Voters recall SF DA Boudin

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 8, 2022
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San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, right, was joined by former assemblymember Tom Ammiano outside the Castro Muni Station Tuesday morning. Photo: Cynthia Laird
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, right, was joined by former assemblymember Tom Ammiano outside the Castro Muni Station Tuesday morning. Photo: Cynthia Laird

Within 45 minutes of the polls closing, progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who spent half of his two years in office battling recall efforts, had lost his effort to keep his job.

Proposition H, which aimed to recall the district attorney, passed with 60% of the vote, according to unofficial returns.

In a related matter, Proposition C, which would have changed the rules for recalls in San Francisco and affected whom Mayor London Breed appoints to replace Boudin, fell by the same percentage, 60%, early results showed.

The Prop H results were pretty much in step with polls before the election routinely showing that more than 60% of San Franciscans wanted Boudin out of office.

Fourteen months after Boudin became the city's top prosecutor in January 2020, he was targeted with the first of what would be two efforts to recall him. Launched by failed, sometimes Republican, mayoral candidate Richie Greenberg in March 2021, the first recall effort fell 1,714 signatures short of the required 51,325 signatures needed by that August to spark a recall.

Despite overall lower crime figures, images of organized thieves raiding and stealing from Union Square boutiques which went viral online, and a shocking increase in violent crimes against the city's Asian community proved to be strong fodder against the district attorney.

"Voters weren't asked to choose between criminal justice reform and something else," Boudin told his supporters Tuesday night, reported the San Francisco Standard. "They were given an opportunity to voice their outrage and their frustration and they took that opportunity."

On Tuesday morning, Boudin was greeting people outside the Castro Muni station, where he was joined by gay former supervisor and assemblymember Tom Ammiano. Boudin said he was feeling confident of his chances.

"We've got energy and momentum," he said.

Mary Jung, chair of the Safer SF Without Boudin campaign, stated that the election results showed San Franciscans "of all stripes" wanted a different top prosecutor.

"San Francisco voters sent a clear message that they want a district attorney who prioritizes public safety for every community," Jung stated in a news release after the polls closed. "San Francisco voters are engaged and well-informed. They know that we can have important criminal justice reforms and public safety for all, but that neither was being achieved with Chesa in office."

Wave of progressive prosecutors

Boudin, 41, was one of a wave of progressive prosecutors elected to office around the country, beginning with Philadelphia County District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2017, and including Rachael Rollins, the first Black woman to be elected to the office in Boston in 2019, and Alvin Leonard Bragg Jr., the first Black DA for New York County (Manhattan) in 2021. Running on promises to reform the criminal justice system, they sought to reduce prison populations by downgrading the severity of punishment for some crimes such as petty theft and drug possession, with a stronger focus on rehabilitation and crime prevention. (Diana Becton, another progressive prosecutor, was easily reelected Tuesday in Contra Costa County with 56% of the vote, according to preliminary returns. In Alameda County, Pamela Price, a progressive attorney running for a second time, finished first in the primary for the open DA race and will advance to a November runoff.)

In his election to office, Boudin narrowly outpaced Suzy Loftus, who had been appointed interim DA just days before absentee ballots were sent out in October 2019. Breed, who endorsed Loftus, named her to the interim post after former DA George Gascón abruptly resigned in early October. He moved to Southern California and is now DA in Los Angeles County, where he faces his own recall efforts. As of June 4, 500,000 of the necessary 566,857 valid signatures needed to place a recall of Gascón on the November ballot had been collected. Recall supporters have until July 7 to reach their goal.

Several San Francisco Democratic leaders, dissatisfied with Boudin, launched their own recall effort as the first recall was still collecting signatures. Theirs succeeded while the prior effort fizzled. Easily reaching the 51,325 signatures needed, organizers eventually collected more than 83,000, paving the way for the recall on the June 7 primary ballot.

Boudin fought back hard, particularly focusing attention on the city's large Asian electoral bloc. Some of the earliest support for his recall came from Asian voters angered by the string of seemingly racially motivated street attacks, particularly against senior citizens. But those types of cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute.

From 2020 to 2021, reported Asian hate crimes leapt from nine to 60 — a 567% increase — but roughly half of those cases were attributed to a single person who allegedly vandalized almost two-dozen Chinese-owned businesses, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The suspect, Derik Barreto, was charged with 33 criminal counts including vandalism and second-degree burglary, which included extra penalties for alleged hate crimes. But a judge ordered Barreto to be released as part of the Mental Health Diversion program despite objections from the district attorney's office. Despite that, and despite support from many leaders in the Chinese community, anger among Asian voters proved too strong a force for Boudin.

San Francisco's two LGBTQ Democratic clubs also split on the recall. The more progressive Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club backed Boudin, while the more moderate Alice B. Toklas LGBTQ Democratic Club took no position.

The Alice club said the membership vote didn't meet the threshold for an endorsement.

"Without disclosing specific details of our political action committee discussions, the club was largely divided between wanting to stay out of yet another recall, not being happy with his performance as DA, or their support for Chesa — the bulk of which being the latter. Ultimately — a 60% threshold to make a recommendation wasn't met by our PAC, and our membership vote followed suit with no position," co-chair Gary McCoy stated back in April.

Throughout the race, Boudin continued to blame Republicans for driving the recall efforts. Safer SF Without Boudin, the recall campaign led by Jung, a former San Francisco Democratic Party chair, was funded largely in part by a political action committee called Neighbors for a Better San Francisco Advocacy, which raised more than $5.74 million and put more than $3 million into the recall effort, according to figures from The PAC is funded in large part with money from Republican billionaire William Oberndorf, as well as money from real estate and tech interests. Jung, the San Francisco Examiner noted in 2016, "was a lobbyist who often met with Mayor [Ed] Lee on behalf of the San Francisco Association of Realtors — a group who frequently lobbies against rental protections in a renter-majority city."

Opponents of the recall, however, raised only $2.67 million and spent a little over $1.5 million in their efforts to beat the effort.

Throughout the race, various polls showed almost overwhelming support for recalling the district attorney, but those numbers seemingly began to tighten up in the days before the election. While previous polls showed as much as 67% of voters saying they would vote in favor of the recall, a late poll of 3,000 voters conducted by Telegraph/TSG Research suggested a dead heat with 47% of voters likely to support the recall and 47% opposed, according to the news site Those numbers were, as it happens, wrong.

Unless he resigns earlier, Boudin will leave office 10 days after the votes are certified by the Board of Supervisors, allowing Breed to pick his replacement. Given the failure of Prop C, whomever she appoints will be able to stand for election in November 2023, when the DA office would be on the ballot.

Prop C falls

Had it passed, Prop C — which seemed tailor-made as a counter to Prop H — would have changed the rules for city recall elections. If a city official were recalled, the candidate appointed by the mayor would only be a placeholder and unable to run for the seat themselves in the next regular election if that election is more than 12 months away.

Sponsored by Supervisors Aaron Peskin (District 3), Shamann Walton (District 10), Hillary Ronen (District 9), and Dean Preston (District 5), the charter amendment was approved to be added to the ballot February 25 7-4, with gay Supervisor Rafael Mandelman (District 8), and Supervisors Myrna Melgar (District 7), Ahsha Safaí (District 11), and Catherine Stefani (District 2) in opposition.

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