Opinion Why San Francisco’s district attorney recall vote isn’t what it seems

(Video: Sachi Cunningham, Matt Faludi)
Placeholder while article actions load

Joshua Davis is a journalist, filmmaker and assistant professor of journalism at San Francisco State University.

SAN FRANCISCO — Voters here look poised to recall Chesa Boudin, the city’s progressive and controversial district attorney. San Franciscans, it appears, are in the mood for change.

If Boudin is recalled on Tuesday, some will be tempted to say his defeat spells the end of the criminal justice reform movement. To many, San Francisco is a symbol of liberalism, but the real story is more complicated. It would be a mistake to interpret the outcome of the recall as the end of reform. But it is a setback.

More than other reform-minded prosecutors, Boudin repeatedly doubled down on the policies that he championed to end mass incarceration and reduce racial disparities in his 2½ years in office. He’s part of a larger, national movement of prosecutors that seeks a more compassionate justice system through proven methods, such as diversion, instead of just punitive ones.

Boudin, 41, upended the city’s political establishment when he was elected as its top prosecutor in 2019. A public defender, Boudin never prosecuted a case. To some native San Franciscans, his Rhodes Scholarship and Yale law degree made him an outsider. But Boudin blended into the fabric of the city. He surfs near his home in Ocean Beach, which he explains in the video above can present challenges. And he has casually showed up to a campaign event in a swimsuit having just gone for a run.

His celebrity made him an easy target. He is the son of Weather Underground activists Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert. When Boudin was 14 months old, his parents were arrested (and ultimately went to prison) in 1981 for their roles in a getaway car after an armed robbery outside New York City that resulted in the deaths of two police officers and one security guard.

His views on criminal justice reform were shaped by decades of prison visits. In this video, Brooke Jenkins, a former prosecutor who resigned in 2021 to become a figurehead of the recall campaign, explains why she takes issue with his background — reasons that Boudin rejects:

(Video: Pete Bell, Amaya Edwards)

After being sworn into office in January 2020, Boudin ended cash bail, prosecuted police misconduct, increased diversion and stopped charging gang enhancements that add years to sentences, among other reforms. Studies show that diverting people from prison makes them less likely to reoffend.

For Boudin, facts became a losing argument. Like in many cities during the pandemic, San Francisco saw burglaries and car thefts spike (though some crimes have since abated). Homeless encampments and drug use increased in visibility as the downtown emptied, and residents became desperate to hold someone accountable.

Then, several high-profile crimes powered a fringe recall effort, with support from local Republicans and wealthy donors, into the mainstream. A deadly hit-and-run on Dec. 31, 2020 by Troy McAlister, who was on parole for armed robbery, cast doubt on Boudin’s prior decision not to pursue a longer sentence under California’s “three strikes” law. The first of two recall drives to remove Boudin from office launched two days later.

In March 2021, video footage captured an attacker leaping into the air and kicking an 84-year-old man who was in a seated walker.

But nothing contributed to the sense of helplessness more than the viral video from inside a Walgreens of a man stuffing a trash bag full of products and then riding off on a bicycle:

A local reporter recorded the incident and tweeted the video with the tags “#NoConsequences @chesaboudin.” It has been viewed more than 6 million times.

Boudin admits to missteps. In this interview, he reflects on some of what he wished he would have done differently:

(Video: Pete Bell, Matt Faludi)

Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a justice program director at the Brennan Center for Justice, says that it is wrong to judge the work of a prosecutor by the outcome of individual criminal cases. “Prosecutors are expected to solve a complex range of societal problems, like the lack of a social safety net in our communities,” she says. "And that takes time and is not always within their control.”

Opinion | Thousands of incarcerated people deserve to come home. Here’s how prosecutors can help.

It’s easy to wonder if Boudin could have done more, sooner, to counter the narrative that if a crime occurred, it was automatically his fault. In 2021, the recall campaign, Safer SF Without Boudin, had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, funded largely by billionaire hedge fund manager William Oberndorf, to get the measure on the ballot. It paid professional signature-gatherers to stand in front of grocery stores and farmers markets for months to meet the required signature count.

Boudin’s office maintains that its priority last year was to prosecute cases, not campaign. “I would hope that no one would want people to have elected officials to be in a state of permanent campaign, which is what the recall tries to force,” says Julie Edwards, a spokesperson for the anti-recall campaign.

Throughout the race, Boudin has trailed badly in fundraising. On the morning of a rally in March, a sizable crowd of supporters from the pro-recall campaign appeared with signs and bullhorns. The dueling camps competed to be heard:

(Video: Joshua Davis)

At least one recall supporter wore a body camera and broadcast footage with the caption, “Woke mom tries to block Recall Chesa Boudin march with her baby.”

But there is a strong case to be made that the recall says far more about San Francisco’s unique political structure than the health of the reform movement. California has recalls; Pennsylvania and Maryland, where other progressive prosecutors have fared better, do not. It is comparatively easy to toss an elected official in the Golden State.

Reform also isn’t exclusively a progressive cause. Conservatives such as prosecutor David W. Sunday Jr. in York County, Pa., and Kent Volkmer in Pinal County, Ariz., share some similar approaches. “There are a lot of reform-minded prosecutors who would not put themselves in the Chesa Boudin category,” says Julie Warren, deputy director for Right on Crime, a conservative reform organization. “There’s a lot of people along the spectrum. Let’s not sacrifice good policy on the altar of a political agenda.”

If Boudin goes down, it will be as much about the angsty mood in post-pandemic San Francisco as it is about public unhappiness with Boudin. “If I could vote to recall the entire San Francisco government and some leaders in the police force I would,” explains a tech employee named Bill Muits, who stuck a recall bumper sticker on his car next to one supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“Voters are just pissed off at a lot of things, and right now Chesa’s on the ballot,” says Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University. “It would be a mistake for San Francisco voters to be seen as rejecting the values of criminal justice reform. It’s a setback but not a rejection.”

Additional reporting and video production by Pete Bell, Sachi Cunningham, Amaya Edwards, Matt Faludi, Anaïs-Ophelia Lino and Karina Patel.