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A new dawn, a new D.A.: Promising justice reform, Chesa Boudin upsets the status quo

Supporters of San Francisco’s District Attorney elect Chesa Boudin who hoped to celebrate a win on election night, instead had to wait four days for enough votes to be counted to be assured of a win. But the mood at El Rio on Saturday, Nov. 9 was electric, marking the end of a hard-fought race that drew national attention, and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Although Boudin received nearly 9,000 more first-place votes than his closest opponent, he only had about 36 percent of the vote overall. So San Francisco’s ranked-choice voting system kicked in, awarding votes to him or to his opponent, Suzy Loftus, according to voters’ second and third place choices. In the end, he won by just 2,831 votes.

Among Boudin’s distinctive green and orange campaign signs, supporters at the party also wore shirts and buttons for other progressive candidates, such as Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and Shahid Buttar, who is running to represent San Francisco in the House of Representatives. The energy that kept the party going for several hours “is putting wind in our sales,” as supporter Cody England put it. “This energy is going to transfer to progressive races in San Francisco and the Bay Area. We see progressivism winning, and it’s overdue for San Francisco,” he added.

District Attorney elect Chesa Boudin and fiancee Valerie Block celebrate Boudin’s electoral victory at El Rio on Nov. 9, 2019. Photo: Beth LaBerge

District Attorney races don’t often get a lot of attention, but in this case, the victory party drew some big names, including former supervisor and mayoral candidate Jane Kim, District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney, and Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King.

However, Boudin himself was missing for the first few hours. That’s because he was on a flight from New York when the Department of Elections released the results showing that he had won. He was able to see the results, and a flood of congratulatory text messages, using the in-flight wifi. Many of those texts came through a Google Voice number. “[Google’s systems] thought I was spamming because so many messages were going out. So while I was on the plane I actually lost one of my two numbers,” Boudin said.

Boudin had been in New York to visit his father, who has been in prison for nearly Boudin’s entire life. That experience “caused Chesa to dedicate his career to making our country safer by reforming our criminal justice system,” according to his campaign website. He’s promised to emphasize “restorative justice” (a model of justice that focuses on rehabilitating offenders through reconciliation with victims and the greater community) rather than incarceration and other punitive approaches such as probation and parole.

That approach to criminal justice got the attention of Brandon Harami, chair of the San Francisco Berniecrats. In particular, Boudin’s opposition to cash bail appealed to Harami when they met early in the campaign to consider whether the Berniecrats would endorse his candidacy.

“Cash bail really is a system that helps the rich get out of jail quicker while poor folks get thrown in jail—maybe even for a crime … they didn’t even do,” Harami said. “Chesa’s committed to ending cash bail, and his election means that we end cash bail in San Francisco!”

After that conversation, the SF Berniecrats endorsed Boudin, along with several other local organizations, including UESF, the San Francisco Tenants Union, the Latino Democratic Club, and SEIU Local 1021.

In addition to all those local endorsements, the campaign got a high-profile national endorsement, in the final weeks of the race. On Oct. 28, Senator Bernie Sanders took a moment out of his own race for the Democratic nomination for president, to endorse Boudin—the only candidate he endorsed in California in 2019.

Jane Kim, who is now a prominent member of Sanders’ California team, explained why this race was so important to Sanders.

“Criminal justice reform is a really key part of the senator’s platform in running for president,” she said. She compared Boudin to other district attorney candidates who have run recently on similar platforms, including Larry Krasner, who was elected as the district attorney for Philadelphia in November 2017, and Tiffany Cabán, who came within just 55 votes of winning the Democratic primary to become the District Attorney in Queens, New York.

“Folks have now realized that if you want to see true criminal justice reform, it has to happen in the DA’s office, and so years of work went into this, to bring about these victories,” Kim said.

Boudin arrived at the party around 9:30 p.m. In his victory speech, he emphasized the importance of the volunteer work done by SF Rising Action Fund, which is described on its website as “a vibrant young electoral alliance that builds the political power of working class communities of color in San Francisco.”

Emily Lee, director of SF Rising Action Fund, cited police accountability as a major reason for that organization’s support of Boudin. With the high-profile killings by SFPD in recent years, the officers “basically committed those acts of murder with impunity, and there were never charges brought by the DA at the time,” she said. “[That’s] what Chesa represented to our communities … a DA who would actually hold police accountable … He would not let officers get off scot free [or] with no more than a slap on the wrist.”

She said their work on Boudin’s campaign will also help make voting a habit, in the communities of color that they canvassed, so that those communities would be better represented in elections in 2020. “If you can make it a habit, then it’s something you do more and more often,” she said.

Boudin’s major opponent, Suzy Loftus, had support from a lot of the political establishment, including the San Francisco Democratic Party, both of California’s Senators, and Mayor London Breed. When District Attorney George Gascón announced on Oct. 3 that he planned to resign before the election, Breed quickly announced she would appoint Loftus, effectively making her an incumbent, just weeks before election day.

The move drew immediate criticism and protests. The Northern California chapter of the ACLU referred to the move as “political machination.” Former state Senator Mark Leno, who had stepped away from politics after an unsuccessful run for mayor last year, came out in support of Boudin after Breed’s appointment, which he told the San Francisco Examiner was an “assault on a fair election process.”

Carmello Tringali, a Boudin supporter who was at the party on Saturday, called the appointment “an outrage” and said it may have ultimately helped Boudin win, because of the backlash to the move.

Nearly $2 million was spent in support of the four candidates in the district attorney race, including both contributions to the campaigns and independent expenditures. Donations in support of Boudin totalled about $958,000, while donations for Loftus were about $587,000.

Another $55,000 was spent, not in support of any specific candidate, but in opposition to Boudin, most of it from the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that several police officers associations from other cities also spent thousands of dollars to oppose Boudin, including $150,000 from the Los Angeles POA, and $25,000 from the New York Sergeants Benevolent Association. However, the column wasn’t published until well after election day, so voters weren’t able to take that into account when making their selection.

That police organizations from other cities and states attempted to thwart Boudin’s election speaks to the threat his campaign represented to the status quo, and also to the uphill battle he will face in truly reforming justice. The city’s new DA—who takes office in January—however, made sure to stress that his election is part of a greater movement for change: 

“There’s no way one person, no matter who they are, no matter how hard they work, no matter how smart they are, can accomplish the kind of transformation that voters elected me to lead,” Boudin said. “That takes a movement, that’s why I’m so proud to be working with these other organizations, to have them pushing me and pulling me, as we move forward over the next four years.” 

Story by: Tyler Breisacher

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