DA-elect Chesa Boudin was handed a golden opportunity — and he didn't let it go. Photo by Julian Mark.

Supervisor Vallie Brown refuses to concede election, won’t rule out recount


Outside District Attorney-elect Chesa Boudin’s impromptu Saturday night victory party at the El Rio there was — no joke — a Lamborghini covered in rhinestones. 

Boudin placards were affixed to the doors and sitting on the dashboard, but every other millimeter had been adorned with glittering faux gems; it was as if someone with a Lamborghini in the garage had figured what the hell and ordered a Bedazzler off late-night TV. 

Inside Chesa Boudin’s impromptu Saturday night victory party, it felt as if the home team won the World Series. The place was fog-up-your-glasses crowded, and, as you negotiated your way out to the patio, snippets of conversations hit your ear: 

“ … friends with Bernie Sanders … ” 

“ … ending mass incarceration … ”

“ … Hugo Chavez … ” 

“ … why’d you stick your hand in it if it was boiling?” 

(I made the last one up).

Out back, the subject of their discussions and the man of the hour, Boudin, shook hands and accepted well wishes — and, generally, looked like a walking ad for black coffee. He was spent. His colleagues from the public defender’s office were spent, too; they burned through packs of Marlboros and said that the stress of waiting on election returns was as bad as standing by for a jury verdict — worse, even: Unlike the Department of Elections, juries don’t put out daily 4 p.m. tabulations indicating how things are going. 

Boudin hadn’t expected the election to be called so quickly. Few had. He was visiting his incarcerated father in New York and hopped on a plane to head back to the city when he got the news. And what comes next is anyone’s guess. While interim DA Suzy Loftus’ concession mentioned “a smooth and immediate transition,” nobody knows quite what that means. 

Loftus — placed in office by Mayor London Breed only weeks before the election to replace the Los Angeles-bound George Gascón — is in the position of serving, awkwardly, until January. Breed, who was out of town over the weekend, must undertake the unpleasant duty of convening a discussion she clearly never thought she’d have: sitting down with Boudin and Loftus and figuring out how to work out the transition. 

What comes next, at least procedurally, will be determined soon enough. 

What comes next, in the bigger picture, is less clear. 

But, before looking forward, let’s look back: Well, how did we get here?

Campaign manager Kaylah Williams sees the results putting DA-elect Chesa Boudin over the top, and reacts accordingly.

In the midst of the United Democratic Club’s endorsement meeting, board members received text messages from the Suzy Loftus campaign — right in the midst of the debate period, no less. 

These text messages urged a No. 1 endorsement vote for Loftus — and no endorsement at all beyond that. 

Let the record show that San Francisco elections are run through a ranked-choice system (more on that in a moment). And let the record also show that DA candidate Nancy Tung is a board member at the United Democratic Club. 

But the club higher-ups acquiesced. Loftus was awarded the No. 1 endorsement and there was no No. 2. 

Now, it’s not our intention to lead you into the fetid rabbit hole of San Francisco club politics, that perfect amalgamation of Tracy Flick and the Soviet politburo. But there’s something telling here. The United Democratic Club is a conduit for big-money donations from big-money players. It’s not unimportant. But it’s still a club. It’s still folks showing up after work and drinking Diet Coke and sitting on folding chairs. 

So this was odd. For multiple reasons. Because, say what you will about ranked-choice voting, it is the way we do things in San Francisco. Them’s the rules of the game. 

When you show up for a football game in a rugby uniform — you lose. When you fail to formulate a ranked-choice strategy in a ranked-choice election — let alone execute one — you lose. 

This didn’t need to happen. Some two-thirds of the first-place votes in the DA’s contest went to moderate-leaning candidates. If these candidates truly thought Boudin would be a disaster for this city, they could’ve coordinated on a ranked-choice strategy. They did not: Multiple sources tell your humble narrator that just such an offer was proffered from Team Tung to Team Loftus. 

Team Loftus denies this. What’s not in question, however, is that shortly thereafter, Loftus accepted Breed’s nomination — not 24 hours before ballots arrived in voters’ mailboxes. This was seen by her opponents as a crass reach — and many San Francisco voters felt similarly. Explanations of the appointment as anything other than a political boost to a favored candidate polling revealed to be stuck in a morass of a race with little name recognition rang hollow — and for Loftus, a candidate whose genuineness is a major selling point, this was an awkward position. 

