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The Symbolism of Chesa Boudin: How the National Media is Playing the DA Recall
Friday, May 20, 2022

The Symbolism of Chesa Boudin: How the National Media is Playing the DA Recall

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 

  • New York Magazine: The author, a local SF writer, goes surfing with Boudin. Read this if you want a deep dive on the local politics surrounding crime in San Francisco.
  • New Yorker: A long profile from a year ago is upbeat about his prospects while detailing the city problems that are giving him trouble. 
  • LA Times: This piece is rich in details on Boudin’s unique backstory. Bonus points for cute childhood photos.

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.”

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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.

Anna Tong can be reached at [email protected].
  • One should not discount the impact of property crime on the well being and safety of residents. For example, the closure of Walgreens stores will have an impact on local communities who depend on them. I, for one, just completed my mail-in ballot and voted YES on H. Chesa Boudin seems like a very nice person. Let’s hope he gets recalled and finds a more suitable occupation in social work and advocacy.

  • Recallers,

    Who will replace Boudin and how will that DA decrease crime? The DA has zero authority over the police: how they are deployed, what priorities the have, how well they do their job. Please say what specific crime reducing act the new DA ( Loftus?) will perform to reduce crime from current levels.
    Seems like we should be informed about the policies of the folks likely to be appointed by the mayor before we decide to abandon the winner of an election we all voted in and give our power to the mayor to fill this elective office. Boudin may or may not be a good DA but I resent 1 billionaire republican using their cash to reverse the will of the other 799,999 of us.

  • The Republican billionaire myth won’t fly. The ordinary SF that was robbed, rapped, murdered, run over by career criminals is REAL. We see it EVERYDAY. Crime in SF is out of control and a good Mayor would have called in the national guard and hunt down those animals that are being released by Boudin. The white progressive experiment using the lives of SF residents as Guiana pigs needs to end. We didn’t sign up for this. I submitted my ballot and i am going to recall the son of a cop murderer and career criminal enterprise. Say their names Hanako Abe! Elizabeth Platt! Stop killing unarmed women of SF.

  • Dear Recall Progressive Crazies,

    The mayor, who you would entrust to appoint the DA, also has convicted criminals in her family. I dont think that’s the right standard for public officials , especially since, in both cases, the public knew about it when they elected them. Please cite all of those rape and murder cases SFPD has presented to the DA that he has declined to prosecute. Again, who do you imagine will replace the current DA and what specifically do you expect them to do? Shouldn’t the voters know who the replacement is for this popularly elected office before getting rid of the person who actually won the election? Not sure why “it doesn’t fly” when the facts are clear as to who is funding the recall. Are you saying William Oberndorf did not spend $600,000, the lion’s share of the total, on the recall, with a few other wealthy donors contributing large amounts as well ?https://missionlocal.org/2021/12/explore-see-just-who-is-funding-the-boudin-recall

  • Dear The Kid,

    Boudin is so bad that he needs to go now. We’ll worry about his replacement later. Whoever Breed appoints isn’t likely to be worse.

    I signed the recall petition and am certainly not a wealthy donor. Boudin and his supporters are anarchists and we don’t need that.

  • Mimi,

    I hear you and, as a fellow voter, respect your views/ decisions.

    What would be your minimum expectation (a specific step they would take) for what the new DA would do if CB is recalled?

    Not trying to convince you to vote no; just curious and it would be interesting to see what actually happens if the vote goes your way.

    I certainly want at least one of us to be happy about the outcome, whatever it is!

    Good luck and take care.

  • 94% of the supporters of the Boudin recall are liberal Democrats. Boudin’s incompetence, cruelty, and corruption are unmatched. All votes, be sure to vote YES on Prop H.

  • San Francisco has the WORST property crime rate in the nation. That is unacceptable. How many people have to die and have their lives ruined till we stand up and say Chesa Boudin must go. E.g.,
    Superior Court Judge Bruce Chan questioned the stability of Boudin’s office, criticizing high turnover, disorganization, and mismanagement.

    Boudin fired experienced prosecutors who questioned him and he is quick to blame others for missteps by his office.

    Boudin fired the victim’s advocate in his office who spoke out against Boudin giving a man who killed a woman three months probation instead of prison time.

    One of Boudin’s criminal investigators testified she was told to withhold evidence in a case and believed she would be fired if she refused.

    More than 50 attorneys have quit — a third of Boudin’s office — leaving behind a demoralized and inexperienced staff. Former prosecutor Shirin Oloumi told the San Francisco Chronicle: “The victims of crime did not count among [Boudin’s] priorities unless it helped public perception.”

    Boudin resisted sharing data about case outcomes. It took media outlets invoking the public records request law to reveal data showing a decline in convictions.

    More than 85 percent of felony domestic violence cases at the end of 2020 were dismissed by Boudin.

    Boudin refuses to prosecute drug dealers responsible for 1,500 overdose deaths in two years.

    Boudin claimed the killing of an elderly Asian grandfather wasn’t racially motivated because the suspect was having a “temper tantrum” before the attack.

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