How Chesa Boudin lost San Francisco: DA resoundingly recalled for failing to get a grip on crime and disorder

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San Francisco voters moved decisively to recall controversial District Attorney Chesa Boudin, ousting him in a Tuesday vote that is sure to reverberate nationwide. Early results had voters in the famously progressive city voting in favor of Proposition H, which asked if Boudin should be removed, by a 3-to-2 margin.

“This election does not mean that San Francisco has drifted to the far right on our approach to criminal justice,” recall campaign chairperson Mary Jung said in a statement late Tuesday night, as supporters of the effort celebrated at a crowded bar.

In the final analysis, the race was not especially close, with 60% of voters supporting the recall. Boudin enjoyed his strongest support in inner-core neighborhoods like the Mission and Haight-Ashbury, but he was decisively rejected by wealthier whites in enclaves like Pacific Heights as well as by Asian Americans in redoubts like the Richmond.

It was, at least for now, the political demise of a 41-year-old who had come into office with ambitions of emptying prisons of low-level offenders, implementing anti-recidivism programs and prosecuting police officers for misconduct. His supporters argued he did just that, and that the recall effort was motivated by an embittered but wealthy Republican minority unwilling to wait until 2023, when Boudin was to face reelection.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin addresses supporters.
Boudin addresses supporters on election night. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

But the recall effort ably painted itself as led by a multiracial coalition of Democrats unwilling to countenance relentless property crime, open-air drug dealing and a general feeling of lawlessness over a city that had once famously — and lovingly — been called “Baghdad-by-the Bay” by legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen.

“The voters have risen up and expressed tremendous frustration with the state of the city and a feeling that leaders are not taking us in the direction the people want to go,” city supervisor Rafael Mandelman told the San Francisco Chronicle.

In recent years, cities including Chicago, Philadelphia and New York had elected like-minded prosecutors who seemed to reject the “law and order” vision of the district attorney’s role. It is unclear what, if anything, Boudin’s defeat will mean for his counterparts across the country, though in a concession speech of sorts, he rejected any notions of a broader setback for the policies he espoused.

“This is a movement, not a moment,” Boudin said at an election night event, describing himself as “part of a national movement that understands we can never incarcerate our way out of poverty.”

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
Boudin at an election-night event in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The evening was a reprise of February’s successful effort by San Franciscans to recall three school board members who were seen as engaging in progressive cultural issues while doing too little to open schools that had been closed by the coronavirus pandemic. Conservative outlets like Fox News gleefully covered the results, which coincided with voters in Los Angeles sending billionaire Rick Caruso to a runoff in the mayoral race there against liberal stalwart Rep. Karen Bass.

In both cases, Left Coast voters moved decisively to the right, animated less by ideology than practical concerns that had become unignorable. “People are not in a good mood, and they have reason not to be in a good mood. It’s not just the crime issue. It’s the homelessness. It’s the high price of gasoline,” a political consultant told the New York Times.

Progressives, meanwhile, downplayed the results as little more than the machinations of local politics that were not a referendum on criminal justice reform or policing. “Chesa Boudin’s recall is being portrayed as a debate about approaches to criminal justice. It isn’t. It’s liberal San Franciscans recalling a liberal DA because he sucks at his job,” tech entrepreneur Bram Cohen wrote on Twitter.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
Although a previous recall effort failed to garner traction, this campaign managed to capture the growing dissatisfaction with Boudin throughout the second half of 2021. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Some inside the San Francisco city government had privately come to the same conclusion but were glad to see Boudin go all the same, given the unwelcome publicity he seemed to attract to a city that has a huge unhoused population plagued by mental illness and drug abuse. Homebound office workers and hesitant tourists have further rendered this lively city a haunting version of its pre-pandemic self.

Supporters of the recall insisted that they had no desire to see the kind of law-and-order policing supported by conservatives. “San Francisco has been a national beacon for progressive criminal justice reform for decades and will continue to do so with new leadership,” recall organizer Jung said. “By recalling Boudin from office, San Francisco can now move forward in charting a better and safer path for our city.”

Boudin’s successor will be appointed by Mayor London Breed, who made no secret about her disdain for him and his rhetoric. A potential candidate to serve as his replacement is Brooke Jenkins, a former prosecutor in Boudin’s office who emerged as one of his top critics. A progressive Black woman whose own family has suffered the tragic effects of gun violence, Jenkins painted Boudin’s office as “a sinking ship” in a devastating interview with the Chronicle last fall.

“I simply believe he is wedded to his radical approach,” Jenkins said. After leaving Boudin’s office, she became, in many ways, the public face of the campaign, appearing regularly on local media and also on national programs like “Real Time With Bill Maher.”

