Two months ago, when San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin was recalled, critics of the progressive district attorneys’ movement predicted its rapid demise. In the face of rising violent crime rates, they foresaw the reemergence of unthinkingly “tough on crime” prosecutors—the sorts of prosecutors who had dominated the office during the War on Crime and War on Drugs decades, but who had lost out to people such as Boudin in recent years—in cities up and down the West Coast.
But the San Francisco election had very specific characteristics: a particularly well-funded recall effort, a number of self-inflicted political wounds and hostages to fortune that Boudin and his team created, and a series of acrimonious roiling debates in the city about progressive priorities on everything from crime and punishment to schooling.
Other cities, it turned out, were rather different.
Over the past several months, critics of Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón (who was previously the DA in San Francisco) made an all-out effort to recall him as well. The deadline for raising the 566,857 signatures needed to put a recall on the ballot was in mid-July. Organizers submitted considerably more than that—upwards of 700,000—but when the signatures were examined during the verification process, nearly 200,000 were disqualified. (It is entirely normal, during petition drives, for many signatures that ultimately are excluded to initially be submitted, which is why petition organizers know they have to collect a much larger number of signatures than required if their proposition is ultimately to qualify for the ballot.)
This week, the county clerk’s office released its tally: of the signatures gathered, only 520,000 valid ones had been submitted. More than 43,000 signatures were duplicates, meaning respondents had signed multiple petitions. Others were nonresidents, or not registered to vote, an unsurprising outcome given that the signature drive mass-mailed petitions to 3.6 million people in the final weeks of the campaign.
The failure to accumulate enough valid, non-duplicated signatures, meant that the most recent recall effort was dead. Gascón, who was elected in November 2020, has now survived two efforts to recall him in as many years.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the demise of the Gascón recall campaign. Recall efforts are, these days, being used by conservatives around the country to relitigate elections they have lost, rather than to remove from office people convicted—or even simply accused—of crimes that make them unfit to hold that office. As with the effort to recall Governor Gavin Newsom earlier this year, ultimately swatted down by voters, the moves against California’s big-city progressive DAs are part of a coordinated national effort to exploit election loopholes to freeze out progressive office holders.
There is a deeply antidemocratic impulse in play here: an unwillingness to abide by voters’ choices during regular election cycles and an eagerness to trigger special elections, which generally have low voter turnout, for the flimsiest of reasons as an end-run around electoral results that don’t go the way conservatives want.
Los Angeles, like many others cities in the US these days, does have a problem with a rising crime rate. In particular, its murder rate has soared 35 percent since 2019, and is now at a level not seen in 15 years. Since 23 percent of the murder victims are unhoused, the violent crime crisis and the homelessness crisis are visibly overlapping. Other violent crime is also on the rise, and, in response, leading mayoral candidates Karen Bass and Rick Caruso have proposed significant increases in police resources and personnel.
As in San Francisco, the recall effort has tried to blame the priorities of the Progressive DAs for the crime spike, tapping into voters’ understandable frustrations and fears about crime to fundamentally shift the narrative around criminal justice reform. But the data doesn’t back up their arguments. The Covid-19 pandemic unleashed such social instability, such economic chaos, and such a massive mental health crisis, that it triggered large crime increases in communities around the country, be they red or blue, be their DAs progressive or conservative.
Yes, LA’s murder rate rose by 35 percent in three years, but the national murder rate rose by 44 percent in that same period. Yes, LA and San Francisco have seen worrying surges in violent crime, but those surges have been less extreme than those seen in many GOP-led states and cities (including those in California, such as Fresno and Bakersfield) since the onset of the pandemic. And those GOP-led regions were already starting from a higher baseline of violent crime, arguably precipitated by lower levels of social services and easier access to guns than is the case in cities such as San Francisco. Fresno’s homicide rate per 100,000 residents, for example, is roughly three times that of San Francisco and double that of LA.
Conservatives are playing bait-and-switch politics in their efforts to recall DAs such as Gascón. If they were serious about curtailing crime, and the conditions of poverty and despair that lead to so many criminal acts, they’d be supporting policies aimed at investing in communities. They would be supporting initiatives to massively expand funding for affordable housing, drug treatment, and mental health services. They would be supporting expanded access to health care coverage. Above all, they would be supporting sensible gun control polices. But they don’t support any of these interventions.
Oh, and then of course there’s this: If Republicans really were serious about crime, law-and-order, support for the police, and so on, they wouldn’t be in a death-cult embrace with a seditionist, coup-plotting, insurrection-inspiring, paramilitary-flirting, mob-rousing, potentially Espionage Act–breaking, fascist thug like Donald Trump. But they are. And so long as they are, nobody in their right mind ought to pay any heed to the GOP’s claims of being the party of law and order, or to its hypocritical bromides against progressive DAs and the much-needed reforms they are attempting to implement.