What’s Stopping Chesa Boudin?

Across major cities, voters picked reform-minded district attorneys who promised to fight mass incarceration. Now, conservatives in both parties are trying to take them out.

Deputy Public Defender Chesa Boudin stands for a portrait at the Hall of Justice on Monday, January 14,  2019  in San Francisco, Calif. (Photo by Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
Chesa Boudin stands for a portrait at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 2019. Photo: Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Do you know the name of the district attorney in Sacramento, California? “A career prosecutor with 31 years of law enforcement experience,” her website boasts, Anne Marie Schubert is known for “prosecuting some of the area’s most notorious and dangerous criminals — murderers, rapists and child molesters.”

In 2018, her office helped secure a plea deal and reduced charges in a case of assault and kidnapping. Earlier this year, the man went on to become a suspect in a mass shooting that left six people dead. A former Republican running for California attorney general as an independent, Schubert blamed criminal justice reforms for a decision her office made, and the case has not dogged her tough-on-crime campaign.

What about the name of the chief of the San Francisco Police Department? The infamously expensive city has been the focus of national media for months, as a population priced out of a comfortable life struggles with homelessness, an epidemic of drug addiction, and takes blame from the rich for an uptick in some violent and petty crimes. Fox News plays clips of shoplifting sprees at San Francisco drug stores on loop, yet the police and its chief – who last year solved fewer crimes in every category they track  – barely warrant a mention, even though crime fighting is literally their job.

But you have heard of that district attorney. His name is Chesa Boudin, and on Tuesday, he’ll face a recall attempt.

“When crimes occur, and when crimes capture the public imagination or attention through viral videos or news reporting in San Francisco and other jurisdictions led by reform-minded prosecutors, the DAs get dragged into those cases and named in the headlines, and pictured in the news stories over and over and over again, even if no arrest has ever been made, even if there’s no case for us to prosecute, even if our office is in no way, shape or form involved,” the embattled San Francisco district attorney told The Intercept. “That never happens in traditional tough-on-crime jurisdictions.”

With the recall election looming on June 7, Boudin’s notoriety is far from accidental. In late April, at a meeting of the country’s largest group of conservative lawmakers, Virginia Republican Attorney General Jason Miyares shared lessons that, he said, vaulted him to success. Regarding progressive prosecutors, Miyares’s advice was simple: “Make them famous.”

Boudin is perhaps the most famous of a slate of progressive prosecutors elected since 2016 in major cities across the country. There’s Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Rachael Rollins in Boston, and George Gascón in Los Angeles, who previously held the San Francisco office that Boudin has now. All have faced fierce resistance from their respective state governments: While Pennsylvania lawmakers tried to strip Krasner of his authority, the Massachusetts governor battled Rollins, and Gascón, in office since 2020, is already facing his second recall attempt.

As the public spent two years largely in their homes, fearfully consuming news of crimes from shoplifting to domestic violence to mass shootings, Republicans, conservative Democrats, and law enforcement officials have seized an opportunity to launder tough-on-crime narratives that have waned in popularity since the public became more concerned with mass incarceration and police brutality. The approach includes attempting to undermine growing support for criminal justice reform by blaming reformist prosecutors for crime and homelessness. Facing losses at the ballot, conservative groups targeting democratically elected officials have increasingly turned to recall elections as their preferred tool.

A world where crimes occur provides an unending supply of fodder for critics of reform.

This comes despite data showing that even with the recent spike in gun violence and property crime, overall crime has been sharply declining since the 1990s. Critics blamed Boudin when a man who had recently been arrested several times, driving while intoxicated, hit and killed two pedestrians on New Year’s Eve in 2020. The San Francisco Chronicle published an editorial titled, “A horrific crime undercuts progressive goals of S.F. D.A. Chesa Boudin.” His office had declined to charge the man and referred the case to state parole officials, and later said it was a mistake to think parole supervision would be adequate.

A world where crimes occur provides an unending supply of fodder for critics of reform, even as tough-on-crime policies have continuously failed to rein in some of the most dangerous periods in history. The recall trend raises a question for the movement that has helped elect Krasner, Rollins, Gascón, and Boudin: Can reform-minded prosecutors ever really win?

