SF voters to decide Chesa Boudin’s fate, issue national statement

San Francisco voters, mostly transfixed by local issues like theft and the drug crisis, will make a national statement to decide whether to keep or fire District Attorney Chesa Boudin — either by backing a young movement for criminal justice reform, or by fueling a wave of backlash arguing that the changes it represents have gone too far.

That Boudin’s attempted recall is happening in a city renowned for being part of the same progressive vanguard has captivated observers across the country. They will receive a signal of public sentiment at a volatile time, when pandemic anxieties and fears of rising crime have stalled some of the momentum spurred by Black Lives Matter activism and the police killing of George Floyd. .

California is unique in that its laws make it easy to remove an elected official. But prosecutors pushing reforms to reduce incarceration in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago and elsewhere face similar charges that their policies are sweeping and dangerous. This countercurrent could grow if the effort against Boudin succeeds.

Eric Siddall, vice president of the Los Angeles County Assistant District Attorneys Association, said Boudin’s recall would be “100%” a boost to their campaign to overthrow the Los Angeles District Attorney. , George Gascón, Boudin’s progressive predecessor before moving south. . San Francisco’s latest recall, when voters removed three school board members, was “very telling,” Siddall said.

“When you have an elected official who refuses to do their job, you can’t just wait for the next election cycle,” he said. “We must act”

Boudin and his supporters have sought to highlight what they say is evidence that larger forces are converging in San Francisco, focusing on William Oberndorf, a Republican investor who has invested more than $650,000 in the campaign for recall and a political action committee that supports it. In a recent interview, Boudin referenced a “reactionary national playbook” that seeks to heighten fear of crime and associates progressive district attorneys with crime issues, even as a nationwide rise in homicides during the pandemic erupts. is produced in Conservative and Liberal counties.

Jessica Brand, a political 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 struggle “actually pretty much reflects what has become a strategy Republican nationwide. … If you can’t win by the rules, then you should try to make up the rules and win when nobody cares.

Across the country, however, Democrats have also increasingly pushed back on aspects of criminal justice reform, including efforts to defund police departments, aware of many black, Latino and Asian American voters who fear d to be even more vulnerable. In San Francisco, the mayor of London Breed, who will appoint Boudin’s successor if he is ousted, has pledged to be less “tolerant of all the bulls – who have destroyed our city”.

Regardless of their source, progressive prosecutors push back against sustained attacks. In Illinois, a bill would create a pathway to recall Cook County District Attorney Kim Foxx — and no one else. A Pennsylvania bill would cap an elected district attorney’s term at two terms, but only in Philadelphia, where Krasner is the lead prosecutor.

In Missouri, Governor Mike Parson, a Republican, has asked lawmakers to return the power to prosecute homicides in St. Louis to the state’s attorney general, a move widely seen as an attack on Gardner, the city’s first black attorney. 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 callback mechanisms. “Obviously that resentment among conservatives is there, they just can’t articulate it the way California does,” said John Pfaff, a criminologist at Fordham University in New York. “Even among the states that have the recall…what’s different in California is there’s a lot more culture of use.”

Tuesday’s election is being closely watched nationwide. Fox News host Tucker Carlson highlighted the San Francisco recall on his show, calling Boudin a “crazy DA and equity dealer.” expressed his support for Boudin on Twitter and volunteered for his phone banks.

Recall campaign leaders in San Francisco, however, sought to draw sharp distinctions between their criticism of Boudin and the national debate about progressive prosecutors. They highlighted internal disputes in his office and local cases in which a defendant committed a serious crime after avoiding charges or receiving what they considered lenient sentences after previous arrests.

“We must never forget the names of the innocent victims lost on Chesa’s watch,” read a recent tweet from the pro-recall campaign.

Brooke Jenkins, a former homicide prosecutor under Boudin who stepped down to help lead the recall, said Boudin made a mistake trying to associate the campaign with right-wing forces.

“This reminder here is not about our difference in ideology,” said Jenkins, who describes herself as a progressive prosecutor. “A lot of people subscribe to the same kind of overarching goals that Chesa has.” But many voters, she said, simply feel the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of reform: “People said, ‘Wait a minute. What we didn’t sign up for is rampant crime.

While homicides are on the rise in San Francisco, overall reported crime has declined during Boudin’s tenure, according to police figures. And Boudin has come under attack for moves that put him at the center of the progressive national prosecutors’ movement, such as ending cash bail, allowing more defendants to be diverted to treatment rather than trial. , refusing to prosecute minors as adults, and refusing 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 rescind some of Boudin’s policies. She said tools such as cash bail and sentencing enhancements should not be imposed in all cases, but are necessary in certain circumstances to protect public safety.

For Jess and Annie Nichol, the tone of today’s debate is familiar. The 1993 kidnapping and murder of their sister, 12-year-old Polly Klaas of Sonoma County, fueled California’s adoption of the three-strike law. It was designed to dramatically increase sentences for repeat offenders and was part of a wave of punitive policies in the 1990s that clogged jails and jails and have been clawed back in recent years.

“We are very concerned that if the recall is successful, it will undo the significant reforms that Chesa has passed and give leverage to the failed crime crackdown policies of the past,” the sisters, whose views diverged from those of Polly’s father, victims’ attorney Marc Klaas, said in email correspondence with The Chronicle.

Since the progressive prosecutorial movement is still relatively new, there has been little electoral testing of these district attorneys. Early results, however, favored the reformers. Krasner beat his main challenger last year in Philadelphia by a wide margin and claimed victory over his Republican opponent in the general election. foxx easily won re-election in 2020, despite his opponent surpassing 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 on the other side having more money than you when they run,” Krasner said in an interview. “This is an unprecedented war on democracy being played out with every dirty trick imaginable.”

In an op-ed he wrote for Broad + Liberty, Pennsylvania Senate Speaker Jake Corman, who wants to impeach Krasner, defended the recall as a tactic. “Normally this should be settled at the ballot box, but these are not normal times,” he wrote. “Violent crime is 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 ahead of him.”

In Los Angeles, the fate of the recall offer against Gascón remains uncertain. On their website, leaders of that effort said they had raised more than $6 million and garnered 500,000 signatures, about 70,000 fewer than needed by July 6 to run for the ballot.

Pfaff, the Fordham criminologist, said while a recall of Boudin might embolden criticism from his progressive allies, he’s not sure it would generate enough momentum to get them through. The progressive prosecutorial movement is so new, he said, that it’s hard to speculate how a race would alter its course.

“Our understanding of politics here,” Pfaff said, “is just incredibly weak.”

Richie Greenberg, a former Republican candidate for mayor of 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.

“In the past year and a half since we started all of this, I’ve had phone calls, texts, Twitter, DMs and emails at the call back office asking if we could help elsewhere,” said said Greenberg. “There will be organizations across the country looking to see if it is possible to recall someone who has been so detrimental to a city.”

Megan Cassidy is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @meganrcassidy