Will San Francisco DA recall reverberate here?

Voters in liberal haven turn against reformer

ON SUNDAY, it was Steph Curry’s relentless rain of 3s that reverberated 3,000 miles away in Boston. The question this morning is whether the moves made on Tuesday by San Francisco voters will be felt here as well. 

The news today from the city by the Bay: Reform-minded San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin is out, sent packing by a wide margin in a recall election driven by concerns that his progressive turn away from tough-on-crime policies has contributed to an atmosphere of lawlessness. The recall vote passed by an overwhelming 60-40 margin. 

Homicides are up in San Francisco, as is the case since the pandemic’s onset in many US cities, but the rate remains far below that of prior decades. Indeed, violent crime overall in San Francisco is at one of its lowest levels in four decades, reports the Washington Post.

But residential burglaries are up, with many occurring while residents are home. Meanwhile, the streets of San Francisco have a feel that sounds familiar in Boston, even if the problems here are generally more concentrated. “The state of the streets, including many of the major commercial ones, remains heartbreaking, an open-air stage of human misery defined by homelessness, mental illness, and drugs,” the Post says of San Francisco. 

For those concerned about the pendulum swinging too far left in the rethinking of criminal justice policies, it would be hard to find a more inviting target than Boudin. The 41-year-old prosecutor, who had not even completed three years in office, is the son of Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, members of the Weather Underground movement who spent decades in prison in connection with their involvement in a 1981 Brink’s armored truck robbery that left a guard and two police officers dead. 

Last night, Boudin suggested the vote was a way for residents to take out their frustration with all sorts of problems, including City Hall corruption and pandemic lockdowns. “People are right to be frustrated. There’s so much room for improvement. People should hold all of us to a higher standard,” he said. But he pinned blame for the recall on wealthy donors who had spent nearly $4 million by late May on the campaign to unseat him. “Let me make it very clear about what happened tonight,” Boudin said. “The right-wing billionaires outspent us three-to-one and exploited an environment in which people are appropriately upset.”

This fall, voters in Boston and the three other communities that make up Suffolk County – Chelsea, Winthrop, and Revere – will choose a direction for the Suffolk DA’s office in the Democratic primary.

Boston City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo has vowed to carry forward the reform agenda of Rachael Rollins, who resigned the office earlier this year after being appointed US attorney for Massachusetts. Kevin Hayden, who was appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker to fill the DA’s post until the election, is running on a more moderate platform to keep the job. 

Hayden has hardly called for a rejection of progressive-minded reforms. Indeed, last month he announced new funding for diversion efforts to support addiction treatment, not criminal prosecution, of those in the troubled Mass. and Cass area of Boston that has become the epicenter of the region’s addiction and homelessness woes. But Hayden and Arroyo clearly differ on some issues, such as whether to maintain the Boston Police Department’s gang database, which Hayden supports while Arroyo does not. 

Rollins rode a wave of reform energy into office in 2018. Receiving the greatest attention was her declaration that the presumption of the office would be not to prosecute a list of 15 non-violent misdemeanor offenses. 

Crimes against Asian Americans in San Francisco have risen sharply during the pandemic, and they emerged as an important voting bloc in support of recalling Boudin. The debate over crime in the city has also been marked by lots of attention to a coordinated “smash and grab” theft ring that targeted businesses in the city’s tony Union Square area. 

As is often the case, perceptions of crime as well as other factors weighing on residents can play as big a role as actual changes on the ground. 

“The themes that were salient to voters when Boudin was elected — criminal justice reform, over-incarceration, police conduct — are not the same issues salient with voters now,” Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University told the Post. “What’s most salient now is this feeling that things are just not going well, whether it’s with COVID, the economy, homelessness, or other issues. That’s a shift.”

Boston is one of a handful of major US cities where homicides are down, and it’s not yet clear whether heightened concern about crime, which is now being seen in places like San Francisco and New York City, will become a major factor in the DA contest here. 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

But recent reports of guns being seized at Boston Public Schools and a spate of violent attacks by juveniles on people in the Downtown Crossing area have been unsettling. Voters may be looking for discussion of reforms aimed at keeping people from getting tangled in the criminal justice system to be accompanied by clear messages from the candidates on what they’ll do to promote public safety and tackle threats to it that emerge.