Chesa Boudin, the reform-minded district attorney of San Francisco, has officially been recalled. Early results from the June 7 recall election showed that almost 60 percent of residents voted against him. But contrary to the idea that it was a simple referendum on criminal justice reform, the result showcases how easily voters are distracted from facts by emotional fallacies.
Boudin, who was elected in late 2019 on a platform of decriminalizing poverty and homelessness, was a more moderate DA than his “progressive” label suggests. While he decreased prosecutions for certain less serious charges, he relied on bolstering diversion programs to do so. Anyone familiar with drug courts knows these coercive programs come with punitive strings attached: A positive drug screen on supervision can mean jail. And Boudin actually increased the number of prospective criminal charges accepted from the police department compared with his immediate predecessor, George Gascon.
Boudin lost the recall because of factors beyond criminal justice reform.
The problem, to many of his opponents, was that people like Boudin are not supposed to run for office, at least not in this country. His radical-sounding platform was part of it. So, too, was the widespread, unjustified conflation of San Francisco’s chronic homelessness crisis with prosecutorial policy. Boudin is also the son of two former members of the radical leftist organization Weather Underground, both of whom spent years in prison for participating in a robbery, allegedly seeking to raise funds for Black revolutionary organizations, in which two police officers and a security guard were killed. When former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo granted clemency to Boudin’s father last year, after lobbying from Boudin, it angered the police lobby and swaths of conservative opinion.
Boudin lost the recall because of factors beyond than criminal justice reform. While many recall supporters framed the debate around whether Boudin was “soft on crime,” the conversation was rife with innuendo from the beginning. Former Assistant District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, a face of the recall, explicitly accused Boudin of being “too soft” on crime because of sympathies for his parents and their crimes.
In an attempt to inflame antipathy toward Boudin amongst the large local Chinese-American communities, the recall campaign spread a campaign poster of the DA holding his hand out like Chinese Communist Party founder Mao Zedong—held responsible for “well over 70 million deaths in peacetime, more than any other 20th century leader”—with armies of faceless men marching in black.
All this for a relatively ordinary, reform-minded district attorney who wanted to ameliorate some of the injustices of a system that prioritizes vengeance over public safety and community cohesion.
The outcome, of course, should be viewed in the context of a national backlash against the anti-carceral movement that built in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. This has been fueled by right-wing exploitation of fears of rising crime—despite the fact that crime rates remain far lower than historical peaks, and the failure, in practice, of higher incarceration rates to assuage such fears. This backlash has helped bring us to a point where the so-called “progressive prosecutor” movement, for which Boudin was a standard-bearer, is on life support.
At the same time, one has to wonder if the recall outcome would have been the same, had the individual politician carried less atmospheric baggage.
Some have speculated that it is San Francisco that is the problem, not Boudin. Commentator Ross Barkan essentially argued that the city is dominated by limousine liberals and wealthy social climbers, divested of working-class mores and solidarity because of how expensive it is.
Another issue for any would-be decarceral prosecutor during the COVID-19 pandemic was the spate of hate crimes against Asian Americans, including in San Francisco. Reports described the city’s Chinese communities as polarized by the recall campaign, with some seeking a return to “tough on crime” prosecutions. Boudin was booed and heckled at the Lunar New Year Parade in February.
The natural question is what’s next for the city. The answer may lie in Joe Alioto-Veronese, who has promised to “stand shoulder to shoulder with the San Francisco Police Department.”
Something must also be said for how Boudin’s local supporters often made matters worse by dismissing voters who were dissatisfied with his performance. Newspaper columnist Heather Knight pointed out the trend of recall opponents painting all Boudin critics as crypto-Republicans, tantamount to slander in a city with a 10:1 Democrat-to-Republican ratio. Clearly, tons of Democrats wanted Boudin out.
Now that he is out, the natural question is what’s next for the city. The answer may lie in Joe Alioto-Veronese, who lost to Boudin in 2019 but now is a strong contender for an interim appointment by Mayor London Breed, a Democrat who has unleashed a crackdown on homelessness and drug use in the city’s Tenderloin district.
Alioto-Veronese has promised to “stand shoulder to shoulder with the San Francisco Police Department,” made notorious in recent years by a racist text message scandal among much else, and to target misdemeanors. “A year in jail is a long time for someone who steals—who goes into Walgreens and fills a bag,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “That is plenty of leverage to hold against an individual.”
In the current climate, the tragedy is that such an appointment would make political sense for Breed.