San Franciscans know dirty politics when they see it, and last week they had front row seats.
On Oct. 4, the day after incumbent District Attorney George Gascon announced that he would resign rather than serve the last couple months of his term, Mayor London Breed held a press conference to announce that she would appoint Sheriff’s Legal Counsel Suzy Loftus as interim DA. On its own, that sentence might not raise many eyebrows. But when we add that the press conference was held as vote-by-mail ballots were starting to arrive, the appointment will be effective October 18th, that a heated election for the seat will be held Nov. 5, and that Breed was one of Loftus’s earliest endorsers, the stink is overwhelming.
This would have been the city’s first District Attorney race with no incumbent on the ballot in over 100 years. Mayor Breed’s appointment takes that away. And given that nationally, incumbent DAs win re-election upwards of 90% of the time, it was a historic opportunity for San Franciscans to choose their top prosecutor—without executive interference. That’s a big deal, because the District Attorney has immense power over the lives of San Franciscans, deciding whom to prosecute with what crimes and how to wield the criminal code to hold the powerful to account.
Apparently, the establishment wasn’t comfortable leaving that much power in the hands of us voters, so it sought to ram in its preferred candidate. The Mayor’s justifications for the move can’t be considered with a straight face. She claims that she simply couldn’t leave the office without leadership for 3 months (her alternative facts).
But she wouldn’t have had to do so. The gap between the effective date of Gascon’s resignation and the election is actually only 18 days! Surely the person Gascon tapped to temporarily replace him—his highly competent and long-standing number two—could have guided the office for a little over two weeks until the Mayor could appoint the winner of a free and fair election.
Such a cynical political ploy would be right at home in an episode of House of Cards. This house of cards appears to be tumbling rather quickly.
Chesa Boudin—the true progressive in the race, and by many measures, the frontrunner—has benefitted from voters’ outrage at this cynical ploy. Protestors shut down the press conference announcing the appointment, forcing the Mayor, Loftus, and their entourage to stage an ad hoc private event guarded by a wall of police—precisely the sort of image you might imagine would accompany such an anti-democratic powergrab. Boudin had already raised the most money, despite entering the race months after Loftus, and he has the most individual donors. He’s turning out record numbers of volunteers, and now, Loftus is losing endorsements.
We’re supporting Boudin. He’s a Yale-educated Rhodes Scholar who returned to Yale for law school before serving as a law clerk to two federal judges. He decided to become a public defender, where he helped launch the office’s groundbreaking immigration unit and persuaded the Sheriff to stop cooperating with ICE to deport our immigrant neighbors. And he led a litigation team that’s on the brink of ending California’s use of money bail, a discriminatory practice that keeps a person in jail before trial simply because she can’t make a monetary payment that a wealthier person could make.
Boudin has engaged in the kind of transformative, systemic reform that progressives leaders across the country and in San Francisco—most of whom have endorsed him—recognize is critically important if we are to return justice to the criminal justice system. It’s a distinctly different path from the one chosen by his opponents—including Loftus—each of whom, as prosecutors, used money bail to detain poor defendants, and has long been part of a deeply broken status quo.
But it isn’t just his track record that impresses us, it’s also his vision. Boudin has committed to using the outsized role of the District Attorney’s Office to help end racism in the criminal justice system. And racism in that system is pervasive. San Francisco’s Black population is around 5%. The Black population in our county jail is over 50%. Believe it or not, we incarcerate our Black brothers and sisters at a rate higher than any other major American city. This contributes to the further disenfranchisement of a people who have been excluded from our country’s democratic institutions since its founding.
With democratic norms and institutions under constant assault from Washington, we need to shore up those norms and institutions elsewhere, especially here in San Francisco. That’s why we were so disappointed with the Mayor’s decision. It manipulates voters, disrespects the electoral process, and deeply damages our democracy. This is the sort of underhanded tactic we’ve come to expect from the White House, but we deserve better from City Hall. Fortunately, voters appear to have seen through it. And on Nov. 5, they have a chance to say so.
Mark Leno is a former state Senator for San Francisco. Danny Glover is an actor, producer and humanitarian.