Boudin’s loudest critics claim that he is to blame for unprecedented levels of crime in San Francisco. But the city’s rates of robbery, rape, and larceny theft are below pre-pandemic levels and decreased between 2020 and 2021. The number of reported crimes in San Francisco dropped by 28,000 during Boudin’s first two years in office, while arrest and clearance rates also dropped in several categories.

Last year, the city saw an increase of eight homicides, as well as bigger spikes in larceny theft and assault — for a total overall, according to San Francisco Police Department data, of a 1 percent increase in violent crime and a 15 percent increase in property crime. Burglary, rape, robbery, motor vehicle theft, and arson all declined.

In March, Boudin’s office released new data on prosecutions and arrests during his tenure which showed that he has filed charges on cases presented by police at an overall higher rate than his predecessors over the last decade. He has also diverted a higher portion of cases than his predecessors, in line with his campaign promise. While Boudin’s critics have claimed that he does not prosecute certain crimes like car burglaries or shoplifting, his office launched initiatives to target both offenses.

Boudin acknowledged that crime is a major concern for people across the country. But the role of police needs to be given more scrutiny, he said. “A recall, or replacing me with another DA, is irrelevant when police are only arresting less than 3 percent of people in reported thefts.”

While clearance rates for rape, robbery, assault, burglary, arson, and larceny and motor vehicle theft have declined overall during his time in office, some have begun to tick up again this year compared to 2021. Arrest rates by the SFPD, which has a budget of just over $700 million, have also declined during Boudin’s tenure. San Francisco Police Officers Association spokesperson Dustin DeRollo told The Intercept that the DA “is quick to distract away from his record and policies of being pro-criminal by using statistics when they suit him,” and that Boudin points to drops in arrests “for categories like petty thefts, which he knows are incredibly difficult to solve because of our resources.”

“To the extent that there is frustration among voters and residents and tourists around auto-burglary or shoplifting, or other lower-level property crime that has led to so much criticism of San Francisco, there is a 97 percent chance that somebody who commits one of those crimes and has it reported to the police will never get caught,” Boudin said. “We will never be able to prosecute.”

Unsurprisingly, the SFPD is among Boudin’s most vocal opponents. Their animosity is not necessarily unwarranted: Boudin’s office — like Krasner’s in Philadelphia — has prioritized cases of police misconduct. Boudin is the first DA in the city’s history to bring homicide charges against a cop.

The San Francisco Police Officers Association has not officially endorsed the recall campaign, but the union began targeting Boudin before he was elected. When he ran in 2019, SFPOA spent at least $650,000 to defeat his campaign and ran Facebook ads attacking him from February 2021 through August. In February 2022, SFPD pulled out of an agreement, put in place under Gascón, that allowed his office to investigate police shootings.

DeRollo said that Boudin’s use of diversion means “many of those criminals are released and are reoffending again,” and claimed that Boudin “hides the fact that his office regularly sends cases back to detectives for more ‘information’ despite there being sufficient probable cause. That way he doesn’t have to count it as a dismissal. Crime is up in San Francisco across the board and thanks to Chesa Boudin the word is out that you can commit crimes in our city and not have to pay for it.”

Boudin countered that diversion programs were created by the state, and prior to his administration, more than half of people released from jail pending trial were rearrested. “That’s not a new problem,” he told The Intercept. “That’s not a result of reforms. That’s a defining feature of a failed tough-on-crime approach that we’re doing the work to try to change.”

Law enforcement isn’t the only group that’s been fighting Boudin since before he was elected. Just three days after Boudin took office in January 2020, someone purchased the domain name “RecallChesa.org” and launched a website at that address later that year that directed people to sign a Change.org petition calling on him to resign. The petition was circulated by political blogger and former Republican San Francisco mayoral candidate Richie Greenberg, who also launched the first effort to recall Boudin last March but failed to gather the required number of signatures to get the measure on the ballot. Greenberg is now a paid spokesperson for the recall campaign.

