Commentary: San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s Recall Shows How the Criminal Justice Reform Movement Doesn’t Work

by Susan Crabtree


Two and a half years ago, pre-COVID and before surging crime and fentanyl overdoses gripped San Francisco, District Attorney Chesa Boudin’s left-wing lineage seemed a perfect fit for the liberal bastion by the bay.

Likewise, California Rep. Karen Bass was a barometer of Los Angeles’ transformation into a sprawling progressive metropolis. A former Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman, Bass was a top contender to become Joe Biden’s running mate in 2020 and was considered a likely contender for a statewide office.

But both Democrats endured stinging election outcomes Tuesday night. Voters in one of the most liberal cities in the country ousted Boudin in a blow to a movement toward more lenient prosecutors amid a pandemic spike in murder and home invasions, random attacks on elderly Asians, and smash-and-grab robberies that unsettled voters across California and the nation. Some of those crimes in the city have subsided along with COVID rates, but aggressive thefts in broad daylight, sometimes caught on video, left their mark on San Franciscans’ psyche.

San Francisco voted to recall Boudin with 60% support compared to 40% who wanted him to remain, the Associated Press declared shortly after 9 p.m. on the West Coast. Mayor London Breed will now appoint Boudin’s successor.

Bass also faced an embarrassing outcome in a city dominated by Democrats. Early returns Tuesday night showed her coming in a close second in the Los Angeles mayor’s race to Rick Caruso, a former Republican billionaire real estate developer who only changed his party affiliation to Democrat before entering the race.

In the final weeks, the contest became far more competitive with a large focus on crime and the city’s homelessness. Caruso pledged to hire 1,500 new police officers within his first term and build 30,000 shelter beds in his first 300 days. Bass’ plan to reduce crime focused mainly on criminal justice reform.

The result will impact both the November midterms and the criminal justice reform movement, with Republicans already citing Boudin’s ouster in the deeply liberal city as evidence that voters are ready to punish Democrats perceived as soft on crime.

“Voters are sick and tired of the Democrats’ failed one-party rule in Washington and Sacramento that has led to surging crime, sky-high gas prices, failing schools, a homeless crisis and more,” California Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson said Tuesday night in a statement. “This November, voters have the opportunity to support a better vision for the Golden State. Republicans are ready for the challenge and will fight for a brighter future for all Californians.”

Between now and November, Democrats will assess the implications of San Franciscans turning on Boudin and flocking to Caruso in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-1 and where liberalism’s excesses and population exodus have become laugh lines for conservative talk show hosts.

It wasn’t because the two candidates’ policies and backgrounds came as a surprise.

Boudin’s parents, Weather Underground members, were arrested when he was 14 months old and convicted on felony murder charges for their role as getaway car drivers in the Brinks robbery of 1981. They were sentenced to decades to life in prison, and Boudin then went to live with adoptive parents Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, co-founders and leaders of the Weather Underground, a left-wing militant group that sought to overthrow American imperialism. It’s the same Ayers whose contacts with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama spurred controversy during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Before Yale law school and his work at the San Francisco Public Defender’s office, Boudin served a stint as a translator for socialist revolutionary Hugo Chavez and co-wrote a book about the Venezuelan socialist revolution Chavez led.

Meanwhile, Bass traveled to Cuba in the early 1970s to work on projects sponsored by the Castro government and praised Fidel Castro after his 2016 death – issues that came up as big liabilities with Florida voters during Biden’s veepstakes.

But on Tuesday, voters led revolts of their own against Boudin and his far-left ideology and sent a strong message to Bass that they are wary about her ability to fix the problems plaguing Los Angeles.

Beyond California, Boudin’s ouster sends a clear message that urban progressives’ stance on criminal justice  has alienated even the Democrats’ loyal voting base.

Boudin’s rejection was already producing ripple effects across the state and the nation Tuesday night. Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami predicted that his own boss, George Gascon, would lose his recall when voters go to the polls in November.

“What I want to tell everybody and tell [Los Angeles DA] George Gascon is, you’re next,” Hatami told Fox News. “The people of Los Angeles have had enough.”

