SAN FRANCISCO — Last week’s California primaries served as a warning to Democrats of the political threat posed by mounting public anger at the increasingly visible poverty and disorder on the city’s streets — in this case, San Francisco’s.
District attorney Chesa Boudin became a scapegoat for the city’s social problems. His loss in a recall effort had a lot to do with California’s chronic failure to cope with homelessness, mental illness, and poverty. These problems will continue without him.
What his impeachment was not, despite claims to the contrary, was a clear rebuke to the California criminal justice reform movement: State primaries yielded victories for that same movement.
Yet the amalgamation of criminal justice reform with urban disorder poses a threat to Democrats across the country. The recall made Mr Boudin an emblem of the city’s dysfunctions, but the troubles predate his election in 2019, and conservatives have long derided “San Fransicko” as a symbol of the Democratic Party’s excesses and failures.
Democrats should heed the signal from voters here who turned their anger on a budding politician. This vulnerability will persist after the recall, as the city’s problems are an irresistibly visceral way to visualize the shortcomings of democratic leadership.
The city’s value as a political symbol has never been more powerful. Some of the most powerful Democrats in the nation have their roots here. Vice President Kamala Harris gained national fame, in part, by serving in the office Mr. Boudin just lost. Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, represents the city in Congress. Senator Dianne Feinstein served two terms as mayor, as did Governor Gavin Newsom.
No Republican has been elected here in decades. It is a city completely controlled by Democrats in a state completely controlled by Democrats. And anyone with an iPhone can walk down Market Street and collect a wealth of anecdotal evidence to prove the horrors of democratic governance.
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Some portray San Francisco as a failed city. Conservative media have consistently highlighted its problems by providing anti-progressive cautionary tales.
For some San Franciscans, there’s no better place to be than this Pacific peninsula with its great views, cute neighborhoods, and world-class culture.
But as Governor Newsom said after the recall, “People want the streets cleaned up.” They want ‘a sense of order, of the disorder they feel’ in parts of the city.
Cities across California are struggling to tackle homelessness. The mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, recently reported that homelessness has actually declined here since 2019, but the unsheltered population is still strikingly large and striking.
The city has endured an epidemic of shoplifting and car theft. Public drug use and urination are common. It’s not uncommon to see piles of car windows and hear about garages broken into.
There seems to be a growing sense of impatience and annoyance, a general ‘feeling’ that the streets are unsafe, no matter what the statistics say.
But the point is, data and statistics also say California crime rates are at an all-time low. Therefore, the overthrow of Mr Boudin was probably an expression of frustration, not a real referendum on reform.
A poll conducted by my newspaper, The San Francisco Examiner, shortly before the election found strong support for the recall — and strong support for the criminal justice policies it embraced. It also found that 66 percent of voters felt less safe than they did 10 years ago, with 64 percent citing the presence of the homeless and mentally ill on the streets as their number one concern.
As Governor Newsom put it, “And tag, it was the DA” — meaning Mr Boudin took the blame for the city’s woes, many of which are beyond his jurisdiction.
As Lieutenant Governor, Mr. Newsom backed Proposition 47, a 2014 ballot that reclassified certain nonviolent crimes as felonies and which some people have blamed for the disorder plaguing San Francisco.
But on the same day that 55 percent of voters in San Francisco chose to recall Mr. Boudin, 56 percent of primary voters elected Governor Newsom, who will almost certainly be re-elected in the fall.
Another progressive reformer, state attorney general Rob Bonta, won 76 percent of the primary vote in San Francisco, beating his main “hard crime” opponents. In the counties bordering San Francisco, criminal justice reformers took victories in DA and sheriff races.
And yet… Mr. Boudin’s defeat is portrayed as a sign of the outrage of ordinary voters, but the campaign to recall him was fueled by donations from a Republican billionaire and Peter Thiel supporters like David Sacks.
Republicans have now exposed a rich vein of discontent among Democratic voters. Our progressive state has the world’s fifth largest economy and a budget surplus of about $97 billion, but its long-standing apathy toward its most vulnerable residents has led to a humanitarian disaster that has sparked the ire of voters. With enough political funding and strategy, the voter uprising in San Francisco could spread and send a powerful message to the rest of the nation about the failures of progressive policies in this liberal stronghold.
That’s bad news for California’s most ambitious politicians. In Mr. Boudin’s destiny, they should glimpse their own destiny. They have a short runway to prove that their big Democratic ideas to create more shelter, expand mental health care, reduce inequality, and build a California for all can work.
If they continue to fail, it will reinforce the impression that California is where progressive dreams die.
Gil Duran (@gilduran76) is an editorial page editor at The San Francisco Examiner.