Home News Soft-on-crime progressive DA Chesa Boudin ousted in historic San Francisco recall

Soft-on-crime progressive DA Chesa Boudin ousted in historic San Francisco recall

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Megan Cassidy

San Francisco Chronicle

Jun. 8—San Francisco voters overwhelmingly voted to remove District Attorney Chesa Boudin from office on Tuesday, favoring a recall effort that argued his progressive reforms were too lenient and made the city less safe.

Boudin trailed by about 20 percentage points Tuesday evening, according to the latest figures from city elections officials. Around 60% of San Franciscans who cast ballots voted to recall him.

Boudin will be removed from office 10 days after the Board of Supervisors formally accepts the election results. The city’s more moderate mayor, London Breed, will choose his immediate replacement, and voters will elect a new district attorney in November.

The result comes as little surprise to residents following numerous polls, almost all of which predicted a decisive defeat for Boudin.

The results capped off a furious debate over crime and criminal justice in San Francisco, with the two sides fighting over Boudin’s approach to incarceration and rehabilitation and his leadership. As his supporters lauded his efforts to find alternatives to jails and prisons — which he said had failed the public for decades — his detractors slammed him as too permissive.

Boudin will depart the office after serving two and a half years of his four-year term.

Supporters of recalling Boudin erupted in cheers and chants of “Recall Chesa” as they toasted drinks after first results showed Boudin’s ouster. People embraced and said they were going to cry, overcome with emotion.

Boudin arrived at his watch party after the measure had already been called, making his entrance to chants of “Chesa!”

“This is a movement not a moment,” he said, standing on top of a keg to be seen and heard.

“Our cause is righteous,” he said. “And we have already won! And we have already won! We are part of a national movement that understands we can never incarcerate our way out of poverty.”

Recall campaign chair Mary Jung, who described herself as a “lifelong Democrat,” said she started the campaign 14 months ago because she believed San Francisco was in trouble, needed change and would support a “Democratic-led campaign for a safer San Francisco.”

“San Franciscans from every neighborhood and background sent a clear message today,” she said. “Voters said loud and clear that they want a district attorney who prioritizes public safety for every community.”

Two women whose names have arisen as potential replacements were at the recall party. Brooke Jenkins, a former prosecutor who resigned from Boudin’s office and became a campaign spokesperson demurred when asked whether she would put her name forward or run. “My goal was to help this campaign and I’m content,” Jenkins said.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who endorsed the recall, also declined to comment on whether she was interested or would ask the mayor to consider her.

Before polls closed Tuesday, Christina Harsanyi, a Russian Hill resident who dropped off her ballot in Chinatown during her lunch break, said she supported the recall and wanted a more aggressive prosecutor. “I don’t feel particularly safe in my neighborhood due to an increase in crime,” she said, citing needles, fires set on the street and break-ins around her home.

But Andrew Wu, an Outer Sunset voter, said he believed city police officers had at times declined to intervene in crime and solve cases, hindering what Boudin as district attorney could do. “The onus is on both groups to enforce the law,” said Wu, who voted no on the recall.

Some voters on Tuesday expressed unease about recalls. Mike Rosene, an Outer Sunset resident, voted no, and said recalls were a waste of taxpayer dollars. “You have to give them a chance to finish the term,” he said, “and if you’re unhappy, you can vote your guy in at the next election.”

The election was closely-watched across the nation. While San Francisco has elected a series of left-leaning district attorneys in recent decades, Boudin was part of a wave of progressive prosecutors who took power in American cities, channelling the energy of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Boudin eliminated cash bail, which favors wealthier defendants; helped divert more defendants to treatment instead of trials; and pursued criminal prosecutions against nine police officers.

Boudin blamed the recall on conservative forces, pointing to the fundraising against him, but only 7% of voters register as Republican in San Francisco. Rather, he split Democrats in a city where many residents are frustrated with chronic problems, including high rates of burglary and drug overdoses.

Some of the recall team’s most vocal advocates were Democrats, who said they believed in Boudin’s overarching goals but said his leadership had created an office in disarray and a system that let offenders off without meaningful consequences.

One spark for the recall was a tragic car crash on Dec. 31, 2020, that happened when police said an armed and intoxicated man barreled a stolen car into two pedestrians, Hanako Abe and Elizabeth Platt, in the South of Market area, killing both. The alleged driver, Troy McAlister, 45, had been arrested several times in the months leading up to the wreck, but his state parole was never revoked and the District Attorney’s Office did not file any new charges.

Boudin, a former public defender, was elected by a razor-thin margin in 2019, following a ranked-choice contest that pit him against Suzy Loftus, who had been appointed interim district attorney by Mayor Breed, and a pair of more conservative candidates.

Among other changes, he stopped charging juveniles as adults and declined to take advantage of the “three strikes” law, which was designed to drastically increase punishments for repeat offenders. He contended that lowering incarceration actually made the city safer, because rehabilitating offenders was more effective.

Boudin ignited strong feelings from the beginning, and he and his supporters soon warned of what they described as a move from a right-wing “playbook” — ratcheting up fear of crime and placing blame on his reforms. Yet overall reported crime has fallen during Boudin’s tenure, according to police figures.

By the middle of last year, two groups were gunning to recall him from office. The first, led by former San Francisco Republican mayoral candidate Richie Greenberg, fell short of collecting the 51,325 signatures to qualify for a special recall election. The second effort, spearheaded by Democrats, immediately generated more contributions and widespread support, submitting 83,000 signatures in October to the Department of Elections.

Meanwhile, the reformist movement that fueled Boudin’s 2019 victory began to wane during the pandemic, when a national surge in homicides and widespread fear of rising crime often overshadowed calls for decarceration. Mayor Breed, while announcing a state of emergency in December in the long-neglected Tenderloin neighborhood, pledged to beef up policing and be less “tolerant of all the bulls— that has destroyed our city.”

By June, the groups seeking to recall Boudin together raised $7.2 million to oust him, while the district attorney’s backers gathered about $3.3 million.

Chronicle staff writers Danielle Echeverria and Roland Li contributed to this report.

Megan Cassidy, Mallory Moench and Joshua Sharpe are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: megan.cassidy@sfchronicle.commallory.moench@sfchronicle.com joshua.sharpe@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @meganrcassidy @mallorymoench @joshuawsharpe

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