Chesa Boudin’s recall is about more than one prosecutor

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Chesa Boudin, 39, came to power as a rockstar, an innovative district attorney in San Francisco, who kept his promises to abolish cash bail and make it easier to get away with pretty crimes and to reduce prison population. This was a new first in the city when he tried to prosecute an off-duty officer for manslaughter. To reopen any suspected wrong convictions, he explored other sentencing alternatives and called out racism in policing. The minors who are being tried now face the law as adults, and not as children. Zero cases prosecuted by the San Francisco DA’s office remain on California’s death row. Boudin’s efforts at change are actually working.

Put another way: For progressives intent on overhauling the criminal-justice system, Boudin appeared perfectly cast as the lawyer to lead the charge, and San Francisco—at least from afar—seemed like a sufficiently liberal place to test many of their pet policies.

Yet, on Tuesday, voters in San Francisco were deciding whether to boot Boudin, now aged 41, a year-and-a-half before his term as the city’s top prosecutor ends. It’s not that crime is particularly up in San Francisco, and it’s not as though prosecutors dictate the behavior of would-be criminals, either. Reports of violent crime actually down in San Francisco, and the city’s crime rates are comparable or lower than that of other cities.

Problem facing Boudin: San Francisco residents feel more unsafe by a 2-to-1 margin. Such strong personal feelings outweigh facts in politics. There’s a reason the Place your orderA part of law-and-order campaign messaging works so well.

Boudin’s potential demise has been the stuff of conservative dreams since he first won election in 2019. The son of two convicted members of the violent Weather Underground, he was raised by two of the group’s founders while his parents served prison time. Boudin had grown into a Yale- and Oxford-educated public defender when he decided to pursue the top gig in the prosecutor’s office. Boudin, despite having never tried to prosecute a case and having a difficult relationship with both the Democratic Party establishment and the police union in general, won his first attempt at public office.

He is not facing the same politics today as he was in 2020, his initial days of office. America has had to confront racism in all its forms over the years. This is especially true when it concerns injustices for Black and Asian residents. The Covid-19 lockdowns and isolation changed societal patterns in ways the country still hasn’t fully recognized. Health care and the courts are being hit by a growing epidemic of substance abuse. Great Resignation also remade large parts of the economy. You can take all that money and put it in San Francisco. It is considered a safe haven for the progressive fringe, even though its size rivals Detroit or Boston. San Francisco recently faced some of the worst anti-Asian-American violence in the country, while twice as many people died there from drug overdoses than Covid-19 during Boudin’s first year on the job. Roughly half of Boudin’s staff have either quit, retired, or been fired.

That environment, coupled with Boudin’s perceived leniency for so-called victimless crimes like shoplifting, left plenty in the Bay Area frustrated. Although a recall campaign against Boudin was unsuccessful, a second effort at gathering signatures allowed the issue to be put to voters. Boudin’s efforts to be booted raised $7 million. His friends are outspending him by a 2-to-1 margin. He can blame big GOP donors and misinformation campaigns for his record, but none of that completely explains why his polling and early-voting trends suggest a majority of voters don’t want him to complete his term.

It is possible that the spasm of tension in San Francisco may be a sign of a new era for criminal justice-focused policymakers from both sides. Boudin is charismatic, but he can be part of the larger movement of prosecutors who were elected with pledges to reform the system. Some of these prosecutors aren’t as liberal-minded as critics believe. Fox News focuses on the DAs in New York City and Los Angeles. However, conservatives have also made progress within the same space. Although it may appear unlikely that similar efforts could have been made in places like Greenwood (Miss.), Pima County (Ariz.) and York County (Pa.), they have. Uncertain is whether policy makers in these communities, blue and red alike, continue with current efforts, or retreat into fear at the possibility of what next elections might bring.

But, the reality is that current electoral realities can be difficult. Sure, Philadelphia’s prosecutor weathered his own primary last year despite unrelenting accusations he had gone soft on crime. Los Angeles’ district attorney will have to face his challenge, if his opponents are able to gather enough signatures before next month.

And, of course, some of the Republican Party’s sharpest operatives are watching closely to see what San Francisco voters do on Tuesday, and will try to replicate the strategy elsewhere if it is successful.

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