Speaking to The Guardian, Greenberg said the recall campaign tries “not to get involved with actual policy or analysis. But we need to hold criminals accountable, regardless of their age, whatever is the appropriate accountability method.”


Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner Trounces Police-Backed Primary Challenger

Shortly after Boudin was sworn in, angel investor Jason Calacanis launched a GoFundMe that raised $60,000 with the stated goal to investigate Boudin’s office and “hold him accountable.” Calacanis announced in September that he would use the cash to fund a Substack column by writer Susan Dyer Reynolds, titled “Gotham,” which has published two dozen posts since it started last August. Most of them employ tough-on-crime talking points to attack Boudin, including one post that blamed Boudin’s office for not bringing new charges against a man whom the FBI charged with kidnap and rape of a minor — after Boudin’s predecessor had released him on the same charges. Another is titled: “Yes, sir, it’s time for you to go.”

The single largest donor to the recall is a group called Neighbors for a Better San Francisco Advocacy, which is funded by major Republican donor William Oberndorf and has spent at least $4.8 million on the recall since last year, according to filings with the San Francisco Ethics Commission. It funds several other organizations behind the recall effort, including San Franciscans for Public Safety, which had spent at least $6.5 million by the end of May. Former local Democratic Party Chair Mary Jung is the group’s treasurer and a principal officer, as well as a former lobbyist for the local chapter of the California Association of Realtors, another top contributor to the recall effort. Since 2016, Oberndorf has given at least $5.5 million to the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The campaign against the recall, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, and two local chapters of SEIU have altogether spent just over $3.2 million so far to oppose the effort. Groups fighting the recall say it’s an example of successful fearmongering by police and a select circle of wealthy outsiders. “Less than two years after massive nationwide protests over George Floyd’s murder sparked a long overdue reckoning with racism in the American legal system, police unions and their wealthy allies are exploiting our fears and the social disruption caused by the pandemic in an effort to reinstate failed policies that devastated the Black community,” read an ACLU of Northern California statement from March.

“It’s basically an opportunity for one side to just spend endless amounts of money attacking a particular person.”

“It’s basically an opportunity for one side to just spend endless amounts of money attacking a particular person,” said Julie Edwards, spokesperson for Friends of Chesa Boudin Opposing the Recall, the campaign against the effort in San Francisco. “And that’s always going to be a difficult situation for any elected official to be in. It doesn’t matter who you are when you’re essentially saying, let’s just tear a person down for a year leading up to the election and ask voters what they think.”

Recent polls predict a tight contest for Boudin next week. One, commissioned by the effort against the recall, found that 48 percent of voters plan to vote to recall Boudin, 38 percent plan to vote “no,” and 14 percent are undecided. Other polls since March have shown that a majority of voters said they planned to vote “yes” and had an unfavorable opinion of Boudin.

If the state’s most recent high-profile recall election is any indication, turnout for Boudin’s test should be high. California Gov. Gavin Newsom faced a recall attempt last year, and more voters turned out for the contest than they did for the 2014 midterms. (The high turnout likely helped Newsom, who survived the recall by more than 20 points.) Boudin’s recall attempt will be a local, not statewide, contest, but high levels of public attention will presumably drive turnout as well.

Boudin, for his part, said he expects to win, and that his campaign has the benefit of a grassroots base of volunteers who are knocking doors and talking to undecided voters.

He also said his coalition has broadened since he first ran in 2019, bringing in the current and former presidents of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and several local papers, including some that had previously backed his opponent. He claimed that even undecided and under-informed voters “immediately recognize that this is a Republican-funded con, that it won’t make us safer, that it’s dishonest, that it’s undermining their democratic right to choose their own district attorney.”

The recall strategy has “really clearly become part of a national conservative playbook,” Boudin said. “It’s a very clear signal that the success of the progressive prosecutor movement in traditional elections has become so broad and so sustained that they’ve largely given up at trying to beat us in head-to-head races and are now trying to do it in contexts like this one, where there’s not even an opponent who has to say what policies they would implement, who they would be accountable to, or expose their track record in history to scrutiny of voters.”

Join The Conversation