Mayor London Breed faced a number of political pitfalls no matter who she appointed to replace Chesa Boudin as San Francisco’s district attorney. But selecting Brooke Jenkins—a former homicide prosecutor in the office—could very well define the mayor’s legacy, for better or worse.
First and foremost, Jenkins will need to win November’s election to retain the job in order for this appointment to be seen as anything other than a strategic blunder. We spoke with City Hall staff, political consultants and an elections expert to better understand what political calculus went into Breed’s decision and whether Thursday’s appointment will impact Boudin’s decision to run again for the seat.
The mayor and new DA are now politically joined at the hip. Breed had three real options: Jenkins, a Black and Latina woman who uniquely understands how the office operated before and after Boudin’s election; Nancy Tung, a prosecutor with experience in San Francisco and Alameda County who had substantial backing from the Asian American community; and Catherine Stefani, a supervisor who made her play known before the recall by endorsing Boudin’s ouster.
Breed’s appointment of Jenkins attempts to make a balanced overture to the city’s dueling criminal justice factions. As a prosecutor who worked in the DA’s office for almost eight years, Jenkins checks the box experience-wise. Her background as a woman of color also uniquely positions her to understand the experiences of people who are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement and incarcerated.
And yet, Jenkins is a bit of a political wildcard.
She’s never held political office and her decision to quit the DA’s office and become the lead spokesperson for the recall campaign was deeply personal—she accused Boudin of improperly intervening in one of her cases and also took issue with his handling of a case involving the killing of her husband’s relative.
As the recall spokesperson, Jenkins repeatedly said the DA’s office needed to take a tougher-on-crime approach. How that will play out when Boudin’s people get new marching orders from an interim boss who slammed their work is anybody’s guess.
In an interview with The Standard in May, Jenkins took digs at Boudin while laying out her vision of what the city should expect from its next district attorney.
“I think San Francisco has embraced this progressive mindset, embraced doing things differently and being on the cutting edge and wanting to change how we treat the underdogs in society. And I don’t see that ever changing,” she said. “But we have seen things go too far in a way that is leaving people vulnerable in ways they don’t want to feel vulnerable.”
Boudin’s supporters often argued—many times with merit—that he was unfairly blamed for the city’s many crises, including homelessness and people shooting up and smoking drugs on the street. The city’s police department doesn’t really arrest drug users and drug dealing arrests have also plummeted. The department is understaffed but also closes cases at an abysmal rate. Over the course of the recall campaign, Boudin basically became a parrot in saying he could only try the cases police brought to his office.
And it’s true. A district attorney can’t fix the housing crisis, end the nation’s opioid addiction, and initiate large-scale investigations and make arrests. On the other hand, police said they lost faith that Boudin would charge cases the department sent his way, creating an untenable situation.
While Jenkins will have a grace period to try and restore the office’s relationship with police, the ongoing overdose deaths and a sense that the rule of law is being disregarded on city streets is unlikely to end. If Jenkins can’t retain the district attorney job in November’s election, it won’t matter much what she says or does in the next four months.
But this is a pivotal appointment for Breed.
The mayor—and by extension SFPD Chief Bill Scott, who joined Breed in press conferences starting last year to apply public pressure on Boudin—no longer has the progressive prosecutor as a political punching bag. If San Franciscans don’t see the situation on the ground improve over the next year, Breed could be as vulnerable as any official on the ballot in 2023.
Boudin was blamed for signaling to criminals that they had free rein in San Francisco. By next summer we’ll see just how much thieves, drug dealers and violent offenders are listening to tough talk from a new prosecutor.
The mayor’s appointment of Jenkins wasn’t subtle shade—it was an Oscars-worthy smack to Boudin.
The incoming district attorney spent the first half of this year telling anyone and everyone just how atrocious Boudin was at his job. But he still garnered 45% of the vote in the recall and he told the Chronicle last month that his supporters were urging him to run again.
So, would Boudin have a path to victory in November? Maybe.
The city’s ranked-choice voting system installed him into office with just 36% of the vote in 2019. Tung, who ran against Boudin that year and seemed to be the frontrunner as his successor, has said she intends to run in November. The mayor received more than 100 letters in support of Tung, a Chinese American, and the rise in reported hate crimes and discrimination targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders played a major role in the recall.
It’s unclear how Jenkin’s appointment will sit with the local AAPI community, which in many ways has become the most important voting bloc in the city.
Tung could run and possibly win, but she could also run and split the “tough-on-crime” vote with Jenkins. Meanwhile, Boudin’s progressive base would be more or less untouched—and maybe he picks off enough second-place votes to sneak back into office. One other scenario is Jenkins could offer Tung a high-ranking job in the office in lieu of running.
Of course, a victory for Jenkins would not only put her on a new political trajectory but also insulate Breed from criticism in backing a neophyte and reopening the door to Boudin’s return.
And if that seems like trolling, just consider that a Boudin victory could inspire his opponents to déjà vu San Francisco voters next spring by launching another recall in 2023.
Josh Koehn can be reached at email@example.com