Fear & Loathing in San Francisco: How Chesa Boudin Got Blamed

Fear & Loathing in San Francisco: How Chesa Boudin Got Blamed

Fear & Loathing in San Francisco: How Chesa Boudin Got Blamed

In this reputedly progressive city, tech and real estate money has bankrolled a centrist backlash.


After just two years in office, Chesa Boudin, the district attorney of San Francisco, gets blamed for every crime in the book—even offenses committed before he took office and beyond the city limits. For his efforts to tackle wage theft, end cash bail, expand the program that diverts nonviolent offenders from prison, and prosecute abusive cops, Boudin has been rewarded with a recall campaign scapegoating him for all of this city’s woes. The vote takes place on June 7, and recent polls suggest it will be an uphill battle for Boudin and progressives.

Loaded with cash from local billionaires, Big Tech, and other corporate interests, Neighbors for a Better San Francisco and an allied group called San Franciscans for Public Safety have poured a whopping $6.5 million into the campaign to recall Boudin. Real estate interests have also kicked in, including more than $600,000 from Shorenstein Realty Services, a major local developer. As the Democratic strategist Cooper Teboe told Forbes, Boudin is “the unfortunate recipient of all of the anger from the investor class and the billionaire class.” The recall’s top funder is the Republican billionaire William Oberndorf, who donated $3.7 million to federal candidates in 2020—mostly to Republicans, including Senators Mitch McConnell and Tom Cotton.

While Boudin is the primary target, this centrist uprising first came to public attention in February when it spearheaded the recall of three school board members (a campaign that was financed heavily by Oberndorf and the billionaire investor Arthur Rock). Next came electoral threats to progressive supervisors who didn’t support the school board recall, revealing a larger political agenda. Then, in late April, corporate interests mounted a gerrymandering effort that could put some supervisor districts in the centrist camp. And now, the furious push to recall Boudin.

“There is a big money effort to roll back progressive politics in San Francisco,” says Tim Redmond, founder and editor of the progressive news site 48 Hills, who has covered politics here since 1986.

Propelling this movement is a well-financed narrative that has insinuated itself into local media and politics—and a sizable portion of the electorate. This narrative blames San Francisco progressives for complex crises whose causes reach back decades and far beyond the city line. The writer Michael Shellenberger, who’s making an improbable run for the California governor’s office, bizarrely blames the left for the city’s ills in his book San Fransicko, with its bombastic subtitle: Why Progressives Ruin Cities.

At the heart of this reactionary movement is a misdiagnosis of genuine problems. Burgeoning homelessness and drug addiction here are preventable tragedies. Housing costs are among the highest in the nation, with the median single-family home priced at $2 million, far out of reach for most people. The city also hosts the world’s greatest concentration of billionaires, and the Bay Area is home to California’s most glaring inequality, with the top 10 percent of earners raking in 12.2 times what folks in the bottom 10 percent make.

While progressives have often held a majority in the city’s legislature, they haven’t had a mayoral ally since Art Agnos lost to conservative Frank Jordan in 1991; the city’s “strong mayor” charter also adds to centrists’ power when they control the executive branch. Rising homelessness, addiction, and crime are the result of national and regional crises, including woefully insufficient spending on supportive housing for homeless people. Redmond says the current scapegoating is “a total distraction from the fundamental inequalities in the US and in San Francisco.” If anything, progressive policies like the city’s living wage ordinance, universal health care access, rent control, tenants’ rights laws, and taxes on extreme wealth have blunted these crises.

Chasing Chesa, Fomenting Fear

When he was elected in November 2019, Boudin was hailed as a bright new star in a wave of reforming district attorneys that included Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, Rachael Rollins in the Boston area, and Kim Foxx in Cook County, Ill. All have faced criticism, but the backlash in San Francisco has been particularly virulent, prompting pundits to label it “Chesa Boudin Derangement Syndrome.” As the San Francisco Examiner writer Gil Duran described it, “Every crime trend—even those pre-dating his tenure—can somehow be blamed on him. Car burglarized? Blame Boudin. Walgreens and CVS closing hundreds of stores nationwide? Boudin’s fault. National fentanyl epidemic? Thanks, Boudin. Police not making enough arrests? Boudin hurt their morale.” One recent recall campaign ad featured a man who closed his store because of drug dealing—but a reporter revealed that the business had been shuttered before Boudin was elected.

San Francisco has its share of urban problems. But analysis by the San Francisco Chronicle found that “reported crime data does not clearly show a trend toward worsening public safety.” Even as crimes like car break-ins have increased in the city (as they have statewide and beyond), violent crimes are way down. But that hasn’t stopped the fearmongers from fanning a political wildfire.

The typically center-right Chronicle surprised locals with a strong editorial against the recall, arguing, “Crime stats that mirror those of when Boudin took office do not justify a recall. Violent crime is low and has stayed low even as it has surged across the country…. Cities across the country—regardless of their criminal justice approach—have struggled after COVID lockdowns lifted.” The Examiner and the local Democratic Party also reject the recall, as have many former prosecutors and judges.

Scapegoating Homeless People

On a recent afternoon, across the street from a shining new glass tower of condos for sale a few blocks from City Hall, city workers descended on tents arrayed neatly on the sidewalk’s edge. A burly public works employee snatched and tossed a silver tent onto a platform truck, atop other “junk” bound for the dump.

“The man that lives in there is a 65-year-old dude who’s out on a medical appointment,” a fellow tent dweller, an amply tattooed Marine veteran, told me. “It’s our constitutional right to live here, to have a home. You can’t take that away from us,” he urged the workers in an increasingly irate voice. When I asked who’s demanding the tent removals, city workers insisted, “The mayor, London Breed.”

Trashing an elderly homeless man’s shelter and belongings—a violation of city policy—is brutally familiar in this city, where “there are more anti-homeless laws than in any other city in the state,” says Jennifer Friedenbach, the longtime director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “Homelessness in San Francisco is a popular wedge issue,” she continues. “And politicians—Shellenberger no exception—stoke fear of homeless people to get their name in the paper…. Homeless people, drug dealers, and criminals are all lumped together and scapegoated.”

A Twitter account named “BetterSOMA” (referencing the South of Market area) posts photographs of homeless people shooting up or crumpled on the sidewalk, a humiliating public exposure that could haunt these people’s futures. When I confronted the group about this practice, BetterSOMA and its acolytes came at me like piranhas. As one put it, “It should be humiliating. They should be shamed. If you coddle street addicts, MORE SHOW UP and are lured into depravity.” Another insisted, “They are drug addicts. Their dignity went out the window before the photos pal.”

The pandemic has only intensified the street crises, Friedenbach says. “People have been out there for two years—their [precarity] has gotten much worse, their drug use much worse.” Meanwhile, Friedenbach sees a growing “promotion of tried-and-failed strategies” such as criminalization and forcing homeless mentally ill people into institutions through conservatorship. The forces behind the recall campaign, she adds, “are complaining about homelessness and then fighting against the solutions,” citing Mayor Breed’s opposition to voter-approved measures to expand funding for homeless services and shelters.

As the writer Gray Brechin, founder of the Living New Deal, puts it, “The question isn’t asked enough: Why are people taking so many drugs? To dull the pain of living in this incredibly cruel society. At the root of it is poverty,” he says, and “a dystopic neoliberal environment that is guaranteed to drive people insane” while living on the streets.

Follow the Money

Fueling this city’s centrist octopus is an engine of big money—largely from Big Tech, real estate, and other corporate interests. And these efforts reach beyond the recalls: As 48 Hills documented, Oberndorf has given at least $300,000 to Neighbors for a Better San Francisco—money spent campaigning against progressive candidates and measures. In 2020, the group and its corporate allies—all aligned with Mayor Breed—spent big to oppose Proposition I, a real estate transfer tax on the wealthiest property owners to help fund emergency aid and affordable housing in the pandemic. (Voters approved the measure by a large margin and rejected several centrist candidates.)

