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The Rise and Fall of Chesa Boudin: Why a Progressive DA Lost in Deep-Blue San Francisco
Monday, July 04, 2022

The Rise and Fall of Chesa Boudin: Why a Progressive DA Lost in Deep-Blue San Francisco

After ascending to power on a promise to transform the justice system, District Attorney Chesa Boudin saw his first term cut short Tuesday by a deep-pocketed recall campaign that capitalized on fears of rising crime.

Early returns in the June 7 election showed Boudin losing by a 60-40 split, with almost 71,000 voters supporting Proposition H, the measure to recall him. While ballots are still being counted, the result is not in doubt—and the substantial margin in a race that had become a national bellwether for attitudes about progressive policies will likely reverberate widely.

Boudin, a former public defender and the son of imprisoned radical leftists, faced an unforgiving, all-out assault from the time he took office. An initial recall effort failed in 2021 but gave way to a more-coordinated campaign as former prosecutors, Bay Area tech and real estate interests and moderate Democrats joined forces and assailed Boudin for being soft on crime. 

Retail thefts and attacks against Asian Americans went viral on social media and were weaponized against him, and a general state of anxiety grew in the city as the pandemic persisted. Boudin’s defeat came just four months after San Francisco voters ousted three school board members, who were widely viewed as putting social justice politics ahead of students.

From left: Robert Lowe, Michelle Wong, Forrest Chang and Allene Jue hold signs at a rally to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin at Portsmouth Square on Friday, May 28, 2021. | Paul Kuroda for The Standard.

The progressive prosecutor’s supporters argued that he was creating a fairer, more humane criminal justice system while holding the most violent offenders accountable. He didn’t have the time to prove his policies were effective against problems that have existed for years, they argued.

“Voters weren’t asked to choose between criminal justice reform and something else,” Boudin told his supporters Tuesday night. “They were given an opportunity to voice their outrage and their frustration and they took that opportunity.”

Jason McDaniel, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, said the results of Tuesday’s recall should send a clear signal that progressives’ message, at least, may need to be tweaked.

“(Boudin) is an activist of that movement and that’s who he is, and that’s the kind of campaign he ran, but perhaps that’s not the best messaging for the progressive movement that wants to make real policy gains,” McDaniel said.

Boudin came out on top in a close race to succeed the outgoing district attorney, George Gascón, in 2019. He was the most progressive candidate in the contest, pledging to hold police accountable for misconduct and reduce mass incarceration.

The pandemic changed the math on what anxious residents prioritized, but Boudin continued to focus on his campaign promises. Under Boudin’s watch, the DA’s office expanded so-called diversion programs as alternatives to jail time—feeding the recall’s narrative that Boudin was more concerned with the well-being of offenders than with victims. 

His insistence on citing data showing that crime was down often appeared condescending to those who felt that lawlessness was going unchecked. His reluctance to convict drug-dealers for their actual crimes seemed out of step as overdose deaths soared over the past two years. 

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin at a press conference on November 23, 2021. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Boudin and his supporters spent more than $3 million to defeat the recall, but his opponents dropped more than $7 million to oust him across various committees, according to campaign finance records. Huge chunks of the pro-recall funding came from the Bay Area’s investor class, with hedge fund managers like William Oberndorf and venture capitalists giving six-figure sums. More than a fifth of the funds came directly from stock transfers.

National media outlets—always drawn to the politics and personalities of San Francisco—framed the recall as a referendum not just on progressive prosecutors but on the political program of the left more broadly. Stories focusing on Boudin seized on the horrific state of homelessness and drug addiction in San Francisco’s downtown core, and often drew a direct line from the crises to the DA’s progressive policies.

And Boudin, a Yale graduate and a Rhodes Scholar who grew up in the public spotlight, was nonetheless a political novice whose people skills were wanting at times.  

“It was a bad idea for him to be a politician in the beginning,” former Mayor Willie Brown told The Standard on Tuesday. “The personality isn’t there.”

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Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney for the Public Defender’s office and a prominent local progressive, said recall proponents unfairly blamed Boudin for longstanding problems in the criminal justice system.

Boudin was held responsible for conditions on the street and “all the effects of capitalism in our society” that would otherwise be directed toward City Hall, Gonzalez said. With Boudin gone, he added, the Board of Supervisors and Mayor London Breed could see greater scrutiny.

Prior to becoming DA, then Deputy public defender Chesa Boudin, left, interviewed inmate D.J., right, as part of the public defender pretrial release unit on Monday, May 14, 2018. Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

“Mayor Breed benefited greatly by having Boudin be the focus on these attacks,” Gonzalez said. “The focus is going to come back on her.”

McDaniel said the city’s ranked-choice voting system, sometimes called “instant runoff” voting, might ultimately be the biggest factor in creating the conditions for the recall. Rather than having the support of more than half of voters in 2019, Boudin secured just 36% of first-choice votes to win with a plurality.

“A runoff election between two candidates focuses voters’ attention much more so, and that can be a good thing,” McDaniel said. “We need to grapple with how ranked-choice voting impacts that sense of legitimacy.”

Boudin will not be ousted from office immediately as the Department of Elections has to certify the results and a window of time must then pass before Breed can appoint a replacement. 

Voters will have the opportunity to elect a new district attorney in November. The election later this year will once again be decided by a ranked-choice vote. Boudin has not indicated whether he plans to run again.

Michael Barba can be reached at [email protected].
Josh Koehn can be reached at [email protected].
Contributors: Jonah Owen Lamb, Meaghan Mitchell.
  • Boudin was recalled — overwhelmingly — because the voters require competence and results, in lieu of hubris and presumptuousness.

    Straight out of the blocks, Boudin — who won his initial election by a razor thin margin — acted as though he had a mandate.

    When one of his first acts in office was to hire (perennial failed candidate and rabid ideologue) David Campos as his Chief of Staff, I knew it was over for him.

  • District attorney’s office abused victims of violent crimes and ignored indicators that violent people would repeat violent crimes many people have died because Chelsea’s actions and he does not care.

  • In a word, hubris. A failure to acknowledge or engage with his critics, a failure to take responsibility for or own up to specific missteps he and his office took, and a generally racist attitude toward Asian Americans.

    But what can you expect from the son of people who abetted murderers and have spent a lifetime dodging responsibility for it and feeling no remorse? Narcissism begets itself.

    Same for his supporters, who have become the Democratic Party’s very own Trump loyalist equivalent. Individuals like that have no place holding elected office, any more than Trump did.

  • You can tell this article was written by 2 white guys cause it completely fails to mention the very real public safety fears people in the Asian American community had due to violent crime. When will white progressives learn to stop talking down to Asian Americans and actually listen to them?

  • Chess put lives at risk and played games with our safety. He downplayed the attacks in Asians, Jews and ignored and chastised victims of crime. Its like he has no compassion for regular people and identified with the elite and criminals. I hope he never runs again. He is responsible for many deaths.

  • They will not call out who the majority of people are that are attacking Asians. They like to blame whites because they are a soft target and they like the votes it gets them.

  • their campaign slogan was dont be conned by republicans. The recall gathered 83k signatures. And since there are only 34k republicans in the city, who’s conning who? I hope they are ashamed of the lie they printed as their slogan. They owe the us a sincere apology and should ask forgiveness.

  • @ TJ,
    It appears from your post that you don’t understand that your side won the election. Just so you know, Chesa has been recalled. Speaking of gaslighting, could you clarify two points:
    1. Grayson filmed the assault, was arrested and charged. Charges were dropped with the victim’s consent and the actual assailant was arrested and charged.
    2. The suspect in Vicha’s case is in custody right now, charged with murder. Boudin gaffed when explaining the crime but it’s a huge stretch to imply that he “excused” or “justified” the crime when he spoke. His actions of charging the suspect with murder should be taken as the definitive fact.
    I hope the DA appointed by the Mayor does what you want starting in July and then the one who wins the election in November continues to fight Asian hate crimes and that the one who wins the election next year also reduces these crimes. I know you will be watching and keeping us all informed of their performance. Maybe, to avoid gaslighting, you or others who follow this so closely can let us know the figures on Asian hate crime right now and then compare them to whatever happens under the next 1 or 3 DAs over the next 18 months?

  • Ding dong the witch is dead! Time to celebrate a return to sanity in the DA’s office.

    It will be interesting to see local media come to grips with the fact that nearly all of them are out of touch with San Francisco residents. Every media organization except for the Marina Times endorsed Boudin. We don’t want what they wanted.

  • This article seems to suggest that spending and not REAL issues were the reason for the recall succeeding.
    Tired of spin… all in one direction.
    Michael/Josh, grow up

  • May I suggest that the recallers take their victory and direct their considerable energy toward proposing real solutions and towards electing people to implement those solutions? Of course, the next DA will be appointed by the mayor; I assume the recallers will hold that person accountable for reducing crime and getting the police to arrest more folks (and arresting the “right” folks), and making overdose deaths decline and reducing homelessness. I agree that the “republicans want the recall” is not a good argument and never was. And, Chesa is gone. Can we move on to what you want to see in the next DA (possibly 3 different ones in the next 18 months)? Or you just have “chesa was a racist, criminal coddling jerk” even after he is gone?

  • @TJ Lim Actually, after reviewing his record and his policies, I voted for Trump in 2020. Under Trump, we had energy independence, a stronger US-Mexican border, and no new wars. He actually got a lot done considering the non-stop hate he received from the media. Professional politicians such as Pelosi, Harris (Kamala) and Biden have been a disaster. So, I don’t mind Trump’s persona or his personality as he gets things done that benefit the whole of the US.

  • @The Kid I would like to see a DA who is NOT a progressive. We need to arrest and jail more people for property crime, shoplifting, and open drug use. That would be a start!

  • Chesa: Poverty & systemic racism causes crime
    SF: Sounds compassionate and that’s who we are and the current thing. Let’s give you a chance.
    Chesa: So let’s not prosecute criminals. At all.
    SF: Wait wut… that’s not what I meant…
    SF: Hey Chesa, my Walgreen’s is closed
    SF: Hey Chesa, my grandma got mugged
    SF: Hey Chesa. people are getting killed! Chesa?
    Chesa: Crime is actually down.
    SF: Wait a minute. Just because you don’t prosecute doesn’t meant the crime didn’t happen.
    Chesa: Republicans! Racists! Trump!
    SF: Actually, GTFO

  • Boudin is not a progressive. The ousted school board members are not progressives. They are extremists who make Bernie Sanders look like a conservative and give progressives a bad name. Please stop conflating these extremists with progressive Democrats.

  • Today is truly wonderful day for all San Franciscans, especially the most vulnerable among us who have suffered under the Boudin cabal. David Campos and Chesa Boudin truly are the Donald Trumps of San Francisco. This is an apt description not just because of their extremism, but also because of their cruelty, dishonesty, inability to take responsibility for their actions, hubris, and opposition to empirical data-driven assessment. I also have noticed that, quite unlike mainstream liberals and moderates, so-called “progressive” extremists like Campos, Boudin, Preston, and Ronen tend to be particularly racist, sexist, and ageist. Although they claim the positive sounding “progressive” label, a better term would be ‘regressive’ or ‘faux-gressive’. Their policies hurt everyone, especially the most vulnerable, namely victims of crime in the case of Boudin.

  • We need to replace any member of the Board of Supervisors who did not support the recalls of the extraordinarily destructive, incompetent, corrupt, and cruel Boudin. For supervisors in even-numbered districts (especially Districts 4 and 10 as the supervisor from District 8 is not that extreme), we can do that by supporting better candidates this November. For supervisors in odd-numbered districts (especially the horrific supervisors in Districts 5, 9 (my home district), 1, 3, and 7), shouldn’t we organize a recall petition drive? How many signatures does it take to recall a member of the Board of Supervisors)? I know that there is a wonderful reform candidate running in District 4 who could take out the Boudin supplicant Mar – Joel Engardio. All Sunset, Parkside, Lakeside, and other District 4 residents, please be sure to vote for him. For all of us, be sure to donate time or money to help Engardio to win election in November. Democracy works when we organize and vote as yesterday and the 4 preceding elections showed very clearly.

  • It is really very gratifying to see that the overwhelmingly majority of San Franciscans, in virtually every single neighborhood were able to see through the lies of Boudin and Campos and vote to recall this monster. With the exception of a few trust fund hipsters recently arrived to the City and ensconced in Bernal Heights, the Mission, and the Haight, San Franciscans of all types united to save our City. For those folks who foolishly voted against the recall, we need to work to educate them. Any criminal who litters, murders, violates sit-lie laws, steals bikes, pollutes, or rapes needs to be off the streets and in prison. No exceptions. It is great to see that voters also overwhelmingly voted against the Vladimir Putin/ Greg Abbott-style voter suppression law called Prop C. The supervisors who supported it should be held to account.

  • SF Educator, 100% agreed. These ‘faux-gressives’ were able to trick a minority of voters by using a term that sounds appealing in an entirely liberal and Democratic City. For those of us who are liberals, moderates, and true progressives (at least 60% we now know but closer to 90% in fact), we need to be clear that killing people with opiates, allowing people to die on the streets instead of mandating treatment, supporting hate crimes, and incentivizing criminality are NOT ‘progressive’ values.

  • “Beryl”,

    Well, even Mussolini made the trains run on time.
    Yours is a false / myopic choice.
    You’re will to exchange our democratic republic for the rule a seditious wannabe king — since you believe that he’ll deliver (faux) “energy independence” (i.e., doubling down on fossil fuel burning.)
    Good to know.

  • SF people are very tolerant. But we have our limits. Residents work hard to afford to live here. WE (as either homeowners or renters) pay for the sidewalks, streets, etc. They are not unowned resources (like the Artic ice or the Moon). They belong to us, the local resident taxpayers – for OUR use as they were intended (to walk or drive on), not for bums to pitch tents on (this is literally called – repeat this mantra often – ‘VAGRANT IMPERIALISM”).

    RECRIMINALIZE VAGRANCY. And hire sufficient cops to enforce such laws. Also, crack down hard on drug dealers. This is the only solution which will save SF.

  • “Boudin was held responsible for conditions on the street and “all the effects of capitalism in our society” that would otherwise be directed toward City Hall, (Assistant Public Defender Matt) Gonzalez said.”

    A manifestly absurd statement — demonstrating how out-of-touch/delusional the (so-called) “progressive” political elites in SF are.

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