SAN FRANCISCO - San Francisco on Tuesday has voted to recall progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin in a heated campaign that bitterly divided Democrats over crime, policing and public safety reform.
Partial returns showed Boudin losing in what is expected to be a low turnout election. A secondary round of returns showed 59.9% of votes in favor of the recall.
Boudin, 41, was a first-time political candidate who narrowly won office in November 2019 as part of a national wave of progressive prosecutors who pledged to seek alternatives to incarceration, end the racist war on drugs and hold police officers to account.
But his time in office coincided with a frustrating and frightening pandemic in which viral footage of brazen shoplifting and attacks against mostly older Asian American people drove some residents to mount a recall campaign of the former public defender and son of left-wing activists.
Recall proponents said Boudin was ideologically inflexible and inexperienced, often siding with criminals instead of victims. Recall opponents said the recall was a Republican power grab meant to undermine public safety reforms.
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Speaking to a crowd after he was recalled, Boudin, while not officially conceding, called the night a movement, not a moment in history. "The right-wing billionaires outspent us 3 to 1," he said, blaming the outcome partially on voters who were frustrated with two years of pandemic restrictions and corruption at City Hall. He said voters were able to use the ballot box as an opportunity to voice their frustration.
"People have a right to be frustrated. There's so much room for improvement," Boudin said. In a one-on-one interview, Boudin said when he was elected in 2019, the COVID lockdown took effect only two months into his tenure, which seriously hindered the function of his office.
Evoking the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who campaigned at his side, Boudin asked the crowd to repeat after him: "We are not afraid. Justice is on our side. Our cause is righteous! And we have already won!" He continued, "We can never incarcerate our way out of poverty."
"We have two cities. We have two systems of justice, right? We have one for the wealthy and the well-connected and a different one for everybody else and that's exactly what we are fighting to change," Boudin said.
San Francisco has long struggled with open drug dealing, vandalism, auto theft and home burglaries. Political experts say the political newcomer who narrowly won in 2019 was in the crosshairs of outside forces that made him an easy target for public frustration.
Boudin was a baby when his parents, left-wing Weather Underground radicals, served as drivers in a botched 1981 robbery in New York that left two police officers and a security guard dead. They were sentenced to decades in prison.
While campaigning, he spoke of the pain of stepping through metal detectors to hug his parents and vowed to reform a system that tears apart families. Kathy Boudin was released on parole in 2003 and died of cancer in May. David Gilbert was granted parole in October.
While speaking, he touched on his upbringing and related to the carceral system that is all-too-familiar to so many families and the country's "Addiction to caging human beings."
The recall campaign against Boudin was backed by many of the same people who successfully ousted three liberal members of the San Francisco school board in February. Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom, however, easily beat a Republican-led recall last year.
Boudin touched on the "dangers" of recall elections, saying they can undermine democracy and "take power and choice away from voters." He said he expects the vote count to narrow in the coming days. "We know people were writing the obituary on this election before our campaign even started. But we are just getting started."
Boudin told KTVU he said he does plan on running in the D.A.'s race in November 2023, but will speak with his family before making any final decisions. In the meantime, Mayor London Breed will appoint an interim D.A., but not before San Francisco Department of Elections certifies the vote. The timetable involves the Board of Supervisors and a new D.A. will likely be appointed some time in early July.
KTVU contributed to this report.