Former prosecutor Brooke Jenkins.
Former prosecutor Brooke Jenkins talks about the effort to recall Boudin during an interview in San Francisco on May 26. (Haven Daley/AP)

By the time Boudin seemed to fully realize that his political future was in grave danger, it was too late. In what could be seen as a warning to national Democrats, neither impassioned tweets nor the endorsements of celebrities (John Legend, Danny Glover) and newspapers (San Francisco Chronicle, among many others) could stem the tide of popular discontent.

Efforts to depict the recall as the effort of Republican billionaires also failed, much as it had during the school board recall. The city’s electorate is overwhelmingly Democratic.

Once deemed “radical royalty” by the New York Times, Boudin is the son of 1960s radicals who had been imprisoned for the infamous 1981 Brink’s robbery. He attended Yale and Yale Law School, winning a Rhodes Scholarship in the process. Boudin was working as a San Francisco public defender when then-District Attorney George Gascón announced he was leaving to seek the same office in Los Angeles.

Boudin narrowly, and surprisingly, won the ensuing contest over Suzy Loftus, whom Breed had named as Gascón’s replacement. His election was celebrated, among others, by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who praised his “personal strength and commitment to reforming and improving the criminal justice system” in a prerecorded video.

Chesa Boudin.
Boudin, then a deputy public defender, in 2018. (Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

An inexperienced politician, Boudin did little to quell anxieties about his intentions for the office, moving quickly to fire several experienced prosecutors. He began to decrease the city’s jail population, citing the coronavirus pandemic that had greeted him early in his tenure.

“We found a lot of people who, it turns out, shouldn’t have really been incarcerated in the first place,” he told “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross in April 2020.

Boudin’s troubles did not truly begin until the last day of 2020, when a driver killed two women in central San Francisco on New Year’s Eve. The suspect, Troy McAlister, had been cycling through the Bay Area criminal justice system for years, but a plea deal earlier that year with the district attorney’s office had freed him, and critics tied Boudin to the attack.

Just a month later, a jogger was struck and killed by the driver of a stolen car. The victim, Sheria Musyoka, had emigrated from Kenya to attend Dartmouth College. He had recently moved to San Francisco with his wife and young child. Suspected driver Jerry Lyons was, like McAlister, a repeat offender — the very kind of person Boudin argued nonpunitive policies could help.

Volunteers on 19th Avenue in San Francisco hold signs that read: Recall Chesa Boudin.
Volunteers on 19th Avenue in San Francisco hold posters urging the recall of Boudin on May 26. (Haven Daley/AP)

Instead, he found himself increasingly on the defensive after the two killings, his protestation of blamelessness coming across as callous to some. Musyoka’s widow, Hannah Ege, bluntly said that Boudin was at fault. “This freak accident was no freak accident,” she told a local outlet. “It was someone who was out in the public who should not have been out in public.”

Boudin was also seemingly flummoxed by the rise in anti-Asian violence, describing the killing of 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee as the result of a “temper tantrum” on the part of the 19-year-old assailant. The following month, a man fatally shot six Asian women in Atlanta, bringing the crisis of anti-Asian violence to the fore of the national conversation. Though he tried to depict himself as an ally of the city’s large and influential Chinese-language community, the effort fell far short.

Many of the same Asian American voters who voted to oust the three school board members appear to have voted against Boudin as well.

The proliferation of viral videos of smash-and-grab crimes only worsened Boudin’s political plight. He and his supporters argued that such crimes were a national phenomenon and that, overall, crime was down in San Francisco. But statistics failed to persuade voters who routinely had to step over the broken glass of car windows, human excrement and drug paraphernalia.

And he was also blamed for poor management, most notably in withering commentary from Superior Court Judge Bruce Chan, who said, “I cannot express in any more certain terms my disapproval of the manner in which the Office of the District Attorney is being managed.”

Chesa Boudin and his wife, Valerie Block.
Boudin and his wife, Valerie Block, on election night. (Noah Berger/AP)

Although a first recall effort, led by local figure Richie Greenberg, failed to garner traction, a second — better organized and more professional — managed to capture the growing dissatisfaction with Boudin throughout the second half of 2021. Needing 50,000 signatures to place his recall on the ballot, the organizers submitted 83,000 to the election board.

Boudin’s predecessor in office, Gascón, went on to win office in Los Angeles — and is now facing a recall effort of his own. Gascón’s opponents were emboldened by Tuesday’s results in Northern California, as well as Caruso’s strong showing in the mayoral race. They believe that public sentiment and political momentum are both on their side.