SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – San Francisco’s new district attorney is the latest in a string of big-city chief prosecutors to win the office by promising sweeping reforms and a shift away from the traditional law and order punitive approach to criminal justice issues.
Chesa Boudin, the son of two left-wing radical parents who were jailed for their activities, garnered 36% of the vote to defeat Suzy Loftus, a candidate who had the backing of California’s Democratic Party establishment.
"The people of San Francisco have sent a powerful and clear message," Boudin said in a statement. "It's time for radical change to how we envision justice.”
The elimination of the money bail, ending mass incarceration by prioritizing violent crime over drug offenses and addressing racial bias in the criminal justice system formed the central planks of Boudin’s successful electoral platform.
These policy ideas do not significantly diverge from those held by former San Francisco DA George Gascon, who resigned unexpectedly last month to run for district attorney in Los Angeles. But Boudin also had a singular personal story that resonated with voters.
His parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, were part of the Weather Underground, a radical and militant left-wing organization active in the 1960s. In 1981, they drove the getaway car in the armed robbery of a Brinks truck in Rockland County, New York, that left a Brinks guard and two Nanuet police officers dead.
Kathy Boudin spent time in prison for the crime, while Gilbert could spend the rest of his life behind bars. Chesa Boudin said he learned much about the criminal justice system from visiting his incarcerated father.
The new district attorney favors rehabilitation over punishment as a means to bring down recidivism rates and allow prisoners to reintegrate after paying their debt to society.
Whether or not Chesa Boudin – a former public defender – will have the political muscle to implement his progressive visions is another matter.
Other corners of the San Francisco law enforcement community, most notably the San Francisco Police Officers Association, are already expressing hostility to Chesa Boudin’s agenda.
The powerful police union spent $600,000 on attack ads in the waning days of the elections and issued a statement after Loftus conceded that revealed their dim view of the incoming top cop.
"Unfortunately, the election results mean that San Francisco residents will have to suffer through another four years of the George Gascon-style policies that have plagued our city and decimated public safety," the union said in a statement responding to Boudin’s win, making reference to San Francisco’s most recent DA.
Jason McDaniel, a political scientist with San Francisco State University, said having a relationship with law enforcement will be difficult for Boudin as he begins to build a staff and settle into the office.
“Managing the police and sheriff side of the politics will be the biggest challenge,” McDaniel said.
Chesa Boudin has hit back, calling the police union out of touch.
“The leadership of the police union is really disconnected from the values of San Francisco voters,” Boudin said during an appearance on the news program DemocracyNow! on Monday.
McDaniel agreed with the assessment, saying the police have struggled to realize that many residents in San Francisco perceive them as part of a broken criminal justice system rather than a beneficial force.
“A lot of people in San Francisco feel that way, probably even a majority,” he said.
But in a likely concession that he will need some level of cooperation from police, judges and others in the criminal justice system, Boudin said he will not hold grudges post-election but seek for ways to work with representatives from all aspects of the criminal justice system.
It will be important, particularly as many of the endorsements from California Democratic luminaries like Governor Gavin Newsom and San Francisco Mayor London Breed went to Loftus.
“Chesa Boudin is not coming in as an ally of the mayor, who is still the most powerful person in the city,” McDaniel said.
Boudin’s win is a parcel of an overall electoral trend in big cities throughout the United States where those running for district attorney advocate for a less punitive approach to everything outside of violent crime and promise more accountability for police violence.
Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia have all elected DAs promising reforms in the past three years.
Kim Foxx in Chicago, Rachael Rollins in Boston and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia all endorsed Boudin, who also earned the approbation of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
"Now is the moment to fundamentally transform our racist and broken criminal justice system by ending mass incarceration, the failed war on drugs and the criminalization of poverty," Sanders, a 2020 presidential hopeful, tweeted Saturday.
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