District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s election in 2019 and the current effort to recall him both fit their times perfectly.
The progressive prosecutor squeaked into office with a paper-thin plurality in 2019 as voters coalesced to advance an unprecedented experiment in criminal justice reform. In an election night statement dripping with bravado, Boudin said, “It’s time for radical change to how we envision justice.”
Calls to “defund the police” were reverberating even before the election, helping to spur a summer of protests—largely peaceful but occasionally flaring into clashes with law enforcement—after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Boudin was busy molding the DA’s Office in his image, from abolishing cash bail and gang enhancements to deprioritizing harsh sentences for drug dealing and quality of life crimes such as petty theft and public urination. He also went to work holding cops who break the law accountable.
But then the pandemic refused to abate. And priorities for many San Franciscans shifted, as they did for people around the country.
On top of the anxieties that came with a global health crisis, certain categories of crime began to surge, with factors ranging from empty streets to viral videos of brazen crimes contributing to a sense that cities had grown less safe. Progressive prosecutors, and the social justice movement’s agenda more broadly, were suddenly on the defensive—and vulnerable to attack from a re-invigorated political right.
In San Francisco, home burglaries and drug overdose deaths surged and smash-and-grab robberies conveyed images of a city out of control—even if, statistically, it remains one of the safer large cities in the country.
A full-scale effort to recall Boudin began gathering tens of thousands of signatures in March 2021. That disjointed effort would fall short but showed enough political momentum to warrant a second go, leading San Francisco’s deep-pocketed investor class to successfully resurrect it.
Boudin is now the poster boy for the backlash against the progressive criminal justice reform agenda, though he is not alone in confronting a recall challenge. The efforts to sway voter sentiment in upcoming local and national elections do not appear coordinated in terms of dollars and contributors, but one common thread is a playbook Republicans have deftly used for decades: honing in on the sentiment—sometimes tinged with racism—that something is rotten in the state of Anywhere, U.S.A.
And in deep-blue California cities especially, the dynamics of the state’s recall processes, with an up-or-down vote rather than a choice of candidates, can make it easier to depose a political enemy.
George Gascón, who preceded Boudin as San Francisco’s district attorney before leaving for Los Angeles and defeating a more law-and-order incumbent in Jackie Lacey, will likely face his own recall in November.
In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner, whose policies mirror many of Boudin’s, faced an onslaught of criticism for his city’s surge in homicides and the deadly opioid epidemic. GOP-sponsored state legislation crafted in 2020 to pave the way for his recall failed to pass, however, and he cruised to re-election in November with 69% of the vote.
A similar effort to recall State Attorney Kim Foxx, who oversees the city of Chicago and Cook County, failed in the Illinois Legislature this spring. In New York, Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg became the target of a recall petition effort in January, just a month after taking office, and three prosecutors in Northern Virginia became the focus of a shadowy GOP recall effort last summer.
Boudin’s supporters say Republican actors are taking advantage of maelstroms in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago and other major cities to motivate a base of voters looking for villains to blame ahead of this year’s midterms and the 2024 presidential election.
But a unique confluence of factors in San Francisco, where the overwhelming majority of voters are Democrats, have made it almost certain that the most progressive prosecutor in this city’s history will be the first domino to fall.
The Beginning of Boudin’s Battle
It was only weeks after Boudin was sworn in as district attorney that the far right went to work.
A website to recall Boudin was created, and conservative media outlet The Blaze suggested progressives and neo-Marxists were blushing at the thought of how the “unabashed socialist” was reshaping the office. Fox News host Tucker Carlson featured Boudin in the final installment of a five-part series called “American Dystopia,” which cast the City by the Bay as a hellscape deserving of middle America’s scorn.
In one of the more implausible moments of the segment, a news crew in San Francisco supposedly came across a piece of U.S priority mail covered in feces with a ransom-style note reading, “Compliments of Chesa Boudin.”
Since that time, Boudin has faced constant criticism. Questions were raised about Boudin’s management style—he fired seven prosecutors after just two days on the job—and his charging decisions, and a focus on diversion programs made him vulnerable to high-profile acts of recidivism. Boudin’s bedside manner in public appearances played far less well than his more personal interactions, and efforts to increase victim and language services to the AAPI community won him little credit among families of crime victims.
Boudin’s supporters have argued that they’re facing disinformation campaigns, from distorted data on crime to criticism on societal problems—such as homelessness and drug addiction—that are as American as apple pie and mass shootings.
“When the recall points the finger at Chesa Boudin on everything that is wrong with San Francisco, not only is it wrong on the facts and the merits, but it’s also dangerous because it distracts from the conversation and doesn’t move anything forward,” said Julie Edwards, a spokesperson for Boudin’s anti-recall campaign.
Attempts to reform the criminal justice system are far from new, but the current recall battles are a relatively recent phenomena. In the mid-2010s, progressive billionaire George Soros joined forces with the ACLU and other Democratic and social justice activists to create a consortium to recreate the criminal justice system from the inside out.
The Soros-led group backed the electoral campaigns of district attorneys that might previously have been seen as underdogs or too far to the left, although Boudin was not among those to receive the group’s support.
Zack Smith, a legal fellow for the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has been one of the more prolific writers in documenting what he and others on the right call the “rogue prosecutor movement.”
“DA races are typically low-dollar affairs, often the incumbent runs and isn’t challenged,” he said. “(The Soros-led group) figured out relatively quickly, all things considered, they could get more bang for their buck by funding district attorneys instead of these other races. The DA in many ways is the lynchpin to the criminal justice system.”
Smith said it is “nonsense” that the GOP is using the recalls as a ploy to win votes.
“I think Boudin and these other rogue prosecutors have a policy and messaging problem,” Smith said. “Whenever you message that you're not going to charge certain crimes, it encourages lawlessness.”
Udi Ofer, a deputy national political director of the ACLU and director of the ACLU's Justice Division, said the effort to oust Boudin and other progressive prosecutors through recall elections—sidestepping the normal election cycle by spending money to collect signatures for a ballot measure—is in many ways a natural counter-strike for conservatives.
“What’s happening in San Francisco is not a bubble in itself,” Ofer said.
The GOP Playbook and the Pendulum
A review of campaign disclosure forms for the efforts to recall Boudin and Gascón did not show any noticeable overlap in contributors, but the dollar amounts are striking. More than $6 million has been spent to oust Boudin, while the committee to recall Gascón has already spent more than $2.5 million in an ongoing effort to qualify for the ballot.
Wealthy conservatives have donated to both races, but hundreds of small-dollar donations are also pouring in from Democrats. The organizers behind the effort to recall Gascón are different from the venture capitalists propelling Boudin’s recall in San Francisco. Gascón’s critics include a highly vocal group of mothers to murder victims, as well as more aggressive involvement from law enforcement, including in the prosecutor's in his own office. But the messaging in both recalls, as well as elsewhere, is consistent.
“It’s in the Republican playbook to fear-monger anyone who wants to implement progressive criminal justice policy,” said Jessica Brand, founder of the Wren Collective, an education and policy organization made up of former public defenders.
Fordham University professor John Pfaff published an article in the New Republic last summer addressing the question of whether progressive prosecutors in the U.S. would ever be able to enact their agenda in the face of surging violent crime during the pandemic.
In the piece, he noted the book “Breaking the Pendulum,” which argues that massive shifts in criminal justice policy are driven not by annual crime stats, but rather “broader economic, cultural, and political transformations.”
“In any such seeming phase,” Pfaff writes, “the ‘out’ group is constantly pushing to reverse the policies it dislikes. At some point, often for reasons unrelated to crime, macro-level conditions change, and if the out group is ready to exploit those changes—which is not always the case—then policy shifts.”
Ofer, of the ACLU, noted a study by the Third Way Organization, which focused on homicide rates in red states versus blue states and found that homicide rates were 40% higher in the 25 states that Trump won compared to the 25 states that President Biden won. These prosecutors, however, have not been targeted in the same manner as DAs in more blue states and cities.
In San Francisco, Boudin’s arguments on data have not necessarily proven to be attractive to voters who feel less safe than they did before the pandemic, according to polling done by The Standard and others. This has been especially true in San Francisco’s AAPI community, which has been activated by the Stop Asian Hate movement and is asserting itself more forcefully in recent elections.
Brooke Jenkins, a spokesperson for the Boudin recall and a former prosecutor in the DA’s office, acknowledged the city’s “progressive mindset” but added: “We have seen things go too far in a way that is leaving people vulnerable in ways they don’t want to feel vulnerable.”
The Power to Change San Francisco
How much would things change in San Francisco with a different district attorney? Clearly the city’s problems with drugs, homelessness and street crime are hardly new, regardless of whether they have gotten worse.
Smith, of The Heritage Foundation, suggested that San Francisco police might work harder under a different DA.
“Why is the San Francisco Police Department going to waste their limited resources making arrests for crimes that they know Boudin won’t charge?” he asked.
Boudin’s supporters are quick to note that the city’s police department has long had plenty of problems of its own, adding that arguments calling for simplistic lock-’em-up solutions— augmented by cherry-picked data—has created an unfair narrative that Rome is burning under one man’s watch.
Whoever is right, the next district attorney and Mayor London Breed—who would be responsible for appointing Boudin’s successor—will face big challenges in making progress on generational challenges.
“There is no plan if they take that power,” Brand said. “There is no plan for the DA to solve homelessness, that’s not a thing. That’s the mayor’s job and the Board of Supervisors’ job. It’s just about power.”
Josh Koehn can be reached at [email protected]