Reformer Chesa Boudin Defeats Suzy Loftus in Race for SF District Attorney

San Francisco Deputy Public Defender and District Attorney-elect Chesa Boudin. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

In a razor-close election, Chesa Boudin, a deputy public defender promising to emphasize reform over incarceration, has defeated interim District Attorney Suzy Loftus in the race to be San Francisco's next district attorney.

After an additional 14,000 ballots were tallied Saturday, the San Francisco Department of Elections gave Boudin a lead of 2,439 votes over Loftus. With just 1,200 ballots remaining, Loftus conceded via Twitter.

"I didn't win the race — but we won the support of so many San Franciscans who are demanding that our city work more effectively together to build safety," Loftus tweeted. "Congratulations to Chesa Boudin. I will work to ensure a smooth and immediate transition."

In a tweet shortly after the results were announced, Boudin simply said, "We did it."

"When we started this campaign, we believed that the people of San Francisco wanted a different vision of justice," he later told KQED.

"We believed they valued second chances for those who have made mistakes, prized compassion over punishment, and wanted equal justice for all, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and citizenship. We were right."

Boudin's extraordinary life story — his parents, who were members of the radical leftist group the Weather Underground, were both incarcerated when he was just 14 months old for their role in a 1981 armed robbery that left three men dead — led him to a career as a deputy public defender in San Francisco. His father, David Gilbert, remains incarcerated at a maximum security prison in western New York State, where Boudin still visits him.

Boudin's emphasis on diverting people away from the criminal justice system and toward rehabilitation was an inspiration for supporters of criminal justice reform, even as it disturbed members of the law enforcement community who worry he'll give low priority to crimes such as auto break-ins, which plague the city.

Under the city's ranked-choice voting system, the second- and third-place votes from the lower-place finishers — Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Nancy Tung and Deputy Attorney General Leif Dautch — were redistributed to the top two candidates.

With Boudin prevailing, it sends a stunning rebuke to the city's establishment, which endorsed Loftus. Most notably, that includes Mayor London Breed who appointed Loftus interim D.A. just weeks before the election, as well as Gov. Gavin Newsom. and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris.

In another nail-biter, and further rebuke to Brown, challenger Dean Preston declared victory Saturday over incumbent Supervisor Vallie Brown, another appointee of Breed's, in the District 5 supervisorial race, as his margin grew to 170 votes.

"Today is a victory for all San Franciscans seeking bolder answers for the challenges our city faces,” said Preston in a press statement. “This was a hard-fought election and I am so grateful for the long hours of volunteer effort and grassroots, community support that brought our campaign across the finish line. But now the campaign is over, and I am ready and eager to begin serving our city as soon as possible."

Although Breed easily won reelection on Tuesday, the defeat of her ally on the Board of Supervisors could further stymie her agenda, as the more centrist mayor has struggled to get a six-vote majority with the left-leaning board.

The race between Loftus, a former prosecutor and police commissioner who most recently worked as legal counsel to San Francisco County Sheriff Vicki Hennessy, and Boudin, a progressive, attracted national attention.

The San Francisco Police Officers Association (POA) on Wednesday sent a sharply worded letter to Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, who led chants of "Fuck the POA" at the election night party for Boudin. Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Matt Haney, along with other members of the city's progressive community watched and showed no sign of disapproval at the chants. Boudin was not present at the time.

The POA spent $650,000 on campaign ads attacking Boudin and has a long history of animosity toward the city's liberal leadership.

The letter from POA president Tony Montoya described Fewer's actions as "unhinged," adding that it would "stoke anger" against the city's police officers. The letter asked for an apology from Fewer and encouraged her to take "a 40-hour implicit bias training to better understand your apparent hatred of police officers."

Supervisor Fewer issued a public letter, saying “I would like to issue an apology to the 2,000 officers of the San Francisco Police Department; I am sorry for any offense that my comments may have caused.”

After Boudin's victory was declared Saturday the POA made clear it were in no mood to be conciliatory with the district-attorney-elect.

"Unfortunately, the election results mean that San Francisco residents will have to suffer through another four years of the George Gascon style policies that have plagued our city and decimated public safety," POA President Tony Montoya said in a statement.

"We sincerely hope the new District Attorney reconsiders his position to not contest the early release of violent felons and that he will grow into a champion of all crime victims."

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Interim San Francisco District Attorney Suzy Loftus at her election night party on Tuesday.
Interim San Francisco District Attorney Suzy Loftus at her election night party on Tuesday. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Loftus has been acting as the interim district attorney for a month, following the unexpected resignation of George Gascón in October. Even before Gascón's surprise decision to quit his post early, the race was the most hotly contested in this off-year election.

Election 2019

It would have been the first time in a century that there wasn't an incumbent running for the top prosecutor spot in San Francisco. But instead of waiting until voters weighed in, Mayor London Breed immediately appointed Loftus to serve out Gascón's term — a move that drew sharp criticism from Boudin's supporters.

Boudin had already been embraced by national reform-minded activists throughout the campaign — and, following Loftus' appointment, won the endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Boudin, the child of incarcerated radical activists, ran on a platform of overhauling the current criminal justice system.

Loftus, part of the city's political establishment, spent the past few weeks as interim district attorney expanding programs and making policy announcements at a furious pace. That pace angered other candidates, who saw it as an attempt to get her name in the public’s eye as much as possible. Candidates have also accused her of poaching their campaign promises — ideas the four candidates have chewed over during the more than 30 debates they’ve participated in during the run-up to the election.

The race was a contentious one. For weeks, the four San Franciscans running for the office attended dozens of debates and tried to differentiate themselves from one another.

At the center of the debate were competing pushes: liberal San Franciscans’ desire to overhaul the criminal justice system and reduce incarceration, versus their desire for the improvement of quality of life issues in the city: open air drug dealing, car break-ins and property theft.

KQED's Mary Franklin Harvin contributed to this story.

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