In San Francisco, Democrats Are at War With Themselves Over Crime

SAN FRANCISCO — As the former chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, Mary Jung has a long list of liberal bona fides, including her early days in politics volunteering in Ohio for the presidential campaign of George McGovern and her service on the board of the local Planned Parenthood branch. “In Cleveland, I was considered a communist,” she said in her San Francisco office.

But the squalor and petty crime that she sees as crescendoing on some city streets — her office has been broken into four times during the coronavirus pandemic — has tested her liberal outlook. Last year, on the same day her granddaughter was born, she watched a video of a mentally ill man punching an older Chinese woman in broad daylight on Market Street.

Ms. Jung, director of government affairs for the San Francisco Association of Realtors and head of a Realtors foundation that assists homeless people, wondered what kind of city her granddaughter would grow up in. “I thought, ‘Am I going to be able to take her out in the stroller?’”

Now she finds herself leading what has been called a Democratic civil war in one of America’s most liberal cities: an effort to recall San Francisco’s district attorney, Chesa Boudin, that has echoes of the party’s larger split over how to handle matters of crime and punishment. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, liberals and independents will decide a recall that is being financially backed by conservative donors.

“What shade of blue are you — that’s really what it comes down to,” said Lilly Rapson, the campaign manager of the recall and Ms. Jung’s partner in the endeavor. A lifelong Democrat, Ms. Rapson said she was motivated to lead the campaign after her home was broken into last year as she slept.

There is no compelling evidence that Mr. Boudin’s policies have made crime significantly worse in San Francisco. Overall crime in San Francisco has changed little since Mr. Boudin took office in early 2020.

But his message of leniency for perpetrators has rankled residents of the city, many of whom feel unsafe and violated by property crimes. Like a president facing election during a bad economy, Mr. Boudin finds himself a vessel for residents’ pandemic angst and their frustrations over a wave of burglaries and other property crimes in well-to-do areas. Some residents, especially the city’s sizable Asian American population, also feel that a spike in hate crimes has made it unsafe to walk the streets.

If successful, the recall would overturn one of the nation’s boldest efforts in criminal justice reform: an experiment to install a former public defender as the protector of public safety with promises to reduce mass incarceration, hold the police accountable and tackle racial disparities in the justice system.

A vote to push Mr. Boudin from office would signal to Democrats that talking tough on crime could be a winning message in the midterm elections, and deal a blow to a national movement that has elected progressive prosecutors in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Mr. Boudin faced long odds in his race to become San Francisco’s district attorney two years ago.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

The election comes as San Francisco is being convulsed by debates over the disorder of its streets — car break-ins, tent encampments that dot the sidewalks in some neighborhoods and the open-air markets peddling illicit fentanyl that has killed more people in the city than Covid-19.

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Mr. Boudin, 41, was an outsider to San Francisco politics who grew up while his parents, 1960s radicals with the Weather Underground, went to prison for their role in the notorious 1981 robbery of a Brink’s armored car in New York that left two police officers and a bank guard dead.

He went on to become a Rhodes Scholar who graduated from Yale College and Yale Law School before starting his legal career as a public defender. In 2019, Mr. Boudin sought to move across the courtroom and was elected as the city’s top prosecutor, assuming office just before the pandemic.

He promised to end cash bail, stop prosecuting children as adults and expand diversion programs that offer defendants a chance at rehabilitation instead of prison — all steps he has taken while in office. Almost immediately, his opponents began collecting signatures toward a recall.

“It’s not been an easy time to start a career in public life,” he said recently at a community forum in the North Beach neighborhood, which was interrupted by protesters outside chanting, “Recall Chesa!”

On the campaign trail, Mr. Boudin is facing stiff headwinds. Several polls showed him down at least 10 points. In fighting to keep his job, he has leaned on two main strategies: associate, at every turn, the recall effort with Republicans, and confront voters with data that shows overall crime has not increased meaningfully while he has been in office, even as some categories have risen during the pandemic.

He has referred to one of the biggest donors to the recall campaign, William Oberndorf, a conservative and wealthy businessman, as an “oligarch,” called his opponents “Trumpian,” and sought to place the recall in the national context of a Republican-led effort to attack liberal prosecutors as weak on crime.

“It’s really problematic that we are having a very Trumpian conversation in San Francisco,” Mr. Boudin said.

California Democrats have had success using that strategy of attaching opponents to former President Donald J. Trump — most notably in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s triumph over a recall drive. But some wonder if the approach has staying power the longer Mr. Trump is out of office.

Mr. Boudin added that the recall campaign had exploited individual tragedies like the story of a Thai grandfather who was fatally attacked last year while taking his morning walk. He also pointed to an increase in media coverage of crime, and especially high-profile videos on social media of shoplifting cases — like one showing a man on a bike stealing from a Walgreens.

