The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A liberal DA finds voters’ moods have changed even in San Francisco

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin ponders a question at his recall campaign headquarters in San Francisco on May 26. (Eric Risberg/AP)
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SAN FRANCISCO — Chesa Boudin ducked into the Lucky Pork Store, established in 1949, seeking some help.

The district attorney is in trouble. On Tuesday, he faces a recall election a little more than halfway into his first term, one shaped by the pandemic and a sense among this city’s often fearful, always frustrated residents that his approach to prosecution is too lax for the times.

In fluent Spanish, Boudin made his pitch. “They are attacking me,” he told Hipolito Barraza, the store’s manager.

“With millions, I heard,” Barraza replied.

“We have less than one week and we need your support,” Boudin said.

“And then we work together,” Barraza said with a smile.

This is what the stretch-run to hold onto his office looks like for Boudin. He was elected in 2019 as a “progressive prosecutor,” the term given to about a dozen or so district attorneys across the country who have sought to reduce what they view as overly punitive sentencing and overall incarceration rates, which have affected people of color disproportionately.

The recall campaign has revealed a city debating the nature of crime, how to measure its dips and spikes, and who to blame for perceptions of danger. Other primary contests statewide are turning on similar questions, as California again attempts to find the balance between deterrence and fairness, a twisting course that has charted its politics for decades.

After pioneering so-called “three-strikes” laws in the 1990s that toughened sentencing, state voters, facing drastically overcrowded prisons, agreed in 2014 to soften some sentences and recategorize some felony crimes as misdemeanors.

Like most big U.S. cities, San Francisco has seen a rise in homicides during the pandemic, although rates remain far below those of past decades, and other cities have experienced bigger per capita jumps. Overall violent crime here remains at some of the lowest levels it has been in four decades.

Property crime, which deepened during the pandemic as stay-at-home workers left the city largely empty, is declining gradually to pre-covid levels. Residential burglaries remain higher than pre-pandemic levels — and terrifyingly, often happen when residents are at home. The nature of those break-ins adds to a prevailing sense here that the city’s law enforcement agencies have only a loose handle on the overall problem.

The state of the streets, including many of the major commercial ones, remains heartbreaking, an open-air stage of human misery defined by homelessness, mental illness and drugs. In 2020, twice as many people died here of drug overdoses than died of covid-19. All of that has sharply altered the political environment.

“The themes that were salient to voters when Boudin was elected — criminal justice reform, over-incarceration, police conduct — are not the same issues salient with voters now,” said Jason McDaniel, an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University. “What’s most salient now is this feeling that things are just not going well, whether it’s with covid, the economy, homelessness, or other issues. That’s a shift.”

The in-or-out verdict on Boudin has also prompted a fresh argument about the use of the recall, a time-tested method of civic democracy in this state that was first envisioned as a way to rid the government of corruption and limit the influence of big-money special interests. No cause is needed to mount one.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) easily defeated a recall effort against him. Boudin’s contest is the second recall effort in this city alone this year, the first successfully removing three members of the San Francisco school board.

“This says a lot more about the playbook that police unions and Republican operatives are using these days than it does about my policies,” Boudin said in an interview, conducted between vote-seeking stops in the city’s Mission District.

“There’s going to be a backlash,” he said. “They can’t win elections so they are relying on recalls and other measures to strip those we have elected of power.”

Public drama is not new to the prosecutor. Boudin was born to David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin, who in the early 1980s were members of the Weather Underground, a violent anti-imperialist group characterized by the FBI as a domestic terrorist organization.

When Boudin was a little more than a year old, his parents participated in the 1981 robbery of a Brink’s truck in a suburb about 35 miles north of New York City. The failed effort left the armed guard and two police officers dead.

Kathy Boudin pleaded guilty to murder and robbery. She was released from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in 2003 and died last month. David Gilbert, was convicted of murder and robbery. After more than forty years in prison, Gilbert was released from the Shawangunk Correctional Facility late last year.

Boudin was raised by Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, who co-founded the Weather Underground organization in the 1960s.

Chesa Boudin, a former public defender in San Francisco, followed another liberal prosecutor into the job: George Gascon, a former Los Angeles police officer now serving amid similar controversies as the district attorney there.

Like Boudin, who is 41, Gascon faces resistance within his office, much of it from front-line prosecutors who believe new charging rules are too lenient. But Boudin’s predicament is more dire, according to recent polls.

Boudin has made the recall itself part of the message, arguing that it is a distraction from solving the city’s most pressing social problems.

“My primary argument isn’t that this is unfair to me, but that it will do nothing to make us safer,” he said. “What is happening is undermining democracy and undermining public safety.”

Boudin’s opposition took shape about a year into his tenure when a sputtering Republican-led effort to recall him gave way to another led by Democrats, who account for 63 percent of the electorate in the city. The main organization is called San Franciscans for Public Safety, which by late May had spent $3.8 million on the “Yes on H” campaign, as the recall effort is officially known.

Other groups that have raised money in favor of the recall will push total spending against Boudin to more than $4 million.

