Why San Francisco’s clash with its district attorney matters across America

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Before chesa boudin was sworn in as San Francisco’s district attorney in January 2020, he once served as a translator for Hugo Chávez, the autocratic former president of Venezuela, and co-wrote a book about the Bolivarian revolution. Today Mr Boudin faces his own revolt—by voters. On June 7th the question of whether to “recall” Mr Boudin from office will be on the ballot. If San Francisco’s voters decide to remove him, Mr Boudin will be replaced by an interim district attorney appointed by the mayor, with a permanent replacement elected in November.

What may sound like a provincial spat is anything but. It is a litmus of values in a city that has always been on the bleeding edge of social and political change.

In 2019, when he was campaigning as a progressive promising to revolutionalise criminal justice, Mr Boudin’s offbeat pedigree was an asset. He is a Rhodes scholar, a former public defender and the son of two members of the leftist Weather Underground, who were both sentenced to prison for their role as getaway drivers in an armed robbery that led to two police officers and a security guard being killed. Mr Boudin promised to end cash bail and put fewer people in jail. Prosecutions have indeed fallen since he took office (see chart).

If he has accomplished what he said he would, why is he under fire? He was not elected with an enthusiastic mandate, but defeated a more moderate candidate by a slender margin. His rhetoric and brash manner alienated many from the start. At his election-night party, people lashed out at the Police Officers Association, chanting “Fuck the poa”, which had spent heavily to try to defeat Mr Boudin.

Today, the relationship between Mr Boudin’s office and the police is about as cosy as an old jail cell on Alcatraz. Morale in the district attorney’s office is “terrible”, says Michael Swart, who was one of seven prosecutors Mr Boudin fired within days of assuming office. By October 2021, 59 attorneys, or around 40% of the prosecutors in his office, had either quit or been sacked.

Some who have worked with Mr Boudin feel he is too quick to side with defendants, when his job is to prosecute crimes and represent victims. The recall campaign gained steam after a few high-profile incidents in which his office’s choice not to keep people in jail carried deadly consequences. One paroled felon stole a car, drove while drunk and killed two young women crossing a street (earlier that year he had been arrested five times, and each time the district attorney’s office had declined to file charges).

The degraded state of San Francisco has left a lot of inhabitants angry—and blaming Mr Boudin. “People are really sick of living in chaos,” says Michael Shellenberger, an author who is running for governor as an independent and has written a book, “San Fransicko”, about how progressives are mishandling cities. Downtown, drugstores have closed or refused to stock goods on shelves, due to shoplifting. Rising murders, shootings and burglaries have led some people to avoid walking or driving around whole neighbourhoods.

The question of how to handle drugs is especially controversial. The city has opened a supervised drug-injection centre in United Nations Plaza, just down the road from City Hall, contravening federal and state law. This has done nothing to change the open use and sale of drugs on the street, which Mr Boudin has chosen not to prioritise for prosecution.

When your correspondent walked around the Tenderloin district for an hour from 11am, she counted more than 20 drug-dealers, recognisable in a “uniform” of black trousers, hoodies and hats, with grey or black backpacks. Being noticed did not seem to worry them, and there’s a reason. In 2021 Mr Boudin’s office managed only three convictions for drug-dealing, despite a record 711 overdose deaths the previous year. His predecessor achieved 90 convictions for drug-dealing in 2018.

Supporters feel Mr Boudin has become a scapegoat for the city’s problems of homelessness, addiction and crime, which have been stirred by covid-19 but preceded it. His allies blame his lower prosecutions on the police for making fewer arrests. They believe that recalls should be reserved for booting someone out of office after they commit a specific crime. Mr Boudin’s will be the fifth recall election in California this year, including a successful vote against three school-board members who had refused to reopen schools while debating name changes for them.

The only other recall election of a district attorney in San Francisco occurred in 1917, and he survived the vote, says Josh Spivak, an expert on recalls. But polls suggest Mr Boudin’s odds are bleak. Some city officials have come out publicly to support the recall. Asian voters, who account for more than a third of San Francisco’s population, have cooled on Mr Boudin after his handling of several assaults.

Mr Boudin has painted the recall as a partisan witch-hunt. But San Franciscans of all political persuasions support it. They argue over whether the city has suffered due to his specific policies or plain incompetence. The answer is probably both.

This election has wider lessons. First, it highlights the conflict within the Democratic Party that hampers functional government. In San Francisco Democrats have unilateral control, but far-left progressives are butting heads with moderates, trying to cast them as closet Republicans. Recent redistricting conversations became “borderline violent”, says one observer. Sheriffs had to be called in. This reflects a degradation of discourse that is occurring not just between parties but within them.

Second, it shows that voters are cooling on progressive policies, after seeing real-world consequences. There is pushback in other cities with progressive district attorneys, including Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Calls to “defund the police” have shifted to “refunding”. “The problem is, many progressive policies don’t appear to be very effective,” says Jonathan Weber, editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Standard, a news site. “I don’t think this is a blip,” Mr Weber predicts. San Franciscans, known for their embrace of progressivism, may be turning towards moderation.