Chesa Boudin’s Strategy for Remaining San Francisco District Attorney: Running Against Recall

Matt Gonzalez, long one of San Francisco’s leading progressives, understands better than anyone the political headwinds District Attorney Chesa Boudin faces in the June 7 election as a reminder.

Gonzalez, the chief attorney for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, supports his former colleague and opposes the recall.

That said, Gonzalez said Boudin faces a big political challenge: “Is the paint already dry compared to what people think of him?”

This dynamic shapes the recall seen nationally: To what extent will San Francisco voters pin their frustrations — about crime, homelessness, and life in general — on Boudin? Will voters listen to him plead his case, or will he become the scapegoat for the city’s biggest problems?

The Anti-Recall Campaign understands this and attempts to depersonalize the campaign. Look how his signs have changed.

The first signs of the anti-recall said: “Dismiss Recall” in lowercase letters above the words “Chesa Boudin” in large letters. At the bottom of the placards was the phrase “Stand up for justice.”

The new campaign signs: ‘Don’t be fooled’ in large red print above the smaller one, ‘Stop the Republican recall’. No mention of Boudin until the small disclaimer at the bottom: “Advertising paid for by friends of Chesa Boudin opposing the recall”.

“We’re running against recall,” said Jim Ross, a veteran Democratic consultant advising the campaign.

Ruth Bernstein, a longtime San Francisco pollster, recently released a poll that showed 68% of likely voters will vote to recall Boudin. I wondered how there could be so few “undecided” voters. Bernstein said she, too, was initially “shocked” by this aspect of the investigation, which was funded by the pro-recall campaign. But other questions on the poll showed that even after just two years in power, Boudin’s notoriety “is very, very high. … It is rare for an elected official to have so much identity and notoriety.”

In other words, the paint dries.

Boudin is not intimidated. While his name may be off the billboards, he is seen as the campaign’s strongest asset in person as he explains his positions better than anyone. Over the past few weeks, he’s been everywhere, headlining rallies, appearing at house parties and going door-to-door from the Fillmore to neighborhoods in Excelsior.

His tone is defiant – and sometimes a bit defensive.

He points out that the pandemic-related lockdown came two months after he took office and that he had to try to push through reforms while his office – like most – did business via Zoom. Despite this, he points to his successes, such as the elimination of cash bail.

He too is running against recall. He points out that when he ran in 2019, the four candidates engaged in dozens of debates, forums and neighborhood meetings.

“Here it’s a very different dynamic where voters are being asked to say yes or no, without any process, or frankly, talk about what comes next,” Boudin told me. “It’s a really, really problematic process to decide something – especially in the middle of a first term, after two years of COVID-19 turning the world upside down.”

Recall Chief Brooke Jenkins, who left the district attorney’s office last year over what she called Boudin’s “incompetent” leadership, is frustrated that Boudin hasn’t taken enough responsibility.

“It’s either the mayor, it’s the police, it’s the pandemic, it’s poverty, it’s a host of other issues or agencies that are at fault and not Chesa,” Jenkins said, one of dozens of attorneys who left office.

Recall leaders such as Mary Jung, former chairwoman of the San Francisco Democratic Party, said Boudin continues to behave like “a public defender, and that’s not how it’s supposed to work.”

Here are a few things to watch out for as the campaign unfolds:

Not the reminder of the school board: Forget to compare Boudin’s recall to the February ousting of three San Francisco school board members. The race for the school board was outside the traditional electoral calendar. with about a third of registered voters casting their ballots. Boudin’s Judgment Day will be part of the June statewide primary ballot and a much larger pool of largely Democratic voters — not single-issue voters.

Additionally, the school board members on the ballot didn’t raise much money and barely campaigned to defend themselves. Boudin will have plenty of money and a solid campaign.

Democrats broadly support Boudin: Unlike what happened during the school board recall, when San Francisco’s top Democrats split, leaders are lining up against ousting Boudin.

The San Francisco Democratic Party Central Committee — made up of the city’s top party leaders — opposed the recall in February by a 20-2 vote. Many of the city’s top Democratic clubs oppose the recall . On Monday, the Noe Valley Democratic Club will announce that it voted against the recall.

Additionally, it has the support of major unions, including the California Nurses Association, the Service Employees International Union, and labor groups representing teachers and hospitality workers,

Recall supporters counter that more than 80,000 San Franciscans have signed the petition to put the recall on the ballot — a not-so-silent majority of about 10 percent of city residents.

Can Boudin campaign? It’s fair to wonder how a relatively inexperienced campaigner like Boudin will fare under the scorching lights of a recall; he only stood for election once.

Boudin works a room like a seasoned professional, whether chatting with voters in Spanish or showing pictures of his 7-month-old son. He hands his business card to the people he’s chatting with, telling them to email their concerns to him. Motorists honked their horns in support as they passed him campaigning along Fillmore Street last week, and several people stopped him to offer praise.

Rich Celis, a San Franciscan retiree, put on Boudin last week at a breakfast honoring labor leader Cesar Chavez. Celis thanked him for defending his nephew when Boudin was a public defender.

” I can not believe it. He remembered every detail of the case,” Celis, who opposes the recall, told me moments after their conversation. “He’s a trustworthy guy.”

Enough time to explain? Boudin said a “public education campaign” is needed to explain what exactly district attorneys are responsible for and what they are not responsible for. It will be a difficult lesson to teach in the two months remaining until Election Day, especially when there is so much frustration in the city over its many problems.

Take what happened when Boudin appeared for mayor of Manny’s, a well-known political community space in the Mission district. The first question from the audience was about guardianships – the process of forcing people with mental illness into treatment. Good question – but that’s not the domain of the prosecutor. That didn’t stop a handful of others from asking similar questions.

The Asian vote is essential: Longtime Chinatown lawyer Vanita Louie was inspired to volunteer for the pro-recall campaign after the death of 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, who has become a potent symbol of rising anti-government violence. Asian. Louie lives in the Anza Vista neighborhood, where Ratanapakdee was fatally attacked.

“Anti-Asian hatred and violence continue to rise, our elders don’t feel safe, violent criminal acts are not prosecuted properly,” Louie told me. Boudin “has another two years in office. We can’t wait that long. That’s why recalls have become popular, because the people of San Francisco can’t take it anymore, aren’t happy with what’s going on in the schools and the crime.

If pro-recall forces can rally Asian American voters to back Boudin’s recall in the same numbers they backed the school board’s recall, the DA could be in trouble.

The Republican Factor: The anti-recall body points out that hedge fund manager William Oberndorf donated $602,722 to recall funder Neighbors for a Better San Francisco Advocacy. He was also a top donor to Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

The strategy of blaming the GOP for the recall worked for Governor Gavin Newsom last year in part because there were Republicans on the ballot to replace the governor if voters voted him out. Newsom warned voters that if recalled, the primary voter to replace him was conservative radio host Larry Elder, who held many views that were far from the California mainstream.

But Boudin has no Elder to scare. He’s running against himself, even though his name isn’t on the campaign signs.

Joe Garofoli is the San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political editor. Email: [email protected]: @joegarofoli

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