San Francisco voters mostly transfixed by local problems like theft and the drug crisis will make a national statement in deciding whether to keep or cast off District Attorney Chesa Boudin — either backing a young criminal justice reform movement or fueling a wave of backlash arguing that the changes he represents have gone too far.
That the attempted recall of Boudin is happening in a city with a reputation for being part of the same progressive vanguard has captivated observers across the nation. They’ll get a signal of public sentiment at an unsettled time, when pandemic anxieties and fears of rising crime have stalled some of the momentum spurred by Black Lives Matter activism and the police murder of George Floyd.
California is unique in that its laws make it easier to recall an elected official. But prosecutors pushing reforms designed to reduce incarceration in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago and elsewhere are facing similar accusations that their policies are radical and dangerous. This countercurrent could gain momentum should the effort against Boudin succeed.
Eric Siddall, vice president of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys in Los Angeles County, said Boudin’s recall would “100%” be a shot in the arm to their campaign to unseat Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón, Boudin’s progressive predecessor before he moved south . San Francisco’s last recall, when voters removed three school board members, was “very telling,” Siddall said.
“When you have an elected official who refuses to do your job, you can’t just wait for the next election cycle,” he said. “Action has to be taken.”
Boudin and his supporters have sought to spotlight what they say is evidence of the larger forces converging in San Francisco, focusing on William Oberndorf, a Republican investor who has put more than $650,000 into the recall campaign and a political action committee supporting it. In a recent interview, Boudin referred to a “national reactionary playbook” that seeks to pump up fear of crime and associates progressive district attorneys with crime problems, even though a national surge in homicides during the pandemic has occurred in conservative and liberal counties alike.
Jessica Brand, a policy adviser who has worked on the campaigns of progressive prosecutors including Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Kim Gardner in St. Louis, said San Francisco’s tense recall fight “is actually quite reflective of what has become a Republican strategy across the country. … If you cannot win by the rules, then you should try to make up the rules and win when nobody’s paying attention.”
Around the country, though, Democrats also have increasingly pushed back on aspects of criminal justice reform, including efforts to defund police departments, mindful of many Black, Latino and Asian American voters who worry they may be left even more vulnerable. In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed, who will appoint Boudin’s successor if he is ousted, pledged to be less “tolerant of all the bulls— that has destroyed our city.”
Regardless of their source, progressive prosecutors are fending off sustained attacks. In Illinois, proposed legislation would create a path to recall Cook County prosecutor Kim Foxx — and no one else. A Pennsylvania bill would cap an elected district attorney’s time in office at two terms — but only in Philadelphia, where Krasner is the top prosecutor.
In Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, asked lawmakers to hand over the power to prosecute homicides in St. Louis to the state attorney general, a move widely viewed as an attack on Gardner, the city’s first Black prosecutor. In Los Angeles, an effort to recall Gascón faces a July 6 deadline to collect enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot.
Unlike California, Illinois and Pennsylvania do not have recall mechanisms. “Obviously, that resentment among conservatives is there, they just can’t express it in the way that California does,” said John Pfaff, a criminologist at Fordham University in New York City. “Even among states that have the recall … what’s different in California is there’s a lot more of a culture of using it.”
Tuesday’s election is being closely watched nationally. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has spotlighted San Francisco’s recall on his show, calling Boudin a “lunatic, equity-mongering DA” Singer John Legend voiced his support for Boudin on Twitter and volunteered for his phone banks.
Leaders of the recall campaign in San Francisco, though, have sought to draw sharp distinctions between their criticism of Boudin and the national debate over progressive prosecutors. They’ve highlighted internal strife in his office and local cases in which a defendant committed a serious crime after avoiding charges or receiving what they considered to be lenient sentences after earlier arrests.
“We must never forget the names of the innocent victims lost under Chesa’s watch,” read a recent tweet from the pro-recall campaign.
Brooke Jenkins, a former homicide prosecutor under Boudin who quit to help lead the recall, said Boudin has erred in trying to associate the campaign with right-wing forces.
“This recall here is not about us having a difference in ideology,” said Jenkins, who describes herself as a progressive prosecutor. “Many people subscribe to the same sort of overarching goals that Chesa has.” But many voters, she said, simply feel the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of reforms: “People have said, ‘Wait a minute. What we didn’t sign up for is rampant crime.’”
While homicides are up in San Francisco, overall reported crime has fallen during Boudin’s tenure, according to police figures. And Boudin has come under attack for moves that put him at the center of the national progressive prosecutor movement, such as ending cash bail, enabling more defendants to be diverted to treatment rather than face trial, declining to prosecute juveniles as adults, and declining to take advantage of the “three strikes” law and gang enhancements that can increase sentences.
Jenkins said she would like to see the District Attorney’s Office unwind some of Boudin’s policies. She said tools such as cash bail and sentencing enhancements shouldn’t be imposed in every case, but are needed in some circumstances to protect public safety.
To Jess and Annie Nichol, the tone of today’s debate is familiar. The 1993 kidnap and murder of her sister, 12-year-old Polly Klaas of Sonoma County, fueled California’s adoption of the three strikes law. It was designed to drastically increase punishments for repeat offenders and was part of a wave of punitive policies in the 1990s that crowded jails and prisons and have been clawed back in recent years.
“We are very concerned that if the recall is successful, it will roll back the important reforms that Chesa has enacted and give leverage to the failed tough-on-crime policies of the past,” the sisters, whose opinions have diverged from those of Polly’s father, victims’ advocate Marc Klaas, said in an email correspondence with The Chronicle.
Because the progressive prosecutor movement is still relatively new, there have been few electoral tests of such district attorneys. Initial results, though, have favored the reformers. Krasner beat his primary challenger last year in Philadelphia by a wide margin and sailed to victory against his Republican general election opponent. Foxx handily won her 2020 re-election, despite her opponent outraising her in campaign funds by more than 4 to 1.
Krasner said Boudin faces the same challenges as his counterparts. “One of those tactics is we’re going to impeach you, and another tactic is we’re going to recall you, and another tactic is we’re going to absolutely bury you by the other side having more money than you when they run ,” Krasner said in an interview. “This is an unprecedented war on democracy that is playing out with every dirty trick imaginable.”
In an opinion piece he wrote for Broad + Liberty, Pennsylvania Senate President Jake Corman, who wants to impeach Krasner, defended recall as a tactic. “Normally, this should be settled at the ballot box, but these aren’t normal times,” he wrote. “Violent crimes are escalating, the city is in crisis, there’s been a mass exodus from the district attorney’s office, and Krasner still has more than three years left on his term.”
In Los Angeles, the fate of the recall bid against Gascón remains uncertain. On their website, leaders of that effort said they had raised more than $6 million and gathered 500,000 signatures, about 70,000 fewer than needed by July 6 to get on the ballot.
Pfaff, the Fordham criminologist, said that while a recall of Boudin might embolden critics of his progressive allies, he’s not sure it would generate enough momentum to make them successful. The progressive prosecutor movement is so new, he said, that it’s difficult to speculate on how one race would alter its course.
“Our understanding of the politics here,” Pfaff said, “is just incredibly weak.”
Richie Greenberg, a former Republican mayoral candidate in San Francisco and the leader of a previous effort to recall Boudin that failed, said unseating Boudin would serve as an inspiration for others nationwide.
“Over the past year and a half since we started this whole thing, I’ve been getting phone calls, text messages, Twitter, DMs and emails to the recall office asking if we can help elsewhere,” Greenberg said. “There’ll be organizations around the country that are looking to see that it is possible to recall someone who has been so detrimental to a city.”
Megan Cassidy is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @meganrcassidy