Voters in San Francisco have recalled Chesa Boudin in a high-profile midterm contest that divided Democrats and split prominent Jewish philanthropists in the Bay Area, some of whom donated large sums of money to either side.
The Jewish district attorney sought to change policing in the city and came to represent one extreme of a polarizing debate over criminal justice in America. Boudin was elected in 2019 after vowing to reform the way San Francisco handled crime, with a goal of increasing equity in prosecution and keeping non-violent offenders out of prison whenever possible.
His outlook was informed by his experience as the child of Jewish radicals who spent decades in prison for their role in a 1981 robbery that left three people dead. Visiting his mother, including for prison Passover seders, showed him that many people behind bars should not be, he told J. in 2019.
“When is punishment more about our longing for vengeance and less about rehabilitation? What does meaningful accountability look like? What does freedom from oppression really mean?” he wrote in a J. essay in April, as the recall effort was well underway. “These are questions my mother and I wrestled with, as many Jewish families do around the seder table — but for us, the questions were not abstract but deeply personal.”
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In the less than two years that he held office, Boudin made multiple changes, including abolishing cash bail, a practice that keeps low-income people charged with nonviolent crimes incarcerated when people of means charged with similar crimes await trial from home; creating a commission to identify and overturn wrongful convictions reached under his predecessors; and launching programs to help youthful offenders and people charged with using drugs rather than sending them to prison.
Those efforts made Boudin a standard-bearer for liberals who believe that criminal justice in the United States unfairly penalizes low-income people and people of color who are charged with relatively minor crimes. Conservatives, on the other hand, accused Boudin of being soft on crime.
Increasingly, many in San Francisco who do not describe themselves as political conservatives grew dissatisfied with the city under Boudin’s leadership. His critics pointed to high rates of property crime and the prevalence of people who are homeless or drug users as evidence that the city was growing less safe. A rash of hate crimes against Asians furthered that view, as did a high-profile incident in which a man who had recently been arrested multiple times killed pedestrians when, drunk at the wheel, he drove onto a sidewalk.
Exactly what happened to crime in the last two years in San Francisco — and in the other cities where perceptions of a crime wave are shaping public policy and voter behavior — is not totally clear. But what’s certain is that reports of crime in the city fell during Boudin’s tenure. Violent crime decreased, while property crimes and “nuisance” offenses such as panhandling remained steady. The city, which is home to some of the widest income inequality in the country, has long posted higher-than-average rates of such crimes.
Still, on Tuesday, San Franciscans voted decisively to remove him from office, with nearly 60% of voters supporting the recall. The neighborhoods with the highest turnout, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, were in Sea Cliff/Presidio Heights (36%) and West of Twin Peaks (33%), both areas with wealthier or more conservative bases. Coupled with the surprising success of a tough-on-crime, formerly Republican mayoral candidate in Los Angeles Tuesday, Boudin’s recall is widely understood as a worrying sign for Democrats nationally.
The highly contentious city election saw more than $10 million donated to the campaign, more than twice the amount contributed in the special election for mayor in 2018. Recall supporters outspent Boudin backers by more than 2:1.
Prominent Jewish philanthropists and public figures found themselves on either side of the debate, which split liberal Democrats when it came to their tolerance for reform-minded criminal justice policies. Even within Jewish families, there was disagreement.
Among the largest individual donors to the recall effort was Miriam “Mimi” Haas, the widow of former Levi Strauss CEO Peter Haas and a prominent Jewish community philanthropist, and John A. Pritzker, the billionaire businessman and member of the Pritzker hotelier family whose foundation gives generously to Jewish community causes in the Bay Area.
Both Haas and Pritzker donated more than $200,000 to the anti-Boudin PAC “Neighbors for a Better San Francisco Advocacy,” which described itself as “a civic-minded group of San Franciscans committed to improving public safety, public education, and quality of life for our city.”
And yet Susan Pritzker, a progressive activist and founder of the S.F.-based Libra Foundation which supports people of color, donated $27,000 on Boudin’s behalf.
Also supporting Boudin was the billionaire philanthropist Lynn Schusterman (née Rothschild), whose Oklahoma-based foundation has prioritized criminal justice reform and combating racial disparities in the justice system. Schusterman donated $50,000, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Some Jewish public intellectuals were also outspoken in defense of Boudin, including Lara Bazelon, a University of San Francisco law professor and reform-minded legal writer who chaired Boudin’s Innocence Commission.
Also defending Boudin was the filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who has directed well-reviewed documentaries scrutinizing Fox News, the war in Afghanistan and Walmart, among other topics. He is currently making a documentary about Boudin’s life called “Beyond Bars: A Son’s Fight for Justice.”
Greenwald chastised the recall effort in a statement Wednesday.
“As District Attorney, Chesa Boudin has made significant strides to fixing our broken criminal justice system,” he said. “Boudin was made a scapegoat for a city facing a myriad of challenges – most of which existed before he took office and many of which are outside of a prosecutor’s prerogative.”
The wave of progressive prosecutors that included Boudin also includes at least one other attorney who says he is informed by Jewish values. Eli Savit, who calls himself “a bona fide American Jew,” was elected county prosecutor in Michigan’s Washtenaw County in 2020. He, too, has eliminated cash bail and ceased prosecuting some crimes, including consensual sex work; like Boudin, he had never prosecuted a single case prior to being elected.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism