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Progressive lawyer wins San Francisco district attorney race, continuing national reform trend

Chesa Boudin speaks at the San Francisco District Attorney Debate on Sept. 9. (Bar Association of San Francisco)

After four days of ballot counting, a progressive lawyer who vowed to confront police misconduct and mass incarceration won a heated race to become San Francisco’s next district attorney, defeating the city’s top prosecutor in a major victory for criminal justice reformers nationwide.

Chesa Boudin, a former deputy public defender who entered the race as an underdog, declared victory Saturday night following a concession from interim district attorney Suzy Loftus, who had broad backing from California’s Democratic establishment.

All week long the election remained too close to call, and as of Friday Boudin led by less than 160 votes. But after tallying another batch of ballots Saturday afternoon, election officials said he had pulled further ahead, with 85,950 votes to Loftus’s 83,511. With just 1,200 votes left to count, Loftus conceded.

The outcome adds Boudin to a growing list of progressive candidates around the country who have won district attorney races by pushing sweeping criminal justice reforms rather than stressing law-and-order bona fides.

“When we started this campaign, we believed that the people of San Francisco wanted a different vision of justice,” Boudin told The Washington Post.

“We were right,” he said. “In voting for this campaign, the residents of San Francisco have demanded radical change and rejected calls to go back to the tough-on-crime era that did not make us safer and destroyed the lives of thousands of San Franciscans.”

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Loftus congratulated Boudin in a tweet Saturday night. “We ran a great race, stayed positive and envisioned a city that is more safe and less divided,” she said. “I didn’t win the race — but we won the support of so many San Franciscans who are demanding that our city work more effectively together to build safety.”

Boudin’s victory reflects a nationwide shift in public attitudes away from jailing and imprisoning offenders and toward rehabilitating them. In the past three years, voters in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and other large cities have elected reform-minded prosecutors who built their campaigns around issues such as ending racial disparities in sentencing, reducing prison populations and declining to pursue nonviolent drug cases. At the same time, reform proposals have gained bipartisan support in Congress, which passed a landmark prison reform bill, the First Step Act, in late 2018.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), who has made an overhaul of the justice system a cornerstone of his campaign for president, was among Boudin’s highest-profile supporters. “Now is the moment to fundamentally transform our racist and broken criminal justice system by ending mass incarceration, the failed war on drugs and the criminalization of poverty," Sanders tweeted Saturday. "Congratulations @chesaboudin on your historic victory!”

The race for San Francisco’s district attorney kicked off in fall 2018 when then-district attorney George Gascón, himself a progressive, announced he wouldn’t seek reelection. His departure paved the way for the city’s first district attorney race in a century with no incumbent.

As recently as a few years ago, Loftus might have been a shoo-in for the job. Many of the state’s highest-ranking Democrats lined up behind her, with endorsements coming from San Francisco Mayor London Breed, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Sens. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Loftus, who formerly headed the San Francisco Police Commission, also won support from law enforcement leaders, including the city’s former police chief. Boudin, on the other hand, faced a barrage of criticism from law enforcement, including the police union, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads opposing him.

Less than three weeks from Election Day, Loftus got another boost when Gascón abruptly left office to run for district attorney in Los Angeles. Within hours, the mayor appointed Loftus as interim district attorney, prompting widespread accusations that she was throwing the race in Loftus’s favor.

But Boudin was elevated nationally by the wave of interest in electing a new breed of prosecutor. In addition to Sanders’s endorsement, he received backing from Kim Foxx in Chicago, Rachael Rollins in Boston and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, all of whom had recently won district attorney elections by running on police accountability and whose campaigns offered something of a blueprint for his own. Black Lives Matter co-founders and the racial justice activist Shaun King threw their weight behind him as well.

Boudin, a former Rhodes scholar with a law degree from Yale, also had an extraordinary family story that captured voters’ attention. His parents were members of the radical left-wing group the Weather Underground and were imprisoned when he was a child for their role in an armed heist that left three men dead. His mother served 22 years, and his father may spend the rest of his life in prison. Growing up with incarcerated parents galvanized his passion for criminal justice reform, he said.

Under San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting system, Boudin competed against three other candidates, including Loftus. All of them proposed changes to the criminal justice system, but experts said Boudin offered the most aggressive departure from the status quo. By fall, he had taken the lead in fundraising.

When he assumes office, Boudin will have to navigate an already tense relationship with police, whose union blasted him during the campaign as “the #1 choice of criminals and gang members,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Boudin also reportedly came under fire from police during his election party when a progressive city supervisor led a chant of “F— the POA,” referring to the union.

Reacting to his win on Saturday, Boudin said he would “work to make sure that San Francisco treats everyone with the human dignity that we all deserve.”

“There can be no justice when we utilize prison and jail as the solution to all of our problems,” he said. “We must think differently.”

Deanna Paul contributed to this report.