By Julie Pitta
On the eve of the June 7 election, a handful of Chesa Boudin supporters stood at the intersection of Geary Street and Park Presidio Boulevard, waving “No on H” signs. Most afternoon commuters drove by without comment; a few honked horns in appreciation.
Full disclosure: I was among those standing on that busy street corner. The day was not without incident. One man rolled down his window to spew obscenities. His face, contorted with rage; his words, intended to wound, will haunt me for a very long time.
At last count, 122,000 San Franciscans cast their ballots to oust District Attorney Chesa Boudin, about 24% of those eligible to vote in our City’s elections. It’s likely that the divide between those who voted to recall Boudin and those who voted to retain him will be 55-to-45. Given the more than $7 million spent to remove the district attorney from office, the margin was remarkably narrow. The “No on H” campaign was outspent 3-to-1. The recallers paid nearly $100 per vote.
The money was spent to propagate a false narrative created by the powerful Police Officers Association (POA), outraged that Boudin was making good on his campaign promise to go after bad cops. Boudin, the POA insisted, would not prosecute suspected criminals. Meanwhile, the San Francisco police officers are responsible for the lowest arrest rates of any municipal police department in the country. Only 8.1% of reported crimes lead to an arrest.
Corporate leaders, angry that the district attorney intended to prosecute wage theft, spent big to spread POA talking points, receiving an able assist from out-of-state Republicans with their own agenda of disrupting elections in solidly blue states.
Enough voters bought in to remove the district attorney from office. Many were disturbed by the pain they see daily on San Francisco streets, made worse after two years of a pandemic. Recalling the district attorney will do nothing to address the widening gap between rich and poor. The district attorney is gone; the problems will remain.
It’s unclear what impact, if any, Boudin’s ouster will have on the national movement to reform the criminal justice system. According to recent polls, many of Boudin’s policies like the elimination of cash bail and his commitment to not charge children as adults remain popular
What is clear is that big money buys a lot of bad behavior.
Early on, the recall campaign signaled that it was willing to win at any cost. To gather the requisite number of signatures to qualify for the ballot, it set up shop on private property, like
Safeway stores, violating state campaign laws and infuriating store managers (by refusing to leave when asked). It erected a free COVID-19 testing site on the grounds of the Market Street Safeway. 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.
Once on the ballot, the recall campaign’s tactics ratcheted up the disinformation. Consider the slick ad criticizing Boudin for his handling of the Tenderloin’s drug crisis featuring Richmond resident Max Young. Young claimed he closed his mid-Market bar, Mr. Smith’s, because of “constant drug dealers in front of my shop.” As it turns out, Mr. Smith’s was shuttered in September 2019, two months before Boudin was elected.
The Tenderloin’s drug problem, it should be noted, predates Boudin by decades. Drug deaths in San Francisco are up; it turns out that our City is not immune to the national opioid crisis.
California has a low bar for recalls. Boudin’s ouster is a warning that the losing side in any political battle can petition for a re-do, potentially unseating a democratically elected office holder. That, combined with our inability to stop money from distorting the electoral process, means that those who can afford to buy elections will do so, using unethical — and in some cases, illegal — tactics to achieve their aims.
A man shouting obscenities at Boudin supporters a day before the election is another example of the way our political discourse has coarsened. The recallers won. They disgraced themselves in the process.
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 Follor her on Twitter: @JuliePitta.