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San Francisco Voters Oust District Attorney Chesa Boudin in Unprecedented Recall

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Chesa Boudin walks out the door of a storefront.
SF District Attorney Chesa Boudin hands out voter guides Youth Art Exchange at Mission and Geneva streets in San Francisco on June 7, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A commanding majority of San Francisco voters supported the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin, ousting the progressive criminal justice reformer just over halfway through his first term in office.

Nearly 60% of votes were cast in favor of Proposition H, the measure to recall Boudin. The move, considered a staunch rebuke of criminal justice reform efforts, comes as this city with a reputation for progressivism grapples with shifting crime trends.

At his election night party at The Ramp restaurant in San Francisco, Boudin addressed his supporters, who chanted, "Chesa! Chesa!," as he stepped up onto a keg of beer to speak.

"We have two cities, we have two systems of justice. One for the wealthy and well-connected, and one for everyone else. That's exactly what we're fighting to change," Boudin said.

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"This was never about one vote count, it was never about one election night party, it was never about specifically which person gets to be in the office of the district attorney," he added. "This is a movement, not a moment, in history."

Brooke Jenkins, a former assistant district attorney in Boudin's office, and a lead organizer in the campaign to remove him, voiced gratitude at an election night party at Del Mar lounge in the Marina District.

"I feel relieved. I feel hopeful for San Francisco," she told KQED. "We knew all along this was not a Republican billionaire effort, that this was not a pushback against reform, that we were trying to protect reform. That we knew a DA can balance implementing reform with prioritizing public safety."

The recall was largely driven by San Francisco’s more conservative neighborhoods — including the Sunset District, Marina District, Park Merced, and St. Francis Wood — where overall turnout was higher than in progressive-leaning districts that generally stood by Boudin.

While Boudin's loss is decisive, he won't be required to leave office until 10 days after the election is declared official by the Board of Supervisors, which may take place at its June 25 meeting. Mayor London Breed is expected to announce Boudin's replacement soon thereafter.

A number of names have been floated to replace Boudin, including Jenkins, prosecutor Nancy Tung (who said she would run in a future election), and San Francisco Supervisor Catherine Stefani (one of the few elected officials to endorse the recall).

Breed on Wednesday insisted the city is not backing away from progressive criminal justice reforms, and pledged to meet with community groups and police officials before appointing the next DA.

"This does not mean that criminal justice reform in San Francisco is going anywhere. It does not mean that there will be, all of a sudden, a significant setback," she said. "We want justice. But we also want to make sure that people have a second chance."

Six recall supporters take a selfie. A woman on the left side of the frame holds her phone away from her to take the picture. They're all standing close, some with hands on their comrades' arms.
A group of recall supporters — including Brooke Jenkins, center — take a selfie during an election night party at Del Mar in San Francisco on June 7, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

And, Boudin may also choose to run in a future district attorney's race. But newly appointed Supervisor Matt Dorsey, a former San Francisco police spokesperson who became one of the few elected officials to endorse Boudin's recall, said he doesn't think another election would bode well for Boudin, based on Tuesday's vote.

"It could happen, yeah. But I think the numbers say something," Dorsey said.

In the meantime, Dorsey noted, the debate over Boudin's record has fractured the community, pitting neighbor against neighbor.

"The most important thing is, we've got to put the hurt feelings behind us and move the city forward," he said.

The historic recall garnered national attention, bitterly dividing Democrats in the city on issues of crime, policing and public safety reform. The effort was fueled by a tsunami of contributions — more than $7 million, according to filings at the San Francisco Ethics Commission — from well-heeled donors, including real estate interests and Republican billionaire William Oberndorf, who individually gave north of $650,000.

A shadowy photo showing a crowd of supporters surrounding Chesa Boudin, who is standing on a beer keg to address the crowd outside at a restaurant.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin addresses a crowd at The Ramp restaurant after the effort to recall him succeeded. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In contrast, recall opponents raised less than half as much — about $3 million — with the largest donations from the American Civil Liberties Union, a criminal justice reform PAC and tech billionaire Chris Larsen.

For months, the Yes on H campaign has saturated San Francisco media with online, television and radio ads, while also investing heavily in a field operation and a texting campaign.

Boudin, 41 — whose parents were Weather Underground leftist radicals and both spent decades in prison for a botched 1981 robbery — narrowly won office as a first-time political candidate in 2019, promising to reform the city's criminal justice system. As the top law enforcement official in the city, he placed renewed focus on diversion programs in lieu of imprisonment, and became the first DA in the city's history to prosecute a San Francisco police officer for manslaughter (an effort that ultimately failed).

But just months after he took office, the pandemic upended life in the city, forestalling many of his primary objectives. And a subsequent series of high-profile crimes —  including “smash-and-grab” shoplifting incidents captured on video, a plethora of auto break-ins and multiple assaults on Asian American residents — enthusiasm for his reform efforts began to wane among a growing number of residents.

His opponents seized on that shift in public sentiment, linking any number of acts of vandalism and other crimes, including open-air drug dealing and other quality-of-life offenses, to Boudin’s progressive reforms.

"This recall is really a gross abuse of democracy. It's a do-over funded in large part by dark money from outside the city," said Boudin supporter Mara Math, at the election night party. "They started organizing against him the minute he was elected."

Breed — who backed Boudin’s opponent in 2019 — had criticized the DA and his policies, furthering the perception that he was responsible for the city’s crime woes. Boudin and Police Chief Bill Scott also repeatedly butted heads, although neither Scott nor Breed took public positions on the recall.

A man chats with a woman at a bar. Both wear T-shirts that say, 'Recall Chesa Boudin.'
Nick Berg (left) and Leanna Louie, two leaders of the effort to recall SF District Attorney Chesa Boudin, celebrate his ouster, during an election night party at Del Mar in San Francisco on June 7, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

But Boudin often received the blame, despite ongoing reports of a lackadaisical police response to burglaries and thefts in the city.  Police department data show that arrests are only made in only a tiny percentage of car break-ins — significantly limiting the DA's ability to file charges.

The ouster of a progressive prosecutor in a famously liberal city carries national implications, signaling a potential backlash against other justice reform prosecutors, including Los Angeles DA George Gascón, who is facing his second recall attempt in as many years.

"Nationally, this will be spun as a push against reform," said Jim Ross, a consultant for the campaign against the recall. "But the Yes on H campaign never talked about policies, about what they were going to repeal or what they were going to change. They overtly said, 'We're not going to talk about what we're going to do different.'"

KQED reporters Daphne Young, Alex Emslie, Matthew Green, Scott Shafer and Julia McEvoy contributed to this report.

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