San Francisco residents voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to recall progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin following a heated campaign that captivated the country and bitterly divided Democrats over crime, policing and public safety reform in the famously liberal city.
Recall proponents cheered the results at a victory party, with California state leaders of the hotel and retailers associations lauding Boudin’s removal as a sign that visitors, shoppers and workers will be prioritized again in a city that relies heavily on tourism. They rejected Boudin’s efforts to paint them as Republicans.
“This election does not mean that San Francisco has drifted to the far right on our approach to criminal justice,” said Mary Jung, a chair of the recall campaign, in a statement. “In fact, San Francisco has been a national beacon for progressive criminal justice reform for decades and will continue to do so with new leadership.”
Boudin, 41, was a first-time political candidate who narrowly won office in November 2019 as part of a national wave of progressive prosecutors who pledged to seek alternatives to incarceration, end the racist war on drugs and hold police officers to account.
But his time in office coincided with a frustrating and frightening pandemic in which viral footage of brazen shoplifting and attacks against Asian American people drove some residents to mount a recall campaign of the former public defender and son of left-wing activists.
Partial returns Tuesday night showed about 60% of voters supporting the recall, but Boudin remained defiant in a speech to supporters, saying he was outspent by “right-wing billionaires.” He said voters were understandably frustrated by the pandemic and a city government that has failed to deliver on safety, housing and equity.
“We have two cities. We have two systems of justice. We have one for the wealthy and the well connected and a different one for everybody else. And that’s exactly what we are fighting to change,” he said, adding that justice was on their side.
It was unclear Tuesday what the resounding recall of Boudin could mean to the progressive prosecutor movement nationally and in California, where reform candidates were competing against more traditional law-and-order candidates in a handful of races, with mixed results.
California's progressive attorney general, Rob Bonta, who was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, was leading with 57% of the vote Tuesday night, easily advancing to the November general election. Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, a critic of Boudin who ran as an independent, did not advance.
In Los Angeles County, the campaign to recall progressive District Attorney George Gascón said in a statement the results showed that Gascón, the former prosecutor of San Francisco, could be next.
But Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, said the movement toward more liberal approaches to criminal justice was growing as more people understand that tough-talking prosecutors do not result in safer communities.
“If one can read anything into tonight’s outcome, it should be the distorting impact of a low turnout recall process easily swayed by special interests and coming at a time of deep frustration and trauma, rather than clear and considered opposition to a prosecutor committed to ending failed tough-on-crime policies,” she said.
Mayor London Breed, who had backed a more moderate Democrat in the 2019 district attorney race, will name Boudin’s replacement after the results are certified by the elections office and approved by the Board of Supervisors.
Boudin could also run in November when the race is back on the ballot.
Boudin’s time in office was marked by a bruising battle with the San Francisco Police Department, which accused his office of withholding evidence in a case against an officer. Boudin shot back that he could not prosecute cases when police failed to bring evidence and made arrests in just 5% of cases.
He made headlines when he disclosed that police had used DNA collected from a rape to arrest the victim in an unrelated property crime.
San Francisco has long struggled with open drug dealing, vandalism, auto theft and home burglaries. Political experts say the political newcomer who narrowly won in 2019 was in the crosshairs of outside forces that made him an easy target for public frustration.
Boudin was a baby when his parents, left-wing Weather Underground radicals, served as drivers in a botched 1981 robbery in New York that left two police officers and a security guard dead. They were sentenced to decades in prison.
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While campaigning, he spoke of the pain of stepping through metal detectors to hug his parents and vowed to reform a system that tears apart families. Kathy Boudin was released on parole in 2003 and died of cancer in May. David Gilbert was granted parole in October.
The recall campaign against Boudin was backed by many of the same people who successfully ousted three liberal members of the San Francisco school board in February. Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom, however, easily beat a Republican-led recall last year.