The centrist constellation includes tech-funded groups like GrowSF, AdvanceSF (whose leadership is a who’s who from the Chamber of Commerce), and the YIMBY (“Yes in My Back Yard”) movements pushing a maximal growth agenda that includes “streamlining” environmental reviews to spur more building, principally of market-rate housing. This agenda is part of what the writer Rebecca Solnit calls the “free-market fundamentalism” that has become a local religion. “The constant narrative going on for decades is that if we just build enough buildings, housing will become affordable,” Solnit told me. “But we have more than 40,000 vacant units here,” she notes, citing a city report. “We have a distribution problem, not a supply problem.”

Observing this array of centrist and big money groups, Redmond concludes, “They’re all connected, and the money proves that. Politics takes money, and they’ve got the money.” He adds, “Well-financed efforts at framing the debate have had an effect.”

In April, after many epic late-night hearings, the city’s Redistricting Task Force finalized a new electoral map that could favor centrist district supervisors at the expense of progressive stalwarts like Connie Chan, another target of real estate interests. In an e-mail obtained by 48 Hills, the real estate developer Nick Podell, a board member of Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, crowed, “For the 1st time in the 40 years that I’ve lived in the City, there is a large coordinated centrist/moderate movement to take on Progressive power.” That effort, Podell wrote, is poised to “flip 3 districts with Progressive Supervisors to moderate majorities.” The local Republican leader Richie Greenberg cheered the centrist map, writing, “Connie Chan is TOAST.”

San Francisco is chronically conflicted. A nominally liberal town where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 10-fold, it is also a historical hub of finance capital, extreme wealth accumulation, and corporate profit, which all fuel (and fund) a moderate and sometimes conservative politics, particularly on economic issues. Since the Gold Rush, says Solnit (who has lived here since 1980), San Francisco “has always had a progressive wing and a corporate moderate wing. Because Republicans don’t have traction here, people think of us as this quasi-socialist utopia, but it’s not true…. Now we have millionaires buying elections through recalls.” As the Examiner columnist Lincoln Mitchell explains, the city’s rich and powerful “are not always conservative or right wing, but they have a vision that is distinctly not progressive.” Their “moderate-to-conservative vision,” Mitchell says, “is one where businesses and developers are empowered and given incentives to operate more or less how they like, where fear of crime is fetishized, and where homelessness is understood as a problem not of human suffering but as a quality-of-life issue for the housed.”

Big Tech’s Shadow

The writer and activist Roberto Lovato offers a scathing diagnosis of his native city’s neoliberal tilt, pointing to Silicon Valley’s ethos of “digital Darwinism.” The recalls, Lovato explains, show the cumulative effects of Big Tech’s power: “You’re looking at what Silicon Valley did over all these years, the near-totalitarian control of the body politic of San Francisco.” This “greed machine,” he argues, is manufacturing “a normalization of displacement…. One way to do it is to reengineer the political system.”

“There’s a fascistic cruelty beneath the shiny silicon surface of San Francisco,” Lovato says—one that displaces communities and cultures in the name of relentless growth and profit. “All my friends who grew up here have been displaced. The organic growth of the Mission [District] that created the largest concentration of murals in the world has been displaced by gentrification and tech workers buying $14 burritos…. They use our murals to push us out.”

“Tech has such a libertarian tendency,” Solnit says, “but a lot of it is economically regressive. We don’t have the language to express how many of these folks are Burning Man libertarians while being economic Republicans.” Tech’s predominance here, she adds, has cultural as well as political implications: “Everything is DoorDashed and smartphoned; it’s a much more mediated experience. The desire to avoid human contact has been such a part of the tech culture—the desire to live in one of the most densely urban centers in the country while being hostile to much of that life.”

Even amid this centrist uprising, San Francisco progressives have mustered some positive changes. A voter-approved tax on vacant storefronts took effect in January, and activists are preparing a ballot measure to tax up to 40,000 vacant residential units to pressure landlords to fill them (a similar effort worked well in Vancouver). In March, the city enacted a groundbreaking law enabling tenants to form union-like associations to bargain with landlords. It’s also worth remembering that in 2019, city voters elected Boudin on the platform of criminal justice reform that he’s now implementing. On June 7 and beyond, voters here have a chance to reject this corporate-funded reactionary movement. San Francisco, as always, remains intensely contested terrain.

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