The money is coming from venture capitalists, some of them Republican, doctors and lawyers, and many real estate developers and associations. About 80 percent of its donors are from San Francisco.

Boudin may be able to spend only half that amount in seeking to keep his job, although McDaniel, the political science professor, noted that given the attention the race has received and the apparent gap in the polls “money is not going to determine the outcome of this race.”

Among the leaders of the primary recall group is Brooke Jenkins, a homicide prosecutor in Boudin’s office until last fall when she left over a dispute involving whether to allow a man convicted of murdering his mother to argue insanity during sentencing.

Jenkins contended that he should not be allowed to do so, worrying it would lead to a far earlier release for someone she believes was very dangerous. Boudin, she said, eventually told her to allow the insanity argument in sentencing.

Jenkins said much of the energy behind the recall derives from a sense that Boudin does not hold himself accountable for the crime experienced every day by residents, including a frightened and vulnerable Asian American community that has long viewed this city as a sanctuary.

There have also been major incidents — such as a coordinated smash-and-grab theft ring that struck tourist-rich Union Square late last year — that have dominated the debate over crime.

One case involved Troy McAlister, then 45, who on New Year’s Eve of 2020 ran a red light and killed two women crossing a street in downtown San Francisco. Police at the time said McAlister, who fled the scene, was armed and had alcohol and methamphetamine in his system.

Law enforcement records showed that McAlister was on parole at the time, and that Boudin’s office had declined to file charges against him for several alleged crimes in the previous months. Boudin said he had referred those cases to the parole board for consideration. But the killings helped galvanize opposition to his tenure.

“This is about San Franciscans wanting a district attorney who’s actually dedicated to prioritizing public safety,” Jenkins said. “People’s issue with Chesa is that he has been tone deaf to their pleas for accountability. They think things have gone a bit too far with crime and they don’t feel as though he is setting the right tone.”

If Boudin is recalled, Mayor London Breed (D), with whom he shares a strained relationship, will appoint his replacement until next year’s election when he would have been on the ballot. Asked if she is a contender to replace Boudin, Jenkins replied: “I trust the mayor to make the right choice.”

The turnout for the recall is projected to be very low, a mix of recall fatigue and the fact that the top-of-the-ticket races for governor and U.S. Senate are lightly contested. Early voting patterns have shown that more conservative neighborhoods have participated more heavily so far, but Boudin won his first race with a heavy election-day turnout.

What Boudin is doing now, as much as time allows, is spending his days on the streets. As he walked along Mission Street last week, Boudin waved as a few people shouted his name in support. A Prius honked a horn in his favor. The scent of weed, carried on a brisk wind from an open-air crafts market, joined a few “we’re with you” calls from vendors. This is a neighborhood that must vote heavily for Boudin if he is to have a chance.

Outside La Coroneta Taqueria, Tommy Ak, a 49-year-old taxi driver, wanted a word with Boudin. His car has been broken into three times in the past two years, his wife’s car on another more recent occasion.

“The problem with car break-ins in San Francisco has existed for many, many years,” Boudin said. “We have seen them fall, but not fast enough.”

The two shook hands. Asked if he planned to support Boudin, Ak, a three-decade San Francisco resident, said he did. “He can’t do everything himself,” Ak said.

It is easy to find merchants who have experienced crime in recent years. Nahil Hanhan, 64, owns Oxford Street Designer Menswear on Market Street. Three times thieves have drilled through her steel door, taking about $10,000 in merchandise in all.

“They are getting away with it,” said Hanhan, who has already cast her mail-in vote for the recall. “That’s the problem. When they get away with it they just come back.”

In pandemic times, crimes against Asian American residents here have risen sharply and many feel a frightening unpredictability in a city they have known and loved for generations. Boudin is suffering perhaps most among these voters, who for differing reasons helped propel the school board recalls.

“They spit at me — they spit at me on elevators, on the streets,” said Henry Wong, 74, who once worked for the late comedian Robin Williams and calls Boudin “the worst district attorney the city has ever had.”

“These are crimes,” said Wong, a lifelong San Franciscan who has already voted for the recall. “And he doesn’t care. It’s just so easy to break the law.”

But there are also voters who want Boudin to get more of a chance, and do not believe he has during the dark years of the pandemic. Walking his two Shar-Pei dogs on the lawn in front of City Hall, Terence Greiner, homeless until two years ago, said he thinks “anyone elected into office should be allowed to finish their term.”

“Otherwise why elect them in the first place?” said Greiner, who is 53 and currently on disability. “And it seems to me there was just as much crime before he took office as there is now.”

Peter Milewicz, 74, walks with a cane, as he did on this recent afternoon along Mission Street. He shook Boudin’s hand.

“I’m pulling for you,” said Milewicz, who worked with young psychiatric patients before retiring. “And I want this garbage to go away.”

He has lived in the city for 30 years and has already cast his vote against the recall.

“I have hope he can survive this, but I wouldn’t bet the farm,” Milewicz said. “It takes a lot more than a couple years to undo something as unfair as our justice system.”

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