Boudin Gets Recalled
Yo, wait until the results come out before jumping to conclusions. Also it's okay to say the "A-word."
Nobody was surprised by this. I expected Chesa Boudin to be recalled, and every single progressive activist I chatted with in the last few months did as well. Privately, of course. The city’s downtown and periphery districts seem in disarray with drugs, property crime, and thefts, and people didn’t like that. Boudin was recalled in an election with even higher turnout than when he was elected; however it’s not indicative that he’d lose in a typical DA race. Standard DA races are not referendums on individuals but competitions among various candidates, and Boudin essentially ran against a hypothetical criminal justice approach that could be morphed into anything for any particular recall voter. If Boudin runs again against actual candidates, there’s good chance he’d get elected if 45 percent of the city thinks he’s all right.
Some of the progressive responses have blamed tech oligarchs for this loss but you can’t really blame the tech industry as only one technology guy was even funding the recall considerably, and tech workers are infamously civically unengaged. This idea that the recall was the byproduct of gentrification is also a bit flat. Here’s the election map. Firstly, districts like the Haight-Ashbury, Castro, Mission and Bernal all voted against the Recall and they’ve fully gentrified years ago or have gentrified considerably. Much of the white population growth in SF has occurred in the Bayview, yet the Bayview voted no. Secondly, San Francisco has long been centrist or moderate on social issue besides LGBTQ+ rights. This is why San Francisco progressives supported the switch from citywide elections to district elections decades ago. SF’s radical leftist reputation comes from a brief period in a long bygone past that never held much electoral power even then.
But as I’m reading the election takes on Boudin’s recall, two things stick out to me from the center-right, liberals and the progressives. The center-right (i.e. the carceral politics) and liberal media’s eagerness to immediately declare prematurely the death of restorative justice was almost comical. I had my initial reactions, but I waited to publish this until the votes were sufficiently counted. At that time, only the Mission and Haight-Ashbury appeared to have majority voted no and Recall was winning 60-40. After a week of counting mail-ins, it’s now 55-45 to recall. While 10-points isn’t great, it’s MUCH smaller than anything I had heard predicted before despite a strong anti-Boudin campaign, a poor pro-Boudin communications campaign, and nationally negative media coverage of Boudin. Boudin could win another race with real candidates, I believe.
I’m humored by social media’s and the progressive pundit’s fear of saying the A-word: Asian. They’re clearly scared to mention them. Every time I open a pro-Boudin article I reflexively ctrl + f “Asian” and often get 0 results. This reveals a deeper problem with San Francisco’s progressives that has been evident since the Board of Education recall. Inability to win majorities with Asian voters (including the residents over 40 years old, not just lefty activists) is a huge liability considering they’re over a third of the city’s population.
Some progressives blame the recall the coverage of crime stories in the SF Chronicle. But as numerous Asian activists told me, it wasn’t English-language media that swung this; it was Chinese-language media and WeChat organizing. The wealthy whites in SF’s northern districts who read the Chron didn’t like Boudin anyways and were never going to vote for him. The Editorial Board who is quite influential in swinging votes for elderly whites said vote no and they still didn’t care. The recall was clearly tipped over by the nonstop coverage of crime stories in Chinese-language media.
Whether it was poor Asians in Chinatown, middle class Asians in the Sunset, Asian renters in the Richmond or the new Asian neighborhoods in the southeast, they all voted in ~60 percent majorities against Boudin. Clearly they were irked by crimes targeting their community that seemed to have ramped up at the start of 2020. If there is no way to appeal or offer practical solutions to Asian voters, then there is no way a progressive can win in San Francisco. Which shouldn’t be the case.
People talk about SF’s social politics as if it’s very diverse and evenly racially split: White, Black, Asian and Latino, but it’s not. It’s not Oakland. It’s a majority White and Asian city and has been for decades. With the recent election map, the racial politics of the recall is much more clear: wealthier white and Asian districts of all incomes voted for the recall; what’s left of the Black ones, Latino renters and lefty white districts voted against.
But here’s where things are different: two progressive, pro-police reform DAs beat out the police union backed candidates in the East Bay. Despite the fact that Oakland, Richmond and Antioch-Pittsburg have far higher homicides than SF, which the media has not been shy to endlessly report. Oakland’s growing homeless encampments, intense inequality, long legacy of homicides, recent increase in burglaries targeting dispensaries, and numerous high profile anti-Asian crimes in Chinatown did not stop the police accountability candidate Pamela Price from leading in her race.
