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Why some voters are trying to recall San Francisco’s progressive DA

Chesa Boudin is the latest target of backlash toward progressive prosecutors as anxieties about crime have increased.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin Makes Announcement On Auto Burglaries
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin looks on during a news conference on May 10, 2022, in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Update: A recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin has passed with roughly 60 percent of voters in support of it as of Wednesday morning. For more on the recall results, visit Vox’s guide to the June 7 primaries’ winners and losers.

This week, there’s another high-profile California recall on the ballot.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a progressive prosecutor, faces blowback as the city — much like others across the country — grapples with increases in certain types of crime, including car break-ins and homicides. Though the overall rate of violent crime in San Francisco is at a generational low, anxiety around specific incidents has fueled a push by some Democrats, as well as law enforcement officials and Republicans, to replace Boudin with a district attorney more likely to take a moderate approach.

Those backing the recall, including former prosecutor Brooke Jenkins, who left her role in Boudin’s office, argue that he’s been ineffective in this job, and that he hasn’t done enough to hold perpetrators accountable in drug-related and anti-Asian hate crimes. Those opposing the recall, meanwhile, say it’s part of a broader campaign against progressive prosecutors, buoyed by Republicans and conservative donors.

Opponents of the recall fear its success in San Francisco could boost similar attempts around the country, including an ongoing effort to recall Los Angeles’s DA George Gascón, who previously held the same role in San Francisco. And they’re also concerned it could set back the progressive prosecutor movement nationally, especially during a time when Americans are increasingly worried about crime, with more than half telling Gallup in April they worry a lot about it.

Why there’s a recall push

Boudin has faced threats of a recall ever since he was elected in 2019.

A former public defender, Boudin was the more progressive option in the race for DA that year. He ran on reducing mass incarceration, ending cash bail, and holding law enforcement more accountable for their actions. He won 36 percent of the first-choice vote in San Francisco’s ranked choice election.

This year, over 50 percent of voters would need to vote in favor of a recall to pass it. If it were successful, San Francisco Mayor London Breed would appoint someone for the role. Recent polling has suggested that a majority of voters likely back the recall, but that it’s still close. The campaign follows a successful recall of multiple San Francisco school board members over school closures and high school admissions policies earlier this year.

The recall against Boudin is driven by a couple of different factors.

Members of law enforcement — who spent upward of $600,000 to oppose his candidacy when he first ran in 2019 — as well as Republicans think his policies have gone too far, and have pushed back on his focus on police accountability. Some Democrats also believe Boudin should be taking a harsher approach toward those who perpetrate crimes, including repeat offenders.

Anne Irwin, the executive director of Smart Justice, a coalition backing Boudin, notes that the three groups have effectively joined together as part of this recall. William Oberndorf, a billionaire known for donating to Republican candidates, is among those supporting the Democrat-led recall effort, for example. Their push has coincided with increased concerns about crime during the pandemic, which some have sought to blame the DA for, although research suggests this isn’t the case.

“He ran on a strong, very explicit reform platform, so he’s an easy scapegoat for crime and other social ills,” says Irwin.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, overall crime, including violent crime, has not increased in the city during the pandemic, though some types of crime like shoplifting and car thefts have increased, particularly over the last year. The city has also seen a slight increase in the homicide rate, though the rate is still lower than other places of comparable size.

Criminal justice and political experts note that high-profile coverage of specific crimes, such as “smash-and-grab” robberies and violent anti-Asian attacks, may have also worsened people’s perceptions of the crime rate. A homelessness crisis and a surge in drug overdoses in the city have further bolstered residents’ concerns about the leadership of local government officials.

“It’s an electorate that’s broadly frustrated and upset in the way things are in the pandemic, inflation, some sense of lawlessness,” says Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University, who’s not affiliated with the pro or anti-recall campaigns. “People’s perception of that is more real to them than statistics.”

Boudin’s critics have pointed to specific examples where they feel his leadership has fallen short. One of those is the case of Troy McAlister, a repeat offender who Boudin’s office declined to charge, and who later went on to kill two women in a car accident involving a stolen car. A DA spokesperson has previously told KQED that the prosecutors’ office felt they didn’t have sufficient evidence to secure a conviction against McAlister for cases prior to the car incident.

“Chesa effectively functions as a public defender with the title of district attorney,” Brooke Jenkins says. “I believe that because of that, he’s failing to serve as a deterrent to crime in San Francisco.”

According to a report by Mission Local, Boudin has charged people at a higher rate than his predecessors, but has also sent more people to diversion programs that are alternatives to incarceration. “What this recall is, is a lashing out of people who’ve lost in 2019 and people who’ve been losing races against progressive prosecutors across the country,” says Julie Edwards, a spokesperson for the anti-recall effort.

Some Asian American voters, who collectively make up one-fifth of the city’s electorate, have been disappointed with how Boudin has addressed anti-Asian hate crimes. Initially, when Vicha Ratanapakdee, a Thai American grandfather, was murdered in 2021, Boudin said the offender was experiencing a “temper tantrum.” While Boudin has stressed that his comment was taken out of context and went on to charge the assailant with murder, his comments suggested to some that he wasn’t taking these attacks seriously.

“There is great anger over the lack of attention to addressing anti-AAPI hate, the rising crime targeted at the Asian American community, and the lack of attention paid by City Hall to the needs of Asian American community members and businesses,” says David Lee, the executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee, who is not affiliated with the pro or anti-recall campaigns.

The outcome could set the tone for other cities

“They are coming for Chesa Boudin. They won’t stop until we take the fight back,” Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón wrote in a recent campaign message cited by Politico. “The GOP is hell-bent on subverting democracy and getting us out of office.”

Gascón is among the progressive prosecutors who have also faced the threat of a recall. While a 2021 effort failed, his opponents are attempting to put another vote on the ballot by a July deadline. In Illinois, a Republican state representative has recently introduced legislation that would enable voters to recall state’s attorney Kim Foxx due to concerns he has about her handling of charges related to gang violence. In Philadelphia, a Republican state senator has similarly called for impeachment proceedings against the city’s DA, Larry Krasner, arguing he’s responsible for the city’s increase in crime.

These efforts have gained momentum as concerns about crime across the country have grown during the pandemic, when several major cities saw an increase in murders. “One of the questions about the progressive prosecutors movement from the outset is what happens when crime goes back up, will they be defeated politically,” David Alan Sklansky, a law professor at Stanford University, recently told Governing.

Though crime hasn’t exactly skyrocketed in San Francisco, that’s essentially the question Boudin faces now, and that Gascón may face later this year. While Boudin’s recall deals with specific circumstances in San Francisco, it also speaks to a broader effort to undo the gains that progressives have made on criminal justice reform in recent years.

“The weight of this recall is the question of how successful this Republican-funded playbook will be,” says Irwin. “And if it is successful in San Francisco, then they will continue to take this playbook on the road.”

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