POLITICS

Progressive Public Defender Wins District Attorney Race In San Francisco

Chesa Boudin, whose parents spent decades in prison, won despite his opponent Suzy Loftus being appointed interim DA weeks before the election.
Chesa Boudin at a campaign rally in 2019.
Chesa Boudin at a campaign rally in 2019.

Progressive candidate Chesa Boudin won the race for district attorney in San Francisco on Saturday.

Boudin and opponent Suzy Loftus were neck-and-neck for days as officials tallied votes from the city’s ranked-choice ballots.

Boudin, 39, is a public defender who ran on a platform of closing jails, eliminating cash bail, combating racism in the criminal justice system and diverting people from jails and prisons. 

Loftus, the interim district attorney, congratulated Boudin on his win Saturday afternoon and vowed a “smooth and immediate transition.” 

The San Francisco Chronicle was the first outlet to report on Boudin’s win.

Boudin beat out three other candidates, all would-be political newcomers, including Loftus, who was suddenly appointed interim district attorney last month after then-DA George Gascón stepped down to explore a run for DA in Los Angeles. Loftus, who was appointed to the interim post by San Francisco Mayor London Breed, had previously lined up other high-profile endorsements from presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and was considered the more establishment candidate.

Breed drew criticism for using her office to place her favored candidate in the DA seat. It was unclear if the move would work in Loftus’ favor by positioning her as the incumbent or if it would hurt her by boosting outrage-fueled support for her opponents, namely Boudin. At this point, it’s unknown how much the move altered the outcome of the election, if at all.

Boudin, meanwhile, had the support of big-name progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running for president, as well as activist Angela Davis and two members of the growing, nationwide movement of “progressive prosecutor” candidates: Larry Krasner, now DA in Philadelphia, and Tiffany Cabán, who narrowly lost a primary battle for DA in Queens, New York. 

“Electing someone like Chesa as DA, it’s going to have an effect around the country,” Cabán said in August, after flying to San Francisco to campaign for Boudin weeks after her own loss. 

In his campaign, Boudin leaned on his deep personal experience with the criminal justice system: When he was just over a year old, both of his parents were sent to prison.

“The experience of having parents incarcerated is actually, sadly, really normal in this country,” Boudin said in August. “That’s a lived experience that is in many ways a defining part of modern American culture, but one that’s all too often removed from or ignored by the political class.” 

Boudin visiting his father in Auburn Correctional Facility when he was about 4 years old in 1984.
Boudin visiting his father in Auburn Correctional Facility when he was about 4 years old in 1984.

Boudin was 14 months old when his parents, then members of the radical leftist group the Weather Underground, were jailed for driving the getaway car for an infamous 1981 armed robbery in New York in which two police officers and a security guard were killed. 

His father is still in New York state prison serving a 75-years-to-life sentence and his mother, who was paroled in 2003, now runs a criminal justice initiative at Columbia University.

“I think it’s imperative people who make the decisions about who should be sent to prison, for what, for how long … have an understanding of that experience,” Boudin said in August, of growing up with incarcerated parents.  

Boudin was a leader in the yearslong effort in San Francisco and California to challenge the cash bail system. (Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that San Francisco’s cash bail system violated the rights of poor defendants, though the judge still has to issue an injunction for the system to change in practice. At the state level, California residents will be voting in 2020 on whether to eliminate cash bail statewide.) On any given day in 2016, nearly half of the jail population in San Francisco would have been eligible for release if those inmates simply posted bail, per a report from the office of the city treasurer. 

Central to his platform for DA was ending “racist disparities [that] plague every step of our criminal justice system.” In San Francisco, black people are nine times more likely to be booked into jails than white people, according to a Human Rights Watch analysis of 2014-2015 county data.

Boudin has committed to closing San Francisco’s County Jail No. 4, where inmates are housed in a building considered seismically unsafe. His plan is to reduce the total inmate population across all city jails so No. 4 can be shuttered. 

According to the city health commission, about 40% of people booked into San Francisco jails are homeless or insecurely housed, about one in five are diagnosed as seriously mentally ill and about three-quarters reported substance use (not including marijuana). Boudin wants “every arrest to be an opportunity for intervention” to divert people from the criminal justice system into programs for mental health, addiction and housing.

“Jail should be a last resort,” Boudin said in August. 

“We need a district attorney who understands the big picture and what’s driving crime,” he added. “We can’t jail our way out of the problem.”

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