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San Francisco DA race heats up amid debates over crime and reform

Candidates include the current appointed DA, a frequent critic of the police department and a former police officer who says he's both tough on crime and reform-minded.

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (CN) — Mired in conflict over how to tackle crime and reform as leaders urge harsher policies for visible drug use and homelessness, San Francisco voters now have five candidates in a contentious race for district attorney. 

Even before Mayor London Breed selected Brooke Jenkins to replace DA Chesa Boudin after his recall, the city’s political climate was heated by frenzied debates over whether there was any increase in crime and homelessness. The recall blamed Boudin and even claimed his policies contributed to a homelessness and opioid crisis. But coalitions opposed to the recall and Bay Area criminal law experts called the effort a $5 million conservative move to shift the city’s approach to criminal justice.

Boudin announced last week he would not run to reclaim his position from former critic Jenkins.

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin addresses a crowd gathered at City Hall on May 18, 2022, to honor victims of a mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, and to declare his new proposals for preventing hate crime in the city. (Natalie Hanson/Courthouse News)

“I am choosing to put my family first: I will not be running for office in 2022,” he tweeted

Jenkins has garnered endorsements this November from San Francisco Democrats who didn’t support the recall, including state Senator Scott Wiener. She claims her goal is not “some extreme like the war on drugs” and has said her policies include treatment options in addition to renewed arrest strategies designed to “crack down” on various categories of crime.

She has been criticized for firing most of Boudin’s staff, with more stepping down over her harsher policies on low-level offenses and homelessness. City attorneys and the Public Defender's Office said her stance is fallout from returning to failed war-on-drugs policies, and researchers call these policies a political backslide for San Francisco that could be politically risky for Breed and Jenkins.

A campaign spokesperson for Jenkins did not return a request for comment before press time.

Outspoken attorney John Hamasaki is officially challenging Jenkins, after claiming her policies will increase incarcerations and police violence against residents.

Outspoken attorney John Hamasaki and critic of District Attorney Brooke Jenkins is running for District Attorney in San Francisco, Calif. (Photo via John Hamasaki / Courthouse News)

He’s a well-known critic of the police department union since his days on the Police Commission, sparring publicly with the chief of police over how different cases have been handled. The commission received calls for his removal citing his Twitter posts, and he decided to step down from the commission and eligibility for another term this past April, saying there was not enough will to change San Francisco Police Department’s “culture of corruption and brutality.” 

Hamasaki said by phone he wants to see the DA’s office seek justice and public safety — which he said has been framed as arresting and incarcerating people for substance abuse, mental illness and being homeless. He said those methods have been proven ineffective, and prefers accountability that is “fair to both the victim and offender.”

He also wants to see the mayor have less political control over the DA’s office.

“Having somebody who's independent, who’s not tied to the political organizations, the mayor's office, would allow people to actually have a functioning DA’s office without all of the politics,” he said. 

While he stayed active in Twitter discourse, often sharply criticizing Jenkins’ policies and supporters, this week critics pointed out that his posts dating back to February disappeared. Hamasaki said this happened accidentally when he asked his assistant “to clean out posts with low engagement” and that he was “super pissed about it.” 

Another attorney claims he may have the most experience out of any candidate. Maurice Chenier, practicing civil defense law since 1993, filed to run for DA in 2007 against now Vice President Kamala Harris, but dropped out.

Chenier wants to represent people frustrated by homelessness, petty thefts and break-ins, as well as victims who died in homicides committed during the 2000s. He said he was frustrated with not seeing justice for the fatal shooting of his nephew, rapper Max Chenier, in 2005, and thinks progressive reforms “do not work” for handling serious crimes. 

“I’m not partisan, I’m just a person who wants to enforce the laws,” he said. “We need a definite commitment to punish crimes. And then rehabilitation, which I’m all for, can be applied by other agencies.”

Documents filed at the city’s elections office also show civil rights attorney Joe Alioto Veronese is running. 

A former police officer and police commissioner once affiliated with Bay Area Democrats, Veronese said he does not conform to left or right political factions — although he criticized criminal justice reforms on Fox News and supported the Boudin recall.

He wants to see reform policies like worker protections, an end to no-knock warrants for nonviolent crimes and cash bail reform, but did not agree with Boudin’s methods.

“It will be about getting down and doing the work, sending the signal to the fentanyl dealers and mayor’s office from day one that this won’t be tolerated,” he said.

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