An Ugly Campaign to Recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin Will Only Get Worse
By Julie Pitta
A proposal to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin just qualified for the June 7 election, gathering the 51,000 signatures needed to earn a place on the ballot. That this misguided effort reached its goal should come as no surprise: It spent more than a $1 million, most of it raised from out-of-state Republican billionaires.
As former Richmond District Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer explained in her column in the Richmond Review last month, the money was spent to hire paid signature gatherers who earned $10 per signature. Veteran San Francisco journalist Tim Redmond recently wrote: “If you spend enough money on paid signature-gatherers, who use all kinds of dubious practices, you can qualify almost anything these days.”
A campaign with the stated purpose of returning “law-and-order” to San Francisco’s streets has been caught overstepping the bounds of propriety – and often breaking the law.
The reports of recallers behaving badly are legion and they escalated in the months before the signatures were due at the San Francisco Department of Elections. In perhaps the worst incident, Jim Beckman, a beloved produce vendor at Clement Street’s weekly farmers market, was attacked by a paid signature gatherer last summer. Beckman, the Mayor of Clement Street, was shoved after asking the man, who was blocking access to his supplies, to move to aside. On Sept. 15, a Superior Court judge issued a restraining order against Beckman’s attacker, identified as a paid member of the recall Boudin campaign.
The assault on Beckman was the worst example of what Redmond rightly called “dubious practices.” But, it wasn’t the only one. Across the City, paid signature gatherers for the recall set up shop on private property, most notably in front of popular retailers like Safeway. John N. Dahlberg, an attorney for Safeway Inc., said attempts to evict campaign workers proved futile. When called by store managers, police declined to remove the trespassers, instead issuing citations that are nothing more than the legal equivalent of a slap-on-the-wrist.
To encourage voters to sign, campaign workers distorted the truth and often lied. In August, the recall Boudin campaign erected a free COVID-19 testing site on the grounds of the Market Street Safeway, according to a police report. San Franciscans tested at the site were asked to sign a piece of paper which turned out to be a petition to recall the district attorney. The City eventually shut down the tent, calling it an “unauthorized” testing site.
Recently, Russian Hill resident Judy Mann was asked to sign a petition by a paid signature gatherer at the Safeway on Divisadero. The petition, the man said, advocated for increasing penalties for shoplifting laws. It turned out to be a recall petition.
“It sounded reasonable to me,” Mann said. “I happen to be against recalls,” Mann continued. “They’re a huge waste of money. What he did, trying to misrepresent his petition, is very concerning.”
The recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin has brought together a strange coalition of out-of-state Republican billionaires, supporters of Boudin’s opponent Suzy Loftus (who lost the 2019 DA’s race), and the San Francisco Police Officers Association, long an opponent criminal justice reform. What unites them is their unwillingness to accept the results of the last election and the extremes they’re willing to go to overturn its results. That combination – as well as the and the staggering sums they’ve raised – promises to make this recall election among the nastiest in San Francisco political history.
Many San Franciscans are feeling unsettled these days. We’re still struggling to understand the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the short-term, it has changed crime patterns across the City, leaving many feeling unsafe. In the Richmond, that’s meant an increase in property crime, especially along the neighborhood’s wealthiest corridors and at our many tourist attractions.
Recalling the DA will not reduce crime. The truth is that San Francisco has fared better than many American cities, including those with tough-on-crime DAs: Overall, crime is down and violent crime, the common measure of public safety, is 17% lower in 2021 than in 2020. Boudin continues to prosecute at the same rate as his predecessors – as well as other Bay Area district attorneys – even as San Francisco’s courts have been partially closed.
If successful, the recall will have lasting implications. It will slow the rate at which we take on the work of the criminal justice system. It also sends the message that election results are fungible. Wrote veteran newsman Redmond, “If you lose a race in which contributions are limited to $500, you can just go and file a recall, where contributions are unlimited, and let big money drive the election – and in San Francisco, give the mayor a chance to replace the elected candidate.”
Julie Pitta is a neighborhood activist. She is a former senior editor for Forbes Magazine and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org