“Getting here was the easy part,” Chesa Boudin said in a victory speech after his 2019 election to the position of San Francisco district attorney. Three years later, despite presiding over a steep descent into lawlessness in the city on the bay, the progressive prosecutor might be about to prove himself right — though not in the way he had hoped.
Voters in what is perhaps America’s most liberal city will today vote on whether or not to recall Boudin. The polls suggest he will lose. Boudin’s 2019 victory was heralded as part of a national moment: a major milestone for a movement of progressive prosecutors promising a radical new approach to law and order. Now, his possible downfall is also part of a bigger story: the Left-wing poster boy who boasted about emptying jails, not prosecuting “quality-of-life” crimes, and “reimagining” criminal justice has become the face of the backlash against a lax approach in the midst of a crime wave.
It’s not hard to understand why the recall race has attracted outsized attention. Whether it’s the open air drug markets of the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood or the brazen shoplifting that has caused many retail chains to simply shut up shop in the city, anarchic scenes from San Francisco have captured the popular imagination of a public increasingly concerned about crime. From the mass resignations in his DA office to the tragic cases of former offenders committing violent, sometimes lethal, crimes after being released on his watch, there’s no shortage of evidence for the case against Boudin.
If the recall race has been an opportunity for the radical prosecutor to restate his progressive principles, he hasn’t exactly seized it. Instead, he has attempted a half-hearted and unconvincing pivot to a tougher (or at least slightly less lawless) approach and resorted to partisan name-calling, attempting to smear the recall campaign as a Republican plot. Not something that you want to be in a city where just 7% of voters are registered Republican. “It’s really problematic that we are having a very Trumpian conversation in San Francisco,” Boudin said recently.
But this is a blue-on-blue fight, with liberal San Franciscans exasperated with the incompetence and extremism of a prosecutor for whom their safety doesn’t always seem like the top priority. As recall campaigner Andrea Shorter told me last year: “The inconvenient truth for Boudin is that it’s not just a small group of conservatives that are out to recall Democratic politicians… We are interested in and support criminal justice reform. We understand its implications in terms of racial justice. I myself am African-American and also LGBTQ. I have supported criminal justice reform for nearly three decades, but not at the expense of public safety.”
Boudin would certainly be a major scalp for those worried about safety in American cities — and his ousting would send a powerful national message about the politics of crime in an election year. But if it is possible to underplay the significance of the recall race, it’s also possible to let the parable of San Francisco obscure the bigger picture.
Other high-profile progressive prosecutors are in office across America’s major cities: George Gascon in Los Angeles, Kim Foxx in Chicago, and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia are all prosecutors who, until recently, were happy to be described as part of the same movement as Boudin. At a city, state and federal level, a self-defeating, permissive approach to the interconnected problems of crime, homelessness and addiction dominates.
In the story many Democrats tell themselves, the party’s soft-on-crime mistakes are in the past. The U-turn from defund to refund the police has long since been completed. We get it now, they say to the voters and themselves, albeit a little later than we should have done. New York, for instance, has a tough-on-crime former cop running the show. Joe Biden has increased police funding. But in reality, the malpractice continues.
Take New York as an example: even as Eric Adams won the mayoralty with a promise to get a grip on the city’s burgeoning crime problem, the same election also saw the ascent of Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan District Attorney who takes a very different approach. On his first day in office, Bragg issued a memo asking colleagues to avoid jail time for perpetrators of all but the most serious crimes. He later backtracked, but the instincts and priorities of the man in charge of prosecuting crimes in Manhattan were plain to see. Also in Eric Adams’s supposedly tough-on-crime New York, subway advertisements normalise the use of some of the deadliest and most addictive substances you can put in your body and empower their users. The city’s “Let’s Talk Fentanyl” campaign tells addicts: “Don’t be ashamed you are using, be empowered that you are using safely.”
Meanwhile, there is no sign of New York’s violent crime surge slowing. Shootings and homicides surged during the pandemic and, five months into the Eric Adams era, are still rising. Shootings in the city in the first quarter of 2022 were up on the same period last year. Nationwide, 2020 saw the largest year-on-year increase in homicides ever recorded. And the numbers are still going up.
In Philadelphia, the story is especially grim. Homicide and shootings are at the highest rates on record, surpassing even the numbers from bad old days in the City of Brotherly Love. In a city of just 1.5 million, 559 people were murdered last year. And yet the city’s progressive prosecutor, Krasner, won re-election with two-thirds of the vote in both the Democratic primary and the general election. Even as public anxiety about crime rises, Krasner is sticking to his progressive guns: he recently established a unit dedicated to de-prosecuting crimes for offenders aged 18 to 25. By prioritising “rehabilitative programming”, the scheme effectively treats a violent criminal in his mid-twenties like a juvenile offender.
Elsewhere, the predictable damage of reckless post-George Floyd experiments is plain to see. In 2020, Oregon voted to decriminalise all drugs. The next year, overdose rates rose by 700%. To take a more prosaic example from neighbouring Washington: after the state passed a law dramatically limiting the ability of police from pursuing a car, drivers have taken to simply driving away from routine traffic stops.
More recently, after the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings, the Democrats have been understandably eager to talk about gun control. But they are more defensive when it comes to other, more everyday instances of gun violence. Krasner, for example, has called prosecutions for illegal gun possession “not only ineffective but unjust and racially discriminatory” while pointing the finger at the NRA and calling for tougher gun laws after another lethal in Philadelphia at the weekend. The cognitive dissonance is staggering. A more effective public safety agenda might bridge this absurd gap and unite the Democrats’ convictions on gun laws with the violence in America’s cities.
In the meantime, defeat for Boudin would be yet another chastening moment for progressive prosecutors and the Democrats more generally. But how many wake-up calls does the party need? In an America where violent crime is on the rise and fentanyl overdoses are now the leading cause of death among 18 to 45-year-olds, the Democrats are still a long way from completing the law-and-order U-turn that is required if they are to start making the streets of America’s cities any safer. Whether or not Boudin loses, liberal America is still firmly wedded to a mindset on crime, policing, criminal justice, drug addiction and homelessness that is failing — and for which may more Americans will pay for with their lives.