It was beyond awkward for her opponents — this obliterated any hope of the 1-2 ranked-choice strategy that would’ve likely won it for Loftus. On the very October day Breed announced Loftus’ pending appointment, a chagrined opposing campaign operative told me “If Chesa wins, this is why.” 

So, Boudin was given an opportunity. He seized it with both hands. The candidate took Cantonese lessons so he could interact with Chinese-speaking voters. Great amounts of money and effort were poured into Chinatown. He secured the No. 1 endorsement of the Singtao Daily newspaper as well as several Chinese community organizations. 

And it showed: Boudin, the radical, received an outsize portion of No. 2 votes from Tung, the law-and-order candidate. Sans a ranked-choice strategy, a goodly portion of Tung and Leif Dautch’s voters — perhaps put off by the appointment — didn’t mark any No. 2 at all. That was monumental. 

As was the fact that the city’s movers and shakers did not disgorge vast sums of money in this race, as they did in the mayoral election. It seems criminal justice and criminal justice reform is not something that interests San Francisco’s ascendant players as much as, say, development and taxation rates. 

The Independent Expenditure campaign was relegated to the Police Officers Association. The bellicose police union marshaled $650,000 from fellow unions nationwide to boost Loftus and denigrate Boudin with almost parodically over-the-top ads hailing him the “No. 1 choice of criminals and gang members,” and emblazoned with an assemblage of mug shots of conspicuously Caucasian thugs of the sort you’d expect to see in a Quinn Martin production

These were disseminated after most conservative-leaning voters likely mailed in their ballots — but did help galvanize Boudin’s backers and establish him as the reformer in the field. 

It’s hard to overstate how toxic the POA is in San Francisco politics right now. And how ineffectual. 

So things worked out the way they worked out. Not unlike London Breed herself, Boudin rode a compelling life story and the perception of unfair high-level election meddling to victory. 

That parallel was lost on few. 

DA candidates, from left, Chesa Boudin, Leif Dautch, Suzy Loftus and Nancy Tung on Oct. 28. Moderator Joe Eskenazi is in the center.

In 2016, Mayor Ed Lee’s third inaugural speech was drowned out by nonstop booing. That’s quite a feat. Along similar lines, Mayor London Breed was last week re-elected, to her first full term, with nearly 71 percent of the vote — and it was a disastrous election for her.

It was, in fact, the second consecutive election in which the mayor — and the city’s establishment players, and its newspaper of record’s endorsements — were smoked. (To be fair, everyone is pleased voters passed Prop. A, the $600 million housing bond, and a teacher housing measure. But success has 1,000 fathers — and, in fact, Supervisor Norman Yee and his board colleagues pushed Breed to put another $100 million on that bond). 

Breed’s considerable wrangling on behalf of Loftus may well have backfired. And her handpicked successor and former aide Vallie Brown was upended in District 5 by Dean Preston. Breed, you may recall, timed her exit from her District 5 supervisor’s seat so that her successor could run not in last year’s high-turnout, even-year election, but this year’s low-turnout, odd-year contest. 

That bit of gamesmanship should’ve made things easy for her handpicked incumbent. And yet it wasn’t enough. 

The composition of the board was already skewing highly to the left — but now it just got personal. Preston nearly unseated Breed from her D5 perch in 2015; he opened every debate speech by noting that he’s a Democratic Socialist and ran an “unapologetic, progressive, Democratic Socialist campaign,” in his words. 

So, he did that — and won. He beat the mayor’s handpicked successor, who was running with support from the Democratic Party, the Chronicle, and most every vestige of the establishment. At fewer than 200 votes, it stands to be the closest ranked-choice district election in city history, but, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a win is a win is a win. 

It remains to be seen how much of an effect the early October revelation that Vallie Brown in 1994 evicted low-income black tenants had on this race. But what may have hurt even more than long-ago deeds was Brown’s present-day decision to decry these tenants as freeloaders who refused to pay rent — and depict these older black women as unthinking pawns of Dean Preston who couldn’t possibly have acted independently. 

That was both demonstrably false and a questionable decision.  

Brown’s consultant, Leo Wallach, says the supervisor isn’t yet ready to concede the election. Nor is she ready to rule out calling for a recount. 

That’s Brown’s decision to make. This, too, may be questionable: In 2001, Tony Hall edged out Mabel Teng by 39 votes in District 7. After a recount, the margin was cut down — to 38 votes. 

