San Francisco is a mid-sized North American city. It has almost exactly the same population as Columbus, Ohio. It’s about 15 percent larger than Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
Those two cities, for good or ill, don’t captivate the national imagination. But this one does. You don’t hear about “Columbus values” or a “Winnipeg liberal,” but “San Francisco” does serve as a modifier. “San Francisco” is a metonym. Things happen everywhere, but in San Francisco, Things Matter.
As such, in 2014, four Smart cars were tipped over in San Francisco in the course of a week and it became fodder for international news stories. And that was odd: People flip over Smart cars enough there’s even a term for it: “Smart tipping.” All it takes are large men, small cars, too much alcohol and not enough brainpower; San Francisco’s hilly streets probably help, too.
But those stories searched for deeper meanings behind all this. Because in San Francisco, Things Matter; surely, this Means Something.
In the present day, veteran city operatives backed by oodles of cash from extremely wealthy funders and their PAC have managed to tip over San Francisco’s progressive district attorney.
Despite the fervent behavior on display in the weeks leading up to the election, voters writ large were not worked up: Turnout was paltry. Low turnout was actually probably the last remaining hope for DA Chesa Boudin, as he polled best with high-information, high-propensity voters. But there weren’t enough of them to save the DA: With nearly 128,000 votes tallied (26 percent turnout), he trails by almost exactly a 60-40 split.
It is hard to foresee knowledgeable and grounded reactions from out-of-town publications — not when two of the big ones have already burnished the liberal bona fides of one of this city’s most prolific establishment kneecappers, or centered a story around the worldview of a clownish GOP mayoral contender, whom it erroneously credited for qualifying the recall.
Yes, San Francisco dumping its progressive DA Means Something. But it doesn’t mean everything, and it doesn’t necessarily validate the pre-existing worldviews of authoritarian TV hosts or Substack opinion-havers for whom San Francisco serves as an allegory, concept and modifier more than as a city.
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San Franciscans’ hearty rejection of Boudin Means Something, and says something about the state of criminal justice reform and limits of liberalism. But, in the end, it says more about San Francisco. More on that in a moment.
To start with, any claim that San Francisco voters rejected Boudin’s policies or ideals would first require San Franciscans to have accepted them. There is no indication this ever occurred: Boudin, in 2019, won with a plurality of first-place votes in a razor-thin ranked-choice contest in a low-turnout election aided in no small part by the mayor’s heavy handed appointment of his main rival to the vacant DA post. That was crass: An operative in a rival campaign told me at the time, “if Chesa wins, this is why.”
So, that happened. And, as we wrote in 2019, it was unclear if San Francisco voters were enthralled by Boudin’s ideas, or simply rewarded the best-run campaign.
Boudin triumphed, with 36 percent of first-place votes in an election that only featured 42-percent turnout. But he governed as if he had a mandate. He never had a coalition comprising 50+1 percent of the electorate, and cementing one was not a goal. And that left Boudin vulnerable to a recall — and, once one made the ballot aided by bottomless wells of cash distributed via a veritable matryoshka of political action committees, Boudin was behind the eight-ball. There were no opponents to run against — Larry Elder will not become DA after Boudin leaves office — and this DA never had majority support.
To reject Boudin’s ideas, voters would also have to, you know, reject his ideas. For what it’s worth, Boudin’s ideas polled better than Boudin. Multiple surveys revealed pluralities or majorities of San Francisco voters support many of Boudin’s signature liberal policies. Despite the persistent drum beat of out-of-control crime sold by the recall campaign, crime is more rampant in municipalities overseen by traditional, law-and-order DAs. One of them, Sacramento DA Anne Marie Schubert, was on the ballot, running for Attorney General.
As June 7 wound down, Schubert had 7.6 percent of the vote statewide, and was the choice of 6.8 percent of San Franciscans. (While we’re at it, populist gubernatorial hopeful Michael Shellenberger polled more like a nothingburger: He captured 3.3 percent of the vote statewide and 4.4 percent here in San Francisco).
West Twin Peaks
Bayview Hunters Point
Upper Market, Eureka
South Bernal Heights
North Bernal Heights
West Twin Peaks
Bayview Hunters Point
Upper Market, Eureka
S Bernal Heights
N Bernal Heights
Chart by Will Jarrett. Data from the San Francisco Department of Elections.
Is San Francisco a template for other cities or states with vulnerable prosecutors? Possibly, but the bar to qualify a recall in San Francisco — signatures from 10 percent of the electorate — is about as low as it is anywhere, making this city an outlier. And if the pro-recall forces end up spending $8 million to $10 million to win a majority of votes in an election where only 140,000 or so people bother to return their ballots, the cost-per-vote will be prohibitive.
Rather, the introspection here should be local, as much, or more, than global. San Francisco voters like to think of themselves as liberal, but were, in large part, swayed by a fear-based campaign not so different than the Willie Horton ads Lee Atwater cooked up in 1988. Symposiums could be taught regarding how to convince voters that the district attorney is the problem in a city where the police arrest rate is historically low, and has been for years.
San Franciscans are not wholly rejecting reform, but it’s hard to foresee even our “liberal” voters reacting poorly to a future DA announcing he or she is going to aggressively prosecute and incarcerate dope dealers, serial car thieves, etc. And that tracks: When it comes to bringing our own bags to the grocery store or marching in the streets to protest abortion crackdowns in Alabama, San Francisco is solidly blue. But, when it comes to less clear-cut and closer-to-home issues, like criminal justice reform, San Francisco voters indicate they like the concept of them — but, it seems, only so long as they remain conceptual.
If you were to look at the professed interests of voters in Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s district on this handy dandy feature, you’ll find that police reform is a low priority. Perhaps that would’ve been different in the summer of George Floyd two years ago, but San Francisco has moved on; the Black Lives Matter posters are sun-bleached and neglected in the windows of the city’s $2 million homes.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who is African American, never really defunded the police, but now she doesn’t even have to bother with any budgeting sleight-of-hand to even pretend we’re doing so. She’s going all-in on hiring more police and raising their budget, and recently tapped the police department strategist to fill a vacant supervisor slot.
Many of the issues that most bedevil San Francisco voters are actually under the aegis of the mayor, not the DA, but it’s the DA who will be recalled for them. He has served as a most effective human shield, and when he’s gone, likely by month’s end, the mayor will name his replacement.
This city’s voters have moved on because they can afford to, physically and metaphysically. Many San Franciscans now seem to simultaneously desire the vibrancy of a big city, but expect the safety and security of the suburban towns where they grew up. And there is simply not a strong base of African American voters here who would form a natural constituency to elect, and re-elect, a reform DA, as there is elsewhere. In Philadelphia, where DA Larry Krasner won re-election with nearly 70 percent of the vote, African Americans make up some 40 percent of the population. That’s around eight times the proportion of San Francisco.
For these voters, the effects of aggressive, punitive policing and prosecution is no theory. That’s their families that have been broken up, their relatives who have been incarcerated. For generations, the success of a DA was essentially gauged in how effectively he or she could do this.
On the same night San Francisco recalled its progressive DA, a progressive prosecutor took the lead in Alameda County, a far more populous county than San Francisco, where violent crime well and truly is a problem, both statistically as well as anecdotally. The police-endorsed DA candidate is losing to a progressive in Contra Costa County as well. Schubert, again, finished a distant fourth in the AG race. But, apparently, “California sent Democrats and the nation a message on crime.”
In San Francisco, meanwhile, the last Black neighborhood is the county jail. And that’s the way things were before we recalled the progressive DA.
This, again, is the city whose very name is a stand-in for liberal values. And, when you think about it, that Means Something.
A preliminary version of this column ran within our election coverage on June 7.