is playing the DA recall

Chesa Boudin attends a press conference in Potrero Hill on November 23, 2021. | Camille Cohen

From almost the moment he was born, elite media outlets have been unable to resist the siren song of Chesa Boudin: when he won the Rhodes scholarship, it was on the front page of the New York Times. Now, with ballots for the June 7 district attorney recall reaching mailboxes imminently, the scrutiny is more intense than ever. 

We read all the stories so you don’t have to.

Up close and personal 

    Chesa in his own words

      What’s he like?

      He’s a workaholic: he took a media interview while his wife was in labor. He said recently he works 7 days a week. As a child, he was apparently “difficult and prone to tantrums” but also “unusually determined.”

      Give me the TL;DR…

      In November 2019, he won the District Attorney’s seat by a hair, and in January 2020, he was sworn in. Media coverage in 2019 and 2020 was optimistic about the new progressive prosecutor and the changes he would make; as Boudin wrote in a 2019 LA Times op-ed, “the system I know from the inside out… can be changed.”

      Most of the news about Boudin in 2020 was local news about the policy changes he enacted at a fast clip. He eliminated cash bail, which makes it less likely a person accused of a crime will be held in jail prior to trial, using the reasoning that pretrial detention is a violation of the presumption of innocence. He filed a lawsuit against DoorDash to stop them from classifying their workers as independent contractors. 

      He helped decarcerate San Francisco during the pandemic, writing an op-ed in the LA Times titled: “I’m keeping San Francisco safer by emptying the jail. My father should be freed too .” He decided not to charge cases where police, under the guise of a minor infraction, search a car for contraband, which was aimed at reducing racial disparities in criminal justice. And he ended his first year with a series of charges against police officers

      National media was mostly silent.

      Everything changed on New Year’s Eve, 2020. That evening Troy McAlister, an intoxicated man with a stolen car who had been in and out of prison, killed two pedestrians in the SoMa district. Over the course of a few months, several more incidents rocked San Francisco, including a Thai-American grandfather violently shoved to death on the street, viral shoplifting videos and property destruction during Black Lives Matters protests. Two recall efforts gained steam,  one from Republican Richie Greenberg, and another from longtime political fixture and one-time SF Democratic Party chain Mary Jung.

      That’s when the national press started paying attention to Boudin again. 

      An Economist article about crime in the U.S. pointed to the recall, saying that “crime now has a political salience that it has not had in years” and “convincing people to back lighter sentences and decrease their reliance on police when murders are rising may prove more difficult.”

      A number of stories from elite national outlets were soon rehashing Boudin’s backstory and wondering why San Franciscans thought crime was bad, when statistics showed it was down. A Washington Post columnist wrote: “It’s true, for example, that San Francisco saw a considerable increase in car thefts and home burglaries last year. But violent crime in the city was down in 2020. Overall crime was down 25 percent from 2019. And all major categories of crime remained well below their five-year average.” 

      The New Yorker “couldn’t find any San Francisco political observer who thought that Boudin was likely to lose a recall election.”

      At the same time a right-wing media backlash, fueled by viral social media posts, strongly rejected the crime-is-down narrative.

      San Fran more dangerous than 98% of U.S. cities,” insisted Fox News, whose biggest star, Tucker Carlson, regularly makes San Francisco part of his narrative about the depredations of liberal America.

      Michael Shellenberger, author of a book called San Fransicko and now a candidate for governor, wrote in Wall Street Journal: “[Boudin] called prostitution, open drug use and drug dealing “victimless crimes” and promised not to prosecute them. The result has been an increase in crime so sharp that San Francisco’s liberal residents are now paying for private security guards, taking self-defense classes, and supporting a recall of Mr. Boudin….” 

      After the recall became official in November 2021, Boudin quickly flipped to being the underdog, and local politicos backtracked: an Atlantic article from last month found that “most local political professionals doubt he can survive.” 

      These days, national outlets have acquiesced to the fact that, even if the statistics don’t show a crime wave,  “anxiety” over crime is a real thing. And they’re wondering whether Californians are progressive in name only.  

      As San Francisco heads into the last month before the recall, the national media apparatus is surely watching Boudin’s every move, eager to add another Boudin story to the already-large collection.