When the people of San Francisco head to the polls this Tuesday, they will have the chance to vote in one of the most consequential races of this election season—a race for district attorney that could reshape the city’s criminal justice system from the inside out. But as the election ticks toward its conclusion, Chesa Boudin, the candidate pushing the most transformative agenda, is facing a fierce backlash from his city’s political establishment that threatens to derail his insurgent campaign.
Boudin’s campaign was always going to be an asymmetrical struggle against his city’s Democratic machine. But the combination of outright attacks and apparent backroom scheming by both the mayor’s office and San Francisco’s police unions could throw the election to Boudin’s establishment-backed opponent.
A longtime public defender and the child of left-wing radicals who were imprisoned when he was young, Boudin is running to be a “decarceral” prosecutor in the mold of Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner. His campaign has vowed that he will crack down on police abuse, investigate political corruption, and eliminate racist inequities in the criminal justice system—and that message has caught fire in recent months.
To date, Boudin has recruited a passionate core of grassroots volunteers and raised more than $600,000 in campaign contributions. He has also earned the endorsement of progressive luminaries, including Bernie Sanders and the cofounders of Black Lives Matter. A recent poll commissioned by the Boudin campaign found that he has taken a narrow lead in the race, with 21 percent of the probable vote. His main establishment-backed opponent, Suzy Loftus, is trailing him with 18 percent.
Boudin’s success, however, has been met with aggressive pushback from the San Francisco powers that be. The trouble started in early October after the surprise resignation of George Gascón, the city’s sitting district attorney. Gascón’s decision to step down before the end of his term created a vacancy in the DA’s office, and San Francisco Mayor London Breed promptly appointed Suzy Loftus to fill it, naming her the city’s interim DA.
Breed announced the shocking appointment on October 4, just as early voting was about to begin in the race between Boudin, Loftus, and a handful of other opponents. Boudin’s supporters, along with civil rights groups, promptly decried the mayor’s decision as a blatant attempt to boost the candidacy of Loftus, an establishment favorite and protégé of Kamala Harris who has received the backing of California’s Democratic machine.
As word of the appointment spread, progressive groups took to the streets in protest, forcing the mayor to change the venue at which she planned to make the announcement. The ACLU, meanwhile, issued a sternly worded public denunciation that described the abrupt appointment as a “political machination” meant to “give one candidate an unfair electoral advantage over others.”
“The reason we are so concerned is because this is such an important seat, one we have been doing a lot of advocacy around,” said Yoel Haile, criminal justice manager at the ACLU of Northern California. “We believe that this appointment is unfairly tilting the scales and not allowing the democratic process to play out.”
Boudin called Breed’s intervention “an obvious power grab by a political establishment determined to protect themselves rather than the people of San Francisco,” and vowed to overcome the mayor’s unfair election meddling.
The Loftus campaign, for its part, said it “will not dignify the divisive tactics of our opponents.”
“When a vacancy opened up in the district attorney’s office, Suzy answered the call to serve the people of San Francisco under challenging circumstances–just like she’s done for over 15 years in her career in law enforcement, public health, and police reform,” a spokesperson for the campaign said.
At the same time as Boudin has waged his underdog campaign against an establishment willing to use its powers to tilt the scales against him, he has also had to contend with virulent attacks from the city’s police union.
The San Francisco Police Officers Association (SFPOA) and other law enforcement groups have poured more than $650,000 into polling, mailers, and television ads devoted to defeating Boudin, whom it describes as a “dangerous choice” for DA. Indeed, the SFPOA is sending out mailers that compare Boudin to an inexperienced child. The mailer features a picture of Boudin on one side and the image of a baby dressed as a doctor on the other, alongside the warning: “You wouldn’t let this kid operate on you, so why would you let Chesa Boudin—someone who has never prosecuted a case in his life—be the district attorney for San Francisco?”
The San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association has also attacked Boudin. In July, the group posted a video on its Facebook page that attacked him over his family background and called him a “radical releaser.” “Terrorist’s Son as SF District Attorney?” the video shouted in big block letters, before describing Boudin as a “communist radical of sorts.”
As the election fast approaches, Boudin says his campaign is out on the streets every day, knocking on doors, making calls, and passing out literature. He believes his campaign can still pull off an insurgent victory, despite the attacks against him. Indeed, he sees the political attacks and the election meddling as a sure sign that the political establishment and police unions are frightened by his viability.
“The nice thing about having so much momentum is that it forces the establishment to show its true colors,” he says. “The choice for voters is clear: Do you want to vote for reform? Do you want to vote for holding police accountable? Or do you want to vote for the status quo? Do you want to defend a broken system? If you want the status quo, then vote for Suzy Loftus.”