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Brooke Jenkins has huge lead in district attorney race as tough talk on crime wins over voters

District Attorney Brooke Jenkins interacts with the crowd in a celebratory mood after seeing first results at her election night party at Harborview Restaurant & Bar on Nov. 8, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

District Attorney Brooke Jenkins has a very substantial lead in the DA race on election night with results revealing that her tough talk on crime and public safety is resonating with San Francisco voters.

Results show Jenkins far ahead in the contest to keep her job over opponents John Hamasaki and Joe Alioto Veronese, both attorneys and former members of San Francisco’s Police Commission, and Maurice Chenier, a lawyer who bills himself as a “pro-police” candidate.

Jenkins has 48% of first-choice votes as of midnight, compared with Hamasaki at 34% and Alioto Veronese at 13%. Chenier is trailing far behind at 5%.

Because no candidate has received over 50% of the vote, it looks like ranked choice voting (RCV) will kick in. This is a system where the candidates with the fewest votes are eliminated and their votes go to the next highest-ranked candidate of their choice.

After the ranked-choice votes were tallied, Jenkins is still in the lead with 56% of the vote and Hamasaki at 44%.

Jenkins stopped short of declaring victory but was clearly celebrating. “I feel very thrilled about where these results are at at this point,” Jenkins told the crowd at Harborview Restaurant & Bar on the Embarcadero.

District Attorney Brooke Jenkins interacts with the crowd in a celebratory mood after seeing first results at her election night party at Harborview Restaurant & Bar on Nov. 8, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

A victory would cap off a swift rise to power for Jenkins, 41, a political newcomer who quit her job as a rank-and-file prosecutor under progressive firebrand Chesa Boudin last October to help lead the successful recall against him. By July, Mayor London Breed had appointed Jenkins as his replacement.

Stopping by her election party after results showed Jenkins with a huge lead, the mayor told reporters that San Francisco felt safer “the day I swore in Brooke Jenkins.”

“I want this city to be safe,” Breed said. “I want seniors to walk down the street and not be afraid. I want families to feel comfortable walking their children to the park. I want San Francisco to be a better safer place for all of us, and she is an important part of that.”

Mayor Breed speaks to reporters about the role Brooke Jenkins plays in San Francisco feeling safer. | Video by Michael Barba

Early in the night, Mary Jung, a Jenkins ally who chaired the recall campaign against Boudin, was cautiously optimistic about a Jenkins’ victory.

Jung said that it would show San Francisco voters are “doubling down” on the need for a district attorney who can balance crime, victim’s rights and “social justice.”

“We believe that Brooke Jenkins delivers it all,” Jung said.

Jenkins’ primary opponent, Hamasaki, gathered with supporters at El Rio, where he said he was heartened by the support the campaign received from progressives in a short amount of time.

“It’s about what we were expecting,” said Hamasaki of the results. “In under three months, we built an amazing campaign.”

The votes counted Tuesday appear to show that voters are responding to the aggressive stance on public safety issues that Jenkins and other allies of the mayor adopted as the pandemic gave way to fears of rising crime.

If Jenkins is ultimately victorious, voters will expect that she lives up to the same high standards she held for Boudin and follow through on aspirational campaign promises that included ending highly visible drug-dealing Downtown and cleaning up the streets so that people can walk without fear.

The results could change as more ballots are counted.

Jenkins worked in the District Attorney’s Office for seven years before quitting her job in protest and moving to San Francisco late last year to volunteer as a spokesperson for the Boudin recall.

District Attorney Brooke Jenkins speaks to a crowd at her election night party at Harborview Restaurant & Bar on Nov. 8, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

She became the public face of a multimillion-dollar campaign that blamed Boudin for failing to curtail crime and for making San Francisco less safe. Jenkins argued that Boudin never took off his hat as a former public defender, and deferred to the rights of criminals over those of crime victims.

Just five months ago, Jenkins dismissed the notion that her work on the recall was motivated by an intention to run for office.

“This has never been about me,” Jenkins said during a debate at the Commonwealth Club. “This is about Chesa’s performance.”

But her widely publicized activism convinced Breed to appoint Jenkins as his replacement this summer, after voters removed Boudin from office.

Jenkins quickly emerged on top in an abbreviated district attorney’s race that pitted her against the progressive-backed candidate, Hamasaki, and Alioto Veronese, who tried to cast as wide a net as possible.

Polls showed Jenkins leading as the clear front-runner despite a series of perceived ethical setbacks that her opponents used to attack her.

A month after her appointment, state law required Jenkins to disclose that she earned more than $170,000 from three nonprofits closely tied to the Boudin recall despite positioning herself as an unpaid volunteer.

The revelation opened Jenkins up to allegations that she misrepresented herself to the public, spurred multiple complaints seeking local and state investigations into whether Jenkins broke local law.

But the controversies did not appear to make Jenkins especially vulnerable. The race saw little of the outside spending wealthy donors usually pour into a competitive, citywide election. The same deep-pocketed supporters who worked with Jenkins on the recall largely stayed out of the race.

Voters will expect Jenkins to follow through on her promise to clean up the streets should she emerge as the winner. As district attorney, she would be up against San Francisco’s many seemingly intractable social problems, from drug abuse to mental health and homelessness—issues that are largely outside her control to solve.

If people still don’t feel safe under her leadership, San Francisco could blame Jenkins for its problems by the same logic she used in the recall.

“She has the reins, and she’s going to be expected to deliver on long-standing problems that largely fall outside of her purview,” said Max Szabo, a political strategist who worked as a spokesperson for George Gascon during his tenure as San Francisco’s district attorney.

Voters often want the criminal justice system to solve problems that the criminal courts cannot resolve, said Randy Knox, a criminal defense attorney who opposed the recall but is now supporting Jenkins.

“If it doesn’t get any better in terms of how people feel with public safety, would Brooke be vulnerable?” Knox said. “Only if somebody comes up with better ideas.”

But Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who campaigned with Jenkins Tuesday afternoon, has confidence that Jenkins will succeed.

District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey and state Sen. Scott Wiener pose for a photo on the corner of Beale and Folsom streets on Election Day on Nov. 8, 2022. | Ben Fanjoy/The Standard | Source: Ben Fanjoy/The Standard

Mandelman said he has already seen a difference both in the tone Jenkins is setting and in how her office is handling repeat offenders in his district.

“I am more comfortable with where Jenkins is and where she is going to take the office than I was with her predecessor,” Mandelman said.

At the same time, he acknowledged the road ahead will be challenging.

“It’s going to be hard,” Mandelman said. “It took us years and maybe decades to get where we are, and it’s going to take time to get us in a better place.”