Inside the Effort to Recall San Francisco’s Progressive Top Prosecutor
In 2018, Richie Greenberg, a little-known conservative businessman, ran for mayor of San Francisco to “deal with the homeless, deal with the drugs, deal with housing, with transportation.” One of eight candidates, Greenberg came in a distant fifth, making virtually no impact on the citywide conversation. When the ballots were tallied, he ended up with under 7,000 votes, 2.82% of the total.
Less than three years later, however, Greenberg is once again part of the city’s biggest political story. He is managing RecallChesaBoudin.org, one of two online groups pushing to recall Chesa Boudin, the city’s progressive district attorney. (The other online group, SaferSFWithoutBoudin.com, ignored repeated emails reaching out to them for comment for this article.) Boudin, 40, a former public defender, is receiving national attention for his emphasis on restorative justice, police accountability, racial justice and sentencing reform.
The signature-gathering effort for the second campaign, led by San Franciscans for Public Safety Supporting the Recall of Chesa Boudin, is funded largely by dark money donations to a PAC with the anodyne name “Neighbors for a Better San Francisco.” The group, registered in Sacramento so as to avoid its home city’s strict political contributions disclosure rules, is supported by a handful of conservative Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists aligned with Trump adviser Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal.
The next months will either end Boudin’s career or strengthen his position as he normalizes a swath of big-picture criminal justice reforms.
The recall campaign is being led by allies of Suzy Loftus, whom Boudin beat for the D.A. job in November 2019. This despite Loftus’ advantage as the incumbent of sorts — the city’s mayor, London Breed, appointed Loftus to the district attorney’s seat a month before the election, when George Gascon quit the job to become the top prosecutor in Los Angeles. Loftus was endorsed by then-Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the rest of San Francisco’s Democratic power brokers. This second recall effort gathered more than enough signatures to qualify the recall effort for the ballot. That vote will take place on June 7.
Unlike the Loftus allies running their recall but avoiding the press, Greenberg, who has added “political commentator” to his wiki, is not ducking questions. He is telling anyone who will listen just how bad conditions are on San Francisco’s mean streets — hyping a putative crime wave that the data doesn’t support. Unlike many parts of California, and neighboring counties in the greater Bay Area, San Francisco did not see a huge spike in violent crime in 2020 and 2021 as compared to the five years leading up to the pandemic. Nevertheless, Greenberg and his allies in the recall movement continue to blame the city’s alleged decline on Boudin and his progressive priorities including criminal justice reform.
The recall effort is one of many high profile attempts by conservatives around the country to do an end run around recent election results that have elevated outspoken progressives to positions of power. “I call it recall madness,” said state Sen. Mark Leno, a longtime Boudin ally and an outspoken critic of the rush to recall that the GOP is embracing as a rolling strategy against elected officials whose agendas Republicans oppose.
For the past year, hoping to score some surprise victories in Deep Blue California, conservative activists have targeted high-profile liberal and progressive figures up and down the state. Gov. Gavin Newsom defeated the recall effort against him back in September. Since then, however, the campaign to recall Boudin has qualified for the ballot, and a similar effort against Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón looks likely to qualify as well. A number of mayors, city council members, county supervisors and school board officials are also seeing recall campaigns heat up against them.
“It is a direct assault on our democratic process,” Leno said. “We’ve been through the worst global pandemic in our lifetimes. It has nerves frayed, millions losing their livelihoods. Everything’s been turned upside down. It’s too easy to point to a scapegoat — and that’s what Chesa has become.”
He added: “Any student of history will tell you that authoritarians take advantage of crisis situations. Our orderly world is not so at this time. This is when those who don’t prevail in normal times think they can take advantage of the situation. [The recall effort against Boudin] is not about public safety. It’s so cynical, so cynical. Chesa Boudin is a fine man, a brilliant attorney.”
Not surprisingly, Greenberg doesn’t see it this way. To back up his claims that things are going to hell in a handbasket, and going there quickly, Greenberg talks about how, within days of assuming office in January 2020, Boudin was firing experienced prosecutors. Indeed, in late October of 2021, City Journal reported that 51 attorneys in Boudin’s office had either been fired or resigned since his election.
“It sent up a whole lot of red flags. And then there were numerous decisions to not prosecute criminals,” Greenberg said. He referenced the story of Troy McAlistair, a convicted repeat felon who was paroled — and not reprosecuted by Boudin’s team, despite being rearrested several times after his release — who stole a vehicle and crashed it, killing two women.
No matter that, according to Julie Edwards, spokesperson for Boudin’s anti-recall effort, crime rates were down in the city in 2021 compared to the past two years, and prosecution rates under Boudin are comparable to, or higher than, those under his predecessors. No matter that in 2020, as the pandemic raged, the city’s police made fewer arrests — and thus gave the D.A. fewer opportunities to prosecute accused criminals — than in any previous year the city has data on; no matter that preliminary estimates suggest that 2021’s arrest rates were even lower than in 2020.
The ongoing pandemic has skewed life and thus comparisons of prosecutions for major crimes. But a San Francisco Chronicle analysis of Boudin’s charging rates has found an increase in prosecutions for rape and drug charges and a decrease in rates for lower level offenses like petty theft and disorderly conduct.
“Chesa Boudin was elected by San Franciscans to implement criminal justice reform,” Edwards said, “and to hold everyone accountable, whