Why Democrats Are Recalling Their Own
Voters care more about quality of life than ideology.
Yesterday, San Franciscans voted by an overwhelming margin to recall their District Attorney, Chesa Boudin. The results—which at 3:30am showed 60% in favor of the recall with nearly 70% of votes tallied—will fluctuate as absentee ballots continue to be counted. But the voters were clear: they want Boudin out. This outcome is both surprising and expected. Boudin, an extremely progressive District Attorney, seems like an odd target for a recall in extremely progressive San Francisco. But the sense among voters that crime is rising, that public safety is deteriorating, and that Boudin is to blame, has had him underwater in polls for months.
We should be careful about drawing sweeping generalizations from any single election. But we should also not dismiss yesterday’s election as an isolated defeat for the left. It’s the next chapter in a story that’s been unfolding in San Francisco, one which reveals what happens when progressive politicians enact radical reforms, when voters see those reforms making their everyday lives worse, and when politicians refuse to take these concerns seriously.
Boudin, a former San Francisco Public Defender, was elected District Attorney in 2019 on a platform that promised foundational change. He pledged to end the practice of seeking harsher sentences for gang affiliation in the name of racial equity, to prioritize diversion programs over imprisonment, and to favor pretrial release over cash bail. He largely delivered on these and other commitments: soon after he took office, San Francisco’s jail population fell (in part due to the pandemic, but Boudin’s actions made the decline deeper and longer-lasting), the use of diversion programs spiked, and charges for drug dealing effectively ended (there were just three convictions in 2021, compared with over 90 in 2018). To his supporters, this was transformative, evidence-based social justice; to his opponents, it was a dangerous experiment that would put criminals back on the street and erode public safety.
The unfortunate truth is that San Franciscans aren’t hallucinating: Public safety in the city has, in fact, degraded. First, while certain crimes have seen a drop in reported cases, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the actual amount of crime has fallen. Some of the decline, particularly when it comes to robbery or car break-ins, is likely due to victims simply not reporting crimes because they don’t think the criminals will get caught or prosecuted. San Francisco’s Police Chief, Bill Scott, has said as much: “We know there's underreporting and people remind us of that all the time [...] there's probably some apathy from people who don't think it's going to make a difference.” Second, even with this underreporting, statistics for some types of crime have risen, most notably burglaries (a different offense than robberies) and shoplifting. Meanwhile, homelessness and public drug use have metastasized throughout portions of the city—perhaps most vividly in the downtown neighborhood known as The Tenderloin. On top of all this, Boudin’s policies have led to several high-profile cases of released defendants committing serious crimes. Taken together, it’s easy to see why San Franciscans believe that crime and public safety have taken a dramatic turn for the worse—and that Boudin is to blame.
Boudin did himself no favors in the run-up to the recall. Even as it became clear that voters were worried about public safety and crime, he refused to moderate either his policies or his messaging, often coming off as insensitive and defensive. Rather than take his critics seriously, Boudin’s strategy was to deflect responsibility and to brush off the recall effort as “racist,” “anti-immigrant,” and “anti-Chinese.” Boudin’s public image deteriorated even further after he was described as callous and dismissive by the parents of a 6-year-old who was murdered while watching fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Even if the charges against him were unfair, even if San Francisco's crime problem reflects national trends, even if the homeless problem were beyond his control, Boudin should still have responded with something other than hand waving and deflection when his constituents made it clear that they felt unsafe. Ultimately, Boudin lost because he was more dedicated to his ideological project than to addressing the fears and interests of his constituents.
If Boudin’s downfall feels familiar, there’s a good reason for that. Back in February, San Franciscans recalled another crop of elected officials for similar reasons. Then, however, it was three school board members at the center of controversy.
That recall was fueled by the school board’s handling of Covid. For over a year, well into 2021, public schools in San Francisco remained closed. Parent exasperation mounted as they had to reorient their lives around Zoom, and as students suffered the many attending consequences including learning loss, social isolation, and declining mental health.
Then, in January of 2021, the board decided that 44 schools would be renamed because their namesakes were deemed problematic. Among the names to be scrapped were Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, John Muir, Paul Revere, and Dianne Feinstein. Word spread quickly, and so did anger. Parents wondered why the school board was focused on something so superficial and performative when schools weren’t even open. Even Mayor London Breed put out a press release criticizing the school board for “advancing a plan to have all these schools renamed by April, when there isn’t a plan to have our kids back in the classroom by then.” Add to this the board’s decision in February of 2021 to remove merit-based admissions in favor of a lottery system for Lowell High School, one of the nation's best public high schools, and the stage was set for a parent revolt. That month, activist parents filed the official recall paperwork.
Rather than fight the recall by addressing parents’ concerns, the board members chose to dismiss them or deflect responsibility. One board member, in her first public response to the recall, said, “when I see certain people getting upset, I know I’m doing the right thing.” Another called the recall effort racist, sexist, and ageist, and said that “the people who are behind this don’t know us, they don’t know our work, they don’t know what we’ve been doing, they don’t know what we are dedicated to.”
The thing to understand about the school board recall—the thing that makes it so similar to yesterday’s—is that it was fueled by voters who saw their everyday lives getting worse. Parents could see their children struggling with their schoolwork and mental health; they had to change their work schedules or find child care; they felt the family tension that comes with a perpetually full house. And all the while, the school board was debating if Abraham Lincoln was sufficiently anti-racist.
What was once seen as a long-shot effort quickly came to pass as life for parents deteriorated and the school board continued to radiate moralism and condescension. By election day, voters were fed up and recalled them with overwhelming majorities.
Last week, as the tension over Boudin’s recall was reaching its peak, a local news outlet published an opinion article by a member of the California Democratic Party Executive Board explaining why he was voting in favor. “I am a Democrat and criminal justice reformist. This is why it infuriates me to see Boudin call the recall a Republican effort to institute their right-wing agenda [...] The fact is San Francisco Democrats put the recall on the ballot with 83,000 signatures, and a recent poll shows the recall is supported by 64% of San Francisco Democrats.”
This is the most notable thing about the recalls in San Francisco: Democratic candidates are losing voters that should be their natural supporters. San Francisco is a very progressive city with a very progressive voter base. But ideological alignment does little to temper frustration from voters who are afraid to walk home from work in the evenings or who see their children falling behind in school. Unlike many of the other political battles happening far away in D.C., these are issues that voters feel acutely.
If elected Democrats continue to be seen to make life worse for their constituents—and if they continue to respond to that concern with aloof condescension and strict adherence to ideological purity—they will not only continue to lose progressives, but will also give up any chance at winning over moderates and independents. No doubt Republicans, and Trump himself, are salivating at the thought of running against such a party.
Yesterday’s election is an opportunity for Democrats to reevaluate their current course, and to tack sharply away from the politics that Boudin represents. I hope that, against the odds, they will. For if they don’t, they need not be surprised if they lose in the upcoming midterms, and keep the door for Donald Trump to return to the White House in 2024 wide open.
Seth Moskowitz is an associate editor at Persuasion.