Voters weigh fate of liberal San Francisco district attorney

San Francisco voters, fed up with brazen break-ins and car wrecking, could oust one of the country’s most progressive prosecutors in a rare snap election Tuesday that has bitterly divided Democrats.

Chesa Boudin was narrowly elected in 2019 as part of a national wave of liberal district attorneys determined to reform a system they called racist and ineffective. Boudin, a former public defender, vowed to hold police officers and businesses accountable for social ills. Its prosecutors are not allowed to require cash bail for defendants, charge juveniles as adults, or request lengthy prison terms based on a defendant’s gang membership.

However, his tenure coincided with a pandemic, with attacks on Asian Americans and viral footage of rampant shoplifting rocking residents, some of whom launched a recall campaign. They say Boudin is inexperienced and inflexible, often trying to avoid charging criminals in favor of alternative treatment programs.

His supporters say conservative interests have poured money into a fraudulent campaign that unfairly blames him in a system where police and judges also have responsibilities. San Francisco has long struggled with property crimes, and records show Boudin’s charges are about the same as his predecessor, who was also progressive.

“This is not a recall that is interested in safety or truth or justice or solutions, but in division, fear and spreading hate and subverting policies … making our communities safer,” Boudin said at a recent campaign event where he is from Asian American, African American and Hispanic community leaders.

Political experts say Boudin is in the crosshairs of outside forces as a political newcomer who barely won his race in 2018. Reports of general crime in the city have been declining, but incidents of burglaries and auto thefts have risen since 2017, according to San Francisco police data.

“It’s a vote of general discontent,” said Jason McDaniel, associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University. A lot of people get upset about a lot of things, you don’t want to be the target of it.”

Turnout is expected to be low, which would likely hurt Boudin. If recalled, Mayor London Breed would appoint his successor. She has not spoken publicly about the race, but has clashed with him about how best to tackle rampant drug trafficking and opioid use in the troubled Tenderloin area.

Former assistant district attorney Brooke Jenkins, who quit Boudin’s office and joined the recall campaign last year, said San Francisco still strives to have a progressive district attorney, but one “who understands there still needs to be accountability.”

The recall is among a handful of contests coming up on June 7 that could shape the progressive criminal justice reform agenda in the country’s most populous and democratic state. That includes district attorney races in three counties in the San Francisco Bay Area and two in Southern California, said Ludovic Blain, director of the progressive California Donor Table.

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