Among the problems with the attempt to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin is that the election makes San Francisco look like a joke.
The point is not that Boudin has been flawless in his job. Rather, he has done some good things, made some mistakes, pleased some constituents, displeased others and been subject to events in San Francisco that have been out of his control. In that regard, Boudin is more or less like every elected official ever.
The recall effort, on the other hand, is not spurred by some egregious mistake or crime that Boudin has committed. Rather, it is happening because many of the people who did not support him when he ran in 2019 see an easy and relatively cost-free way to have a political tantrum.
Nonetheless, the recall will go forward and will be a major political story here for months, even though we know how this will play out. Between now and the recall election, local, and more importantly, conservative national media, will rant about how the recall effort demonstrates that progressive forces are too strong in San Francisco, crime is out of control and the left has turned The City into some kind of radical dystopia. These reactionary talking points will be sanitized by self-proclaimed serious and moderate voices who will kibitz earnestly about how even San Francisco recognizes the need to rein in the far left.
And then when Boudin defeats the recall, the national media will agree that the recall never had a chance anyway in left-wing San Francisco.
None of this is good for San Francisco, not for any particularly ideological reason, but because having an election and then seeking to recall the winner before less than half of his term is over is absurd. It makes The City look unserious, directionless and unwilling to follow through on its progressive rhetoric. That perception will endure because the recall effort will get a lot more attention than its eventual defeat.
Boudin’s election in 2019 was part of a wave, which is still growing, of progressive district attorneys who include Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, elected in 2018, and Chicago DA Kim Foxx, elected in 2016. These district attorneys have brought a new approach to the job, advocating for progressive policies like eliminating cash bail, reducing jail sentences for some crimes and overturning wrongful convictions. The effort to recall Boudin makes San Francisco seem like the majority of its residents never really meant to support these approaches and is thus more dilettante than progressive. Despite the recall being supported by a loud minority, liberal wishy-washiness is how the rest of the country will see The City.
This turn of events is possible because supporters of the recall can pursue the referendum easily and have nothing to lose. Although there is expense associated with qualifying a recall for the ballot, nobody is going broke making that happen. There are plenty of powerful and well-heeled interests happy to foot the bill.
Similarly, there is no political downside for supporters of the recall. The most likely outcome is that it will fail, but if that happens the conservative forces behind the effort will have lost nothing and will attribute the defeat to San Francisco’s progressive electorate. In the extremely unlikely event that the recall succeeds, the losers of the last campaign will have found a way to get a DA they like after failing to elect one.
We should also keep in mind that if Boudin is recalled, his replacement would be appointed by Mayor London Breed. Ironically, when Boudin was elected, he did it by defeating Suzy Loftus, a district attorney appointed by the mayor after George Gascón resigned to take the DA job in Los Angeles. Recalling Boudin would give Breed an opportunity to further consolidate political control over The City — and over the DA’s office.
It is also important to look a bit closer at who is behind the recall. It is true supporters of the recall include major donors to GOP causes such as William Duhamel, Dede Wilsey and William Oberndorf — the latter is one of Mitch McConnell’s most generous benefactors — as well as benign sounding organizations such as Neighbors for a Better San Francisco, which enjoy strong financial support from right-wing donors. In short, there are several political organizations, individuals and forces providing the energy and resources behind the recall. However, it is impossible to ignore the role of the Police Officers Association as one of the prime movers in the recall attempt.
The same POA loudly calling for Boudin’s recall has been a singularly destructive and reactionary force in San Francisco politics for decades. From fighting efforts to racially integrate the police in the 1960s and 1970s, to its cozy relationship with Dan White after he killed George Moscone and Harvey Milk, through its longtime opposition to police reform and their opposition to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the POA has been a pillar of reactionary politics and opinion in San Francisco. While San Francisco liberals and progressives may disagree about the job Boudin is doing as DA, there should be little disagreement about the impact of the POA in this city. If the POA is for it, forces of progress, tolerance and justice should be against it. That should be axiomatic for all but the most reactionary San Franciscans.
Following the expensive debacle that was the failed attempt to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom from office, there has been increased attention to reforming the recall process. Reform is indeed needed, but a better and cleaner approach might be to abolish recall elections altogether. Most recalls fail, but they do enduring damage to the civic fabric by villainizing the recall target in a way that is much more direct than a campaign between two politicians. In our current polarized, and increasingly violent, political environment, this is particularly harmful.
Recalls are not a tool that is necessary for a functioning democracy. Many states and cities do not have them and no such voting option exists at a federal level. In our current system and political climate, recalls are little more than an opportunity for loud and angry political minorities to deepen divisions, hamstring elected officials and drive media attention. The attempt to recall Chesa Boudin is just one example of this damage.
Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.