In 2019, Boudin was elected on a promise to end cash bail, lower the city’s jail population, and provide alternatives for harsh sentences for some criminals. As he worked to implement the reforms, the pandemic hit, and burglaries and auto thefts spiked. Homicides also went up during the past two years, the Wall Street Journal reports.

San Francisco also owns this dark statistic: Fentanyl overdoses killed more people than COVID-19 in the city over the last year.

But the deaths of two innocent women by a man with a long criminal history may have sealed Boudin’s fate. Recall organizers repeatedly blasted Boudin over the case of Troy McAlister, a man who had a history of robberies and arrests who hit two women with a stolen car on New Year’s Eve in 2020 in downtown San Francisco, killing both of them. McAlister was free because Boudin’s office negotiated a plea deal on the most recent armed robbery charge.

Boudin has said it’s a case that keeps him up at night but also argued that “there’s always going to be cases where if we look back, we would make different decisions.”

On the campaign trail, Boudin tried to push back at his critics, casting the recall as a right-wing funded campaign aimed at halting the national criminal justice movement. He called his opponents “Trumpian” and referred to William Oberndorf, a wealthy businessman and conservative donor, as an “oligarch,” but also gave no indication that he would shift away from his more lenient approach to criminals if left in office.

After the AP declared the recall successful, Boudin said at an election-night watch party that his push for more lenient criminal punishments and prison reform was far from over.

“This is a movement, not a moment in history,” Boudin said. “The coalition that we built … it is broad, it is diverse, it is strong. And it is a coalition that is deeply committed to justice,” he added, blaming his loss on corporate interests who outspent him “three to one.”

Leading up to the election, however, the New York Times and Newsweek outlets ran stories highlighting high-profile San Francisco Democrats who helped lead the Boudin recall effort from the left. Several of them, including the former chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party Mary Jung, said the squalor and spike in petty crime and break-ins was behind their decisions to take a stand.

But Boudin has pointed to statistics showing violent crime overall remaining stagnant. He also blamed police for having among the lowest arrest rates of major cities.

In the Los Angeles Mayor’s race, Bass accused Caruso of political opportunism and trying to buy the election. The self-funding Caruso hit Bass with an avalanche of ads costing his campaign at least $10 million of the $40 million he’s already spent. The grainy videos hit her on everything from her inability to address rising crime rates to missed House votes to a dust-up over a University of Southern California scholarship. (Bass received a USC scholarship worth $95,000 while serving in Congress.)

In response to the attacks, in April, Bass announced a plan “to combat crime” that was focused on preventing “the conditions that lead to crime” and rehabilitation for “people who have made mistakes.”

But her proposal produced a surprising backlash. In mid-May, legendary Long Beach rapper Snoop Dogg reached out to Caruso and offered his endorsement with cameras capturing the exchange, although he didn’t elaborate on his decision. Rising violent crime during 2020, the first year of the pandemic, disproportionately impacted black and Hispanic people, according to the Marshall Project.

Snoop Dogg joined actress Gwyneth Paltrow, reality TV star Kim Kardashian, Tesla’s Elon Musk, and Netflix’s Ted Sarandos as executives and celebrities backing Caruso. Bass has the backing of actor-rapper Donald Glover, as well as director J.J. Abrams and Endeavor chief executive Ari Emanuel.

Unlike Boudin, Bass has an opportunity to make up ground in November after Tuesday’s primary that suffered from one of the lowest turnout rates in years. Whether she will shift gears and take a tougher stance on crime is yet to be seen. Bass didn’t immediately react to Caruso’s slight early lead nor the race being declared a run-off.

Addressing supporters late Tuesday night, Caruso was ebullient over his strong showing.

“This is a great night because so many people have gone to the voting booth and sent a message: We are not helpless in the face of our problems,” he told supporters. “We will not allow this city to decline. We will no longer accept excuses. We have the power to change the direction of Los Angeles, and that’s the way we’re voting.”

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Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.
Photo “Chesa Boudin” by Chesa Boudin




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