“And then people read the story, they see the video, and they perceive crime as being out of control,” Mr. Boudin said. “When in fact things like shoplifting are down dramatically. It doesn’t mean we don’t have a real problem with auto burglaries, but the notion that it’s out of control today and it wasn’t in 2019 is just demonstrably false.”

Auto burglaries have been especially common in San Francisco’s tourist hot spots.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

But more than anything, it was the case of Troy McAlister, a man with a long criminal history who mowed down two people with a stolen car on New Year’s Eve in 2020, that has fueled the recall effort. Mr. McAlister was free because Mr. Boudin’s office had previously negotiated a plea deal on an armed robbery charge. And Mr. Boudin says it is a case that keeps him up at night.

“The nature of this job is we are always looking backwards and hindsight is 20-20,” Mr. Boudin said. “We know as a matter of material fact that some people will be released and commit bad crimes. There’s always going to be cases where if we look back we would make different decisions.”

Unlike in other parts of the country, homicides are not driving the anger and passions of recall advocates. The annual number of people killed in the city has stayed within a range of 41 to 56 over the past seven years.

Instead, recall advocates describe a pervasive feeling that quality of life in San Francisco has deteriorated. Burglaries, especially in wealthier neighborhoods, have soared during the pandemic. The city recorded 7,575 burglaries in 2020 and 7,217 last year, a sharp increase of more than 45 percent from 2019. Car break-ins, long a festering problem, were less frequent during the pandemic, but thieves shifted their targets from tourist areas to more residential neighborhoods, a change that gave the issue more immediacy and urgency among voters.

Another problem is that Mr. Boudin and the Police Department, whose rate of arrests for reported crimes is among the lowest of major cities, have a toxic relationship. In the 2019 campaign, the San Francisco Police Officers Association attacked Mr. Boudin by calling him the “#1 choice of criminals and gang members.” Supporters of Mr. Boudin responded at his victory party with chants of epithets toward the union.

Officers have been heard on body camera footage telling residents that the district attorney is unwilling to prosecute crimes. And while Mr. Boudin has been criticized for not more aggressively prosecuting drug dealing, he said the police make, on average, only two drug-dealing arrests a day.

“The perception is right,” Mr. Boudin said. “Low-level drug dealers can reasonably expect in San Francisco that nothing will happen to them. Because they’re not getting arrested. Incidentally, the same thing is true with auto burglaries, where 1 percent of reported auto burglaries result in an arrest. So the focus on my office or on me or my policies is really misplaced.”

The chief of police, Bill Scott, declined to answer questions on the department’s rate of solving crimes. A spokesman said in a statement that it was “not appropriate for him to get into the type of political discussion that could influence the will of the voters of San Francisco.”

“While Chief Scott admits that he and District Attorney Boudin have their disagreements, he maintains that they have a candid and very professional relationship,” the spokesman said.

San Francisco has had a long line of liberal prosecutors, including Vice President Kamala Harris. But if Mr. Boudin loses the recall, Mayor London Breed is likely to appoint a more moderate Democrat, political analysts say. The replacement would serve through the end of the year and then might be eligible for re-election.

Some of the recall campaign’s most visible supporters have come from within the district attorney’s office, which has seen a high rate of turnover — dozens of lawyers have left since Mr. Boudin took over, after resigning or being fired.

Brooke Jenkins, a former prosecutor, left the office to join the recall effort in part, she says, because she clashed with Mr. Boudin about how to prosecute a murder case.

“I don’t believe Chesa is living up to his obligation as the district attorney,” Ms. Jenkins said. “He of course ran on a platform of reform, and reform is necessary in the criminal justice system. But you have to be able to balance that with your primary obligation of maintaining public safety.”

Among the most frustrated residents in San Francisco are those who live and work in the Tenderloin, the compact neighborhood near City Hall that was once the city’s red-light district filled with bars and boxing gyms. Today, it is a gritty tableau of the city’s most persistent ills — the illicit drug markets, the desperation of those who are chronically homeless and the consequences of untreated mental illness.

A homeless encampment in the Tenderloin.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

As the manager of Threads for Therapy, a nonprofit thrift shop in the Tenderloin run by a Christian charity, Angel Fernandez watched warily on a recent afternoon as customers perused the women’s coats. The shop has a full-time security guard because so many people try to shoplift.

Mr. Fernandez does not hesitate when asked how he will vote on the recall. He compares Mr. Boudin to Robin Hood, someone who views criminals as “the downtrodden forced into crime.” But like the concerns of many recall supporters, some of Mr. Fernandez’s complaints do not relate directly to the district attorney’s performance — they are more general feelings of a need for order and responsiveness from the city, including the police. When Mr. Fernandez calls the Tenderloin police station one block away to report fights on the sidewalk, drug sales, threatening behavior or shoplifting, he is frequently disappointed with the slow response. “Sometimes they don’t come at all,” he said of the police.

Holly Secon contributed reporting.

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