Cut to the Chesa
It’s primary day in California. For once there are no propositions on the ballot — hooray! And I don’t expect any surprise winners for statewide office. But I am interested to see how the recall of Chesa Boudin goes.
Boudin is San Francisco’s district attorney (a position once held by Vice President Kamala Harris). He’s been in office little more than two years, but is unpopular and expected to lose the recall. Why?
Part of it is professional animosity. His parents belonged to the Weather Underground, a violent left-wing splinter group, and they participated in the murder of a security guard and two police officers — not helpful when a huge part of the DA’s job is working with cops. After a distinguished academic career (Yale, Oxford, Rhodes Scholarship), Boudin moved to San Francisco and became a public defender — a lawyer who protects accuseds against the district attorney. And then in 2019 he ran for DA vowing to eliminate cash bail and find alternatives to jail for first-time offenders — in essence, to overhaul traditional law enforcement practice.
The other part of Boudin’s unpopularity stems from soaring concern about crime among San Franciscans. This Fox News video of a bicycle-riding drug store shoplifter has been watched more than a million and a half times on YouTube (you need to watch only the first twenty seconds):
San Franciscans encounter open drug use, tent camps, and menacing street people on an almost daily basis. As a Berkeley resident, I can relate, and I totally get their frustration.
But if I were one of them, I would vote against recalling Boudin.
My first reason is on principle: I don’t think the recall process should be used except in cases of corruption or other misconduct. If you disagree with elected officials’ policies, organize to beat them in the next election.
My second reason is that Boudin is being held to account for something that isn’t his responsibility. He didn’t cause the homelessness, mental illness, and drug abuse plaguing San Francisco’s public spaces, and he has minimal power to affect them because, for the most part, they’re not crimes.
My third reason is that the data don’t support the widespread perception that crime has spun out of control due to Boudin. Rapes and robberies are down. Murders are up slightly, but that’s true across the US, and SF’s murder rate remains comparable to Omaha and St. Paul, cities with more benign reputations. Property crimes are up significantly, but that’s as much a consequence of having fewer police on the street, passage of Proposition 47 (which raised the threshold of felony theft from $400 to $950), and the pandemic (which limits how many people can be jailed) than anything Boudin has done.
Bottom line: a few spectacular videos do not a crime wave make. How many San Francisco voters know the bike-riding shoplifter was arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to 16 months behind bars? Not many, I bet, because there’s no sensational footage of that.
I don’t know what kind of person Chesa Boudin is. He may be a terrible boss and collaborator, in which case his defeat would be a blessing. But we should also consider this from the other direction: what if it’s police leadership and DA office staff who are dysfunctional — or too stuck in their ways? Boudin argues that the reason convictions for property crime are down is that the police aren’t arresting perpetrators. Shouldn’t the chief be blamed for that — or the people of San Francisco themselves, for discouraging officers from remaining on or joining the force?
Although I hope the election shows San Franciscans are willing to give Boudin more time, I won’t be upset if they don’t. Mayor London Breed would appoint his replacement, and she’s likely to name a middle-of-the-roader. More cynically, it will allow Democrats to claim they’re anti-crime hard-liners in the national election this November: “See, even San Francisco has renounced the progressive approach!” If that helps blunt the expected Republican wave even a little, Boudin’s recall will have been a worthwhile sacrifice.