Will a recount help Brown make up nearly 200 votes? As former tenant Mary Packer replied when asked if she’d vote for the woman who evicted her: “No way, Jose.” 

The locus in quo: 148-152 Fillmore Street, where Vallie Brown and three friends evicted several low-income African American tenants.

So, that’s how we got here. Have San Francisco voters indicated a desire for progressive criminal justice reform and leadership? Or have they just rewarded the two best-run campaigns? It’s hard to say.

Regardless, elections have consequences. 

San Francisco’s problems — economic and racial inequality, unchecked property crime, misery and drug-use on the streets, obscene housing costs, unsheltered and unwell residents, Steph Curry’s broken hand — are real and unrelenting. 

But the looming dynamic is one of dysfunction, in which nobody is incentivized to compromise. San Francisco has long been a town that values good intentions over accountability. Because it can. But, at some point, our leaders will need to lead. 

If any of this was going through the minds of the election-night revelers at El Rio, it didn’t show. Boudin’s campaign staff eventually pushed him out of the bar — yes, literally; he presumably went home and got a few hours of sleep. Everyone else stayed until closing time and lived it up. 

They stumbled out past the glittering Lamborghini. Nobody had broken its windows. Not yet at least.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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41 Comments

  1. my IQ has dropped by 2 standard deviations after reading this. Boudin is a disaster, a criminal loving communist who hates democracy

      1. I have never seen so many San Franciscans claim an elected DA is a criminal lover and threaten to move out of the city.
        If only they would move out of the city…..

      2. Hah!
        That is one hell of a clever retort.
        Still laughing.
        Belongs in a stand-up comedy routine or SNL.

    1. Was it the writing that caused your precipitous IQ drop? Or was it the fact of Boudin’s election (which the writer could hardly ignore)? If only San Franciscans had been warned in advance that Boudin was a democracy-hating, commie-loving criminal! Oh right, they were told that in no uncertain terms by the Police Officers Association who papered the city with their leaflets in the days before the election. Did this election reveal the San Francisco electorate prefers criminals and communists to the POA, the Democratic establishment and Mayor Breed? Shocking.

  2. Who’s taking bets on whether Boudin’s recall election happens in 2020 or 2021? Because as soon as he gets soft on crime, the pitchfork mob will come out to get him, like they never did with the Gascon, who mostly flew under the radar. And if Boudin doesn’t get immediately soft on crime, the SJWs will abandon him.

    1. I’ll take that bet. Beyond the POA, the pitchfork mob in SF is mostly confined to assisted living homes and are unlikely to come out en masse for anything. They are much more likely to remember Leonard Boudin than to remember his grandson’s platform and policies once in office.

  3. It’s unclear what either candidates plan is to fix any of the problems described. Neither has articulated a path to actually fixing them, but both want to take provocative steps to further exacerbate already monumental problems then offer only token idealistic solutions to try to address them. Things will simply continue to get worse. Sadly, the people who will be most hurt will be the working class who don’t have the means to insulate themselves from the effects of the worsening situation – the very people the politicians claim to advocate for.

  4. Great article, thanks Joe. I particularly liked this line: ” Now, it’s not our intention to lead you into the fetid rabbit hole of San Francisco club politics, that perfect amalgamation of Tracy Flick and the Soviet politburo.”

      1. Joe,

        I was in a far corner with some techies and we smoked up a cloud.

        I don’t see what Diaz and you are complaining about.

        D-5 is a district with 70% tenants and they got the best tenants
        lawyer in the state to represent them.

        The DA’s office got a Rhodes scholar and Yale law grad.

        Go Niners!

        h.

        1. H. — 

          I’m not complaining. Read the words on the page. I can’t be responsible for the nonexistent words you’re drawing from elsewhere; perhaps some ethereal place.

          Best,

          JE

          1. Joe,

            “ethereal place”?

            You really wanna match keyboards with me?

            I’ve always treated you with the utmost respect.

            Promoted you in every way I could.

            Hey, it’s your ball and bat and yard.

            You don’t want me to comment on your site?

            Just say so.

            Evangelista for SF Superior Court Judge!

            Go Niners!

            h.

          2. Joe,

            Read your own headlines as to how I think you
            were not satisfied with the election results.

            It’s at the top of this story …

            “S.F. election wrap:

            How did this happen?

            And what are we in for now?”

