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Bay Area district attorney recall campaigns have been led by Asian Americans. Why?

This triptych photo shows Carl Chan, left, Mary Jung, middle, and Leanna Louie, right. | Source: SF Standard and Getty

When she was asked to chair one of the most controversial political campaigns in recent San Francisco history, Mary Jung immediately said yes.

“People would say to me, ‘Chinese people are so meek and mild’ and ‘I’m surprised that you’re doing this,’” Jung, a longtime Democratic Party leader and political activist, told The Standard. “But how could I not? There wasn’t a minute of hesitation.”

That campaign was the June 2022 recall of then-District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a pitched political battle that made national headlines. Voters removed Boudin from office by a 10-point margin, while the Asian American community showed the strongest support for the recall, blaming Boudin for being “soft on crime.”

More than a year later, across the bay, another recall attempt is afoot, seeking to unseat Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price. Price’s critics have cited surging crime rates as well as high-profile cases like the death of Jasper Wu, a 2-year-old killed in a freeway shooting. And the face of that movement is also an Asian American activist: Carl Chan.

Chan, a longtime Oakland Chinatown leader and public safety advocate, started the recall process and is now organizing the media event for the official paperwork filing to the county election office. Many people support recalling Price, he said, but he’s one of few willing to stand up.

“We have to take some positive action,” Chan told The Standard in Cantonese. “I don’t want to just complain. We need to take action.”

District Attorney Pamela Price speaks at a rally supporting her in Oakland on April 23, 2023. | Samantha Laurey/The Standard

Since the pandemic, widespread attacks against Asian Americans—especially elders—have spurred members of that community to voice concerns about public safety. Growing out of the Stop Asian Hate movement, waves of anger have often been directed at progressive district attorneys, whose policies focus on alternatives to incarceration. 

Both Jung and Chan stated that the approach can result in more crime—and Asian Americans are often vulnerable targets.

“If there’s no consequence, these young offenders will commit crimes again,” Chan said. “It’s actually not good for them in the long term.”

Jung also agreed that, as the face of the recall campaign, she could help get out the vote in the community. Since many Asian elders have been attacked, she’s determined to seek justice because of her own identity.

“As an Asian older woman leading the recall, I think it was very hard for people to criticize me,” Jung said.

Leanna Louie, an outspoken anti-Boudin protester who later tried to run for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, said she’s infuriated by a criminal justice system that often releases suspects right after their arrests.

As an organizer of the Chinatown safety patrol group, she said she wanted to see more accountability both for public officials and people committing crimes, and that’s why she was protesting Boudin.

“We wanted him to know that we’re watching you,” Louie said. “We watched his every move.”

Louie’s bid to represent District 4 on the board was short-lived, as she was disqualified when records revealed she did not live in the district. She’s now working for a major retail store.

‘Election Deniers’

Price became Alameda County’s first Black District Attorney in 2022, winning office 53-47. She has previously stated to multiple media outlets that the recall committee is formed by “election deniers” and run by outside special-interest groups supported by the Republican Party. She also said she’s not afraid of the recall

Price’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Lillian Sing, a retired San Francisco judge and a Boudin supporter, seconded Price’s opinion in a previous interview with The Standard. Sing said that “big corporates” were behind the messaging to fool the Chinese American community and then use the community to scapegoat the progressive district attorneys.

David Ho, a political consultant who ran Boudin’s anti-recall campaign, said that recalling a onetime DA will not solve the anti-Asian hate problem.

“Do Chinese people feel safer now in San Francisco?” Ho said. “I don’t think so.”

Price has been in office for less than a year, and the recall process is still in its early phase. Chan said he would reach out to the San Francisco campaign and learn from them.

“We need to understand why San Francisco had a successful recall campaign and our own situation,” Chan said. “Many people are very upset now.”

Han Li can be reached at