Price currently has 43 percent of the vote, about the same as Boudin has. Where the conservative DAs lead in the East Bay correlate heavily with Republican-lite White suburbs and supermajority, conservative Asian suburbs in Fremont. But in suburban districts that are closer to 50 or 60 percent Asian or majority Asian districts in Oakland — site of various high profile hate crimes — Price is winning. That’s where this differs from SF. The Asian voting bloc has plenty of supporters for progressive candidates. They just haven’t done so in San Francisco since the Board of Education recall and that should make progressives ask why.
A consistent theme I’ve heard from every single progressive activist I’ve chatted with before and after the recall is that Boudin did not do a good job pitching himself, especially to the Asian community. He made rhetorical flubs on responding to particular anti-Asian hate crimes that were effectively politicized in media or insufficiently talked about their specific safety issues. Regardless of the crime statistics, elderly Asians do seem to be scared about their well-being. Not just in SF but throughout the country. You have to speak to those people.
I lived in East Oakland where shootings and litter were commonplace and now in Berkeley that has suffered with homelessness for decades. But when I go to Market Street in San Francisco I am often stunned by the poverty, public health crisis, drug addiction and misery on the sidewalks. It doesn’t help that downtown has been abandoned by office workers, which perhaps reveals what has long been there but without all the suits and fleece jackets obstructing it. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and it feels far more uncomfortable, but not necessarily less safe, to witness.
The recall system has been politically abused by opportunists but rather than saying: “well actually, the crime statistics say crime is down relatively,” maybe it was wise to, in addition to those stats, acknowledge that indeed SF does have a problem with drug dealing and overdoses, that there is a rash of crimes targeting elderly Asians, that people casually stealing from stores isn’t alright. More than just concede, run on those problems. Then propose solutions that don’t rely on failed carceral crackdowns to resolve those problems. I think Boudin understood this with the U-Haul truck story in which SFPD refused to do their jobs but it was far too late in the game.
Contrary to the New York Times’ quickly drafted take on the situation, this recall was hardly a rejection of progressive justice because the progressives aren’t in power. Sure they run the Board of Supervisors, but the SF system is a strong mayor system. London Breed is the head boss on the state of the city and yet somehow it became a referendum on progressive rhetoric rather than the actual leadership. This was a battle of messaging, not of results or reality. And the reactionaries have won this round.
SFPD has been on an unofficial strike for sometime now, clearly refusing to respond to certain crimes (besides homeless sweeps) as a strategy to pump up the appearance of unruly behavior and incentivize a political backlash. It was bizarre that after months of reading about how SFPD didn’t respond to crimes, I saw a dozen of them in a low crime neighborhood watching an uneventful protest like they were at a festival. I have never seen a department other than the police department whose members are allowed to claim they’re “demoralized” and then get pay raises and public affirmation rather than cuts and replacement like any other public department would receive.
Reactionaries succeeded in using Boudin as a scapegoat for SFPD’s ineffectiveness to an angry San Francisco. Assuming Boudin no longer is the DA, who are they going to blame when SFPD continues to be ineffective at responding to assaults, drugs and property crime? I imagine it’ll be ignored suddenly when some draconian crackdown on the homeless and drug addicts ensues that’ll only succeed at pushing people who need help across the bridge or through the transbay tube as it has historically done.
Something has clearly happened since the Board of Education recall. The Asian community in particular does not seem to be keen on the progressives. The maps don’t lie. The East Bay results show SF is abnormal here. A progressive message needs to be that police accountability is not the enemy of public safety.
How did the East Bay do with schools - e.g. is there a Lowell-type question around "meritocracy" or test-based admissions? I live in Sunnyside and when I went to the Safeway I always saw Asian American organizing around the school board recall and Lowell was a big point of contention.
Bernal was against the recall too. North Bernal was 70/30.
I think gentrification had a lot to do with it. All the parts of The City with lots of new residents heavily voted for the recall and that they were most of the margin. Ten years ago this would not have happened. The new wealthier residents, most of them in tech, are more conservative.