            You deny you wrote that to lead this column?

            That’s where I got the idea that you weren’t
            happy with the election results.

            Evangelista for Superior Court Judge!!

            Go Niners!

          3. H. — 

            This column explains how this happened and what we’re in for now.

            As I said before, I love ya, but you’re off base.

            I moderated the DA debate and it was a pleasant experience because of the competence of all four candidates. I’m not complaining.

            JE

          4. Joe,

            A more honest headline would be:

            ‘Underdog and his army claw to defeat SF Machine.

            What happens now?’

            Evangelista for S.F. Superior Court Judge!!

            h.

          5. You missed your true calling.

            Next time, suggest the headline before the article is written.

            Best,

            JE

  5. Excellent piece, and from some of the comments already, one can sense how incensed the POA must be. Here’s hoping the newer, younger officers, who have been brought on in the past four or five years get rid of the POA ancien regime which can do little now but delay long overdue reform efforts. On the other side, what you barely mentioned was the role of the Democratic Socialists of America in both the Boudin and Preston elections. They have turned in impressive ground games which the establishment could not begin to match, and in close elections, grass roots organizations are critical. No doubt the Boudin and Preston campaigns also pulled in a number of new and younger voters (which is something the Democratic establishment usually ignores because it’s difficult to reach young voters and it’s expensive).

  6. I want to a candidate forum and decided I didn’t trust Dautch and Boudin was the most honest. But I agonized about how to vote. In the end I voted Tung, Boudin, Loftus.

    It’s very possible Boudin has bitten off more than he can chew by promising things he can’t deliver. He can’t change the nexus of poverty and crime. Resident want both less unpunished antisocial behavior on the streets and justice that leads offenders to behaving better. But it’s not within the DA’s authority or charter to independently implement those goals.

    I think Boudin will be able to eventually win support from SFPD Chief Scott. But to keep his position Boudin needs wholehearted support from Breed. He’ll have to compromise to get it. It remains to be seen whether Breed will either carry a grudge or work collaboratively with him.

    1. This is an interesting answer.

      One of the most head-scratching details from the voting results was how many candidates voted for Tung as first choice and then Boudin as second choice, given that those two candidates represented the two opposite extremes from a policy perspective.

      In the example here, it seems to be largely based on trust of the individual rather than policy/message. I.e. “I would rather have an honest DA than a sneaky DA, regardless of how they would do their job”.

    2. Notanative,

      Oh, horse hockey!

      He doesn’t need approval from Breed anymore than Gascon did.

      He doesn’t work for London Breed.

      He works for you and me and ALL San Franciscans.

      We don’t need another major department under the Mayor’s thumb.

      Evangelista for SF Superior Court Judge!

      h.

  7. Does the need for a “ranked choice strategy” lead to a more accurate expression of the electorate’s wishes?

    Lets say that Loftus approached Tung, but Tung asked for a favor that Loftus couldn’t abide by? Does that make Loftus any less of a leader?

    It is so close…does it REALLY make sense to not just ask the voters in a runoff, which one do they want? Should a city with an $11B budget try to save a few bucks by cutting back on those expensive ELECTIONS?

    And lastly, why wait until the campaign starts to begin your ranked choice strategy? Why not start a year in advance. Make sure that you have a White person, an Hispanic and and an Asian/Pacific Islander. Get some LGBTQ representation. One of you will win and can then help the rest of the team.

  8. I would love to see the pending division addressed directly. What are the real ideas about criminal justice that ordinary san franciscans need to embrace to fix the city according to Boudin? I also think the article should perhaps mention the supervisor chanting “fuck the police”. As an ordinary but slightly informed San Franciscan I concur that the POA is wildly out of touch with the city, disastrously reactionary, and a disservice to their own members, who are working men and women with awfully difficult jobs. But what is the vision and what is the plan now? Can we have one? How can we create one that goes beyond the well spoken Boudin and his compelling life story? Thanks to Trump and Fox etc, the entire country is looking at San Francisco as a beautiful city gone terribly wrong and I think we need to educate ourselves and show how we intend to make it beautiful, just, inclusive. Where’s my reading list? 🙂

  9. A horrible tragedy for the city. The folks who funded this guy are probably going to bed feeling even more woke, because, hey, they’re better than the rest of us right? As for the rest of us, particularly those of us who live in the mission, it’s even more feces, needles, screaming, assaults, drug dealing, pimps, solicitication and a flowering of tents on our sidewalks.

