In the end, it wasn’t close. Chesa Boudin, poster child for the progressive prosecutors’ movement around the United States, was voted out as San Francisco district attorney in a recall election that will have huge ramifications for national politics over the coming months and years.
The recall effort was funded, at least in part, by a dark-money effort involving a number of conservative Silicon Valley venture capitalists and leading GOP donors.
But however disingenuous the dark-money effort was, it tapped into existing anger about soaring levels of quality-of-life crimes in the Bay Area—low-end crimes such as car break-ins, burglaries, and shoplifting—as well as a worsening homelessness crisis and a perception that violent and/or threatening people have joined encampments that make large parts of the city desperately unpleasant for residents.
Boudin’s team, and activists within the criminal justice reform movement, correctly pointed out that violent crimes, especially murders, did not crest in San Francisco in the way they did in many other American cities in 2020 and 2021. They also argued that Boudin’s strategy of moving resources into treatment for the addicted and the mentally ill, rather than simply convicting them and hauling them off to jail or prison, needed more time to take effect.
All of that may be true—as someone who has written on crime and punishment for a quarter of a century, I certainly believe the old lock-’em-up strategies neither worked to rehabilitate people nor were cost-effective for taxpayers. But, especially on issues such as crime—which people experience viscerally and emotionally, rather than in a detached, intellectual manner—the public tends to be notoriously impatient and fickle.
In the 1990s, a series of high-profile murders, including that of 12-year-old Polly Klaas in the town of Petaluma, catapulted crime to the top of Californians’ concerns. The climate provided a huge opening for Governor Pete Wilson to demagogue his way to reelection by championing every tough-on-crime policy that came his way. Despite California’s historic reputation as a relatively liberal, open society, by the middle of the decade, largely with bipartisan support, the state had locked into place some of the country’s toughest, and least carefully thought-out, anti-crime laws—both through legislation and through the initiative process. By the year 2000, California had a staggering 40,000 inmates serving either second-strike or third-strike sentences. Its prison guard union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, had become one of the most powerful organized labor outfits in the state. Meanwhile, taxpayers were footing a multibillion-dollar annual bill to keep the state’s nearly three dozen prisons functioning, along with the broader infrastructure of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
It took reform groups nearly 20 years of organizing and education and outreach efforts to convince voters in California, as well as the Democratic Party’s political leaders, to turn against tough-on-crime laws such as Three Strikes and You’re Out, as well as other mandatory sentences, to vote to make more low-end crimes misdemeanors as opposed to felonies, to support reforms to the state’s bail system, to decriminalize marijuana, to allow drug offenders access to some social services, and so on. At least in part, what finally convinced Californians to embrace change was the inane cost of the status quo: by 2020, despite nearly a decade in which overall prison numbers had declined, the the CDCR budget had mushroomed to north of $13 billion.
But realizing the status quo is broken is very different from wholeheartedly backing radical measures, or slogans like “defund the police,” or decisions to dramatically reduce the number of quality-of-life crimes that district attorneys prosecute.
Now, with California’s major cities plastered with large encampments of the homeless—many of whom are seriously mentally ill and/or drug addicted, and many of whom have been released from jails and prisons straight onto the streets—and with similar surges in crime to that being experienced by other cities around the country, voters in California are again scared and angry. Once again, they are rejecting progressive politicians on the issue.
That anger was seen in Los Angeles, where voters turned against the front-running mayoral candidate Karen Bass and, on Tuesday, delivered a shock win for the wealthy mall developer Rick Caruso. Since neither candidate got 50 percent of the vote, they will face each other again in a one-on-one contest in November. And while it’s certainly possible that Bass might still end up victorious in that run-off, Caruso is now entering the summer months as the candidate to beat. In large part, he reached that position by building a coalition based on promises to hire more police officers in the face of soaring crime, and to clean up the encampments dotting so many parts of the city.
And that anger was seen, too, in San Francisco. At the end of the day, Chesa Boudin was unlucky enough to become a lightning rod in national crime-and-punishment debates, and from the get-go he struggled to effectively articulate a reason that resonated with a mass of voters as to why it was worth continuing strategies that didn’t seem to be delivering short-term results. His answer, repeated on the stump, that he needed more time, ran up against a perception that the city was spiraling out of control.
More than 60 percent of voters (albeit in an election defined by extremely low voter turnout in the Golden State) voted to recall Boudin. Given that it’s impossible to see how 60 percent of San Franciscans—or even 60 percent of an off-year shrunken electorate in the city—identify as conservative, it is hard to not conclude that a number of self-proclaimed liberals in one of America’s most liberal and socially experimental cities turned against a DA who was seen not to be making the city’s streets safer.
What makes San Francisco’s vote all the more telling is that it wasn’t part of some elusive red wave in California. To the contrary: Tuesday’s vote in California was not an across-the-board repudiation of Democratic leadership or of Democratic policy priorities. With the exception of the controller’s race, in which a Republican topped the vote, the statewide races (for governor, for attorney general, for treasurer, for secretary of state) all saw the incumbent Democrats significantly outpolling their nearest Republican rivals. In the US senate race, Democrat Alex Padilla easily topped the field. And vis-à-vis the roughly 90 local measures that were on the slate on Tuesday, tax increases, bonds to fund schools, environmental cleanup, fire-fighting, paramedics, and other services were approved in a number of cities and counties, despite the usual anti-tax clamor from the right.
The results from Tuesday’s election in no way mean that Democrats’ control of the state’s top offices is in jeopardy. Nor do they make it more likely that Republicans will flip a large number of Democratic congressional seats—in fact, because of the state’s new electoral maps, it’s still quite likely that Democrats might be able to capture one or two of the GOP’s ten remaining congressional seats in California.
But the elections should serve, nevertheless, as a huge wake-up call to Democrats. Big-city voters are upset about soaring crime rates, and big-city voters in California, where one-quarter of the country’s homeless reside, are particularly angered by the confluence of crime and homelessness.
It wasn’t that long ago that many of America’s largest cities, including New York and Los Angeles, had Republican mayors. If Democrats can’t find a smart-on-crime message that resonates, and ways to sell well thought out, research-based alternatives to mass incarceration to a rattled public, it’s entirely possible that more progressive prosecutors will meet Boudin’s fate, and that more progressive mayors and mayoral hopefuls will face the sort of implosion of public support experienced by Karen Bass in LA.