A defense attorney born to incarcerated radical activists, Chesa Boudin entered San Francisco’s district attorney race riding a national wave of progressive prosecutors running for office.
His commitment to issues like reforming the cash bail system has made him a top fundraiser and earned him endorsements from prominent black leaders including the activist Angela Davis.
But at a debate Tuesday evening, his opponents used his career as a deputy public defender to question his capacity to serve as the top prosecutor of San Francisco.
“Chesa, if you were running for public defender I would vote for you,” said prosecutor Nancy Tung, another candidate in the race.
The debate in front of an audience of several hundred at UC Hastings College of the Law offered the four candidates a chance to take shots at each other as they sought to differentiate themselves from the pack.
The candidates — Boudin, Tung, Suzy Loftus and Leif Dautch — also used the platform to question each other’s records and positions on issues including immigration, homicides and rape kits.
The race is San Francisco’s first district attorney contest without an incumbent in more than a century, as District Attorney George Gascon is considering running for office in Los Angeles.
Loftus, a former police commissioner and the leading fundraiser in the race as of mid-2019, questioned Boudin’s record on protecting victims of homicide and gun violence.
Boudin said he had recently defended a man in the courtroom who was the victim of an attempted murder that prosecutors did not charge because the perpetrator was a police informant.
“There’s an interesting thing listening to that story,” Loftus said. “It’s entirely based on the perspective of a defense attorney representing their client.”
Loftus, a former prosecutor, said she is the only candidate who has worked closely with communities of color to combat violence.
Boudin fired back at Loftus, asking her to condemn a decision that one of her high-profile endorsers, presidential candidate Kamala Harris, made as district attorney of San Francisco.
A decade ago, Harris supported notifying federal immigration authorities about undocumented youth who had been arrested on suspicion of a felony.
Loftus did not give a straight answer but pledged to keep San Francisco a sanctuary city if elected district attorney.
“There is no place for local law enforcement to care about what your status is,” Loftus said.
When asked again Wednesday morning, Loftus told the San Francisco Examiner, “It wasn’t right to do it then and it isn’t right to do it now.”
“It was wrong for any city leader to support that policy,” Loftus said.
Dautch, who trailed Loftus and Boudin in fundraising as of the end of June, also targeted Loftus at the debate.
Dautch asked her how she could deliver justice to the victims of sexual assault when she had been sued by a survivor named Heather Marlowe for being the president of the Police Commission while rape kits went untested.
Marlowe recently asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, arguing that police did not investigate her rape in violation of her right to equal protection under the Constitution.
“No one on this stage has done more than me to address how this system has failed victims of sexual violence,” Loftus said.
Under her leadership, Loftus said the Police Commission required police to test rape kits within 120 days and to regularly report to the commission.
Dautch, a deputy attorney general for California, did not escape criticism.
Boudin asked him whether he would renounce an endorsement from a law enforcement group who posted a video smearing Boudin on social media last month.
The Deputy Sheriffs’ Association posted the video from the right-wing John Birch Society titled, “Terrorist’s Son Running For San Fran. DA.”
“As soon as I saw that video I put out a statement publicly renouncing it,” said Dautch, who has pledged to keep his campaign clean. “That is not what I want my campaign to be about or anyone that I’m associated with.”
The rest of the debate focused on issues ranging from police misconduct to mass incarceration.
Tung stood out from the rest of the candidates on the issue of youth justice. All of the candidates except Tung support shutting down juvenile hall in San Francisco.
Tung said the closure would result in incarcerated youth being shipped out of county and being “taken out of their community when they need their community most.”
Tung is a former prosecutor in San Francisco and an assistant district attorney in Alameda County.
The next debate is scheduled to take place at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the San Francisco County Fair Building.
While the ACLU moderated the discussion Tuesday, the more conservative Stop Crime SF will host Wednesday’s forum.