  10. Just gotta say the reactionary tears in the comments here are freakin delicious, though also a sad reminder of how uneducated most of our well-to-do population is on crime and its true causes.

    Thanks for the well-written article, Joe!

    1. @Craig, educate us then. What specific policies will Boudin have that will address inequalities in the criminal justice system while at the same time reduce crime (i.e.: property theft, violent crime, etc.)? He’s not going to prosecute quality of life crimes (public urination/defecation, etc.), that’s clear. What else is not going to be prosecuted? What will happen to repeat offenders of property theft? Let’s hear the substance of the plan. So far, there are no specifics because he didn’t think he’d win.

      1. Fifth Generation?

        They give you a discount for that?

        Things change.

        I was born in St. Louis, a poor white kid and raised in the projects.

        My grandkids were born in San Francisco and now are normal
        middle class African American teens living in a big house with
        a pool in Fresno.

        Things change.

        Go to Chesa’s website to get his plans.

        Basically he wants to decriminalize poverty.

        Calls it ‘decarceration’ as opposed to ‘incarceration’.

        h.

      1. Some Info,

        I’m so old that there was no television in every
        home.

        We never traveled except to see Grandma and Grandpa
        and honestly did not know that we were poor.

        A teacher in 6th grade, I believe, let the cat out of the bag.

        She was new and gave us a lesson poverty levels.

        One of the few who were listening said:

        “Wait a minute, if you’re right than we’re all poor!”

        She blushed.

        h.

  11. What a shame. An overwhelming majority of the votes didn’t go to criminal loving Boudin, the votes were split over multiple moderates. This is a win by technicality, not based on what most SF residents actually want. Most people in SF want safe streets and prefer someone that is an advocate for crime victims, not the criminals. I think most SF residents are sick and tired of having to worry about property theft (car break ins, mobile phone snatchers, etc.) and aggravated assault.

    Boudin will be voted out of office in four years – just hoping SF crime doesn’t get worse in the meantime. If you don’t like this outcome, get involved and make sure Boudin doesn’t make things worse. You have a voice and remember the majority of voters don’t want this clown in office. Save SF from itself!

  12. I don’t believe in ranked choice voting for executives. It just doesn’t make sense like it does for legislative offices such as supervisor. You vote for a leader, not a threesome that someone else figures out. I know it’s the law, but it’s just dumb! Reference also Kim and Leno running together against Breed. It didn’t work that time, but maybe it did in this race. An unhelpful way to set a mandate.

    1. RCV strategy is not complicated and there’s really only a couple variations.

      Polarizing politicians are the most susceptible to having a hard time in RCV.

      1. Rosh,

        I welcomed RCV because it is the first time I was
        able to vote for my favorite candidate whom i
        knew had no chance.

        Always had to bite my lip and vote for the proverbial …

        ‘Lesser of two evils’.

        Now, I vote for my favorite candidate first and?

        The traditional, ‘Lesser of two evils’ second.

        Evangelista for SF Superior Court Judge.

        Go Niners!

        h.

  13. Thanks for the great local reporting as always Mission local. Shocks me (ok not really) how many reactionary people are online spending hours in the comment sections vs how many of them vote. Hasta la victoria siempre!

  14. This was the best-written piece of Bay Area political analysis I have read in years I think. On top of which it was entertaining to read. Joe, I hope you won’t take it as an insult if I tell you that the Chronicle should try to hire you.

  15. “But the looming dynamic is one of dysfunction, in which nobody is incentivized to compromise. San Francisco has long been a town that values good intentions over accountability. Because it can. But, at some point, our leaders will need to lead.”

    I thought this bit alone made the piece worth reading. To echo some other commenters, exemplary writing Joe; thanks for the coverage, independently of the political outcome.

  16. The general campaign strategy for RCV in a several-candidate election is simple: promote yourself to some of the competing candidates and their electoral bases. Polarizing and isolated candidates are most susceptible under RCV rules.

    IE’s are also going to look at how they play the game — a blanket hit campaign may do more harm then good in a RCV election. This is what @DemocracyNow! was eager to ask Chesa about.

    Good piece, Joe. Thanks for not putting forward the hypothetical — and very loaded — question of how the top two RCV finishers would fare in a runoff.

    https://www.democracynow.org/2019/11/12/chesa_boudin_san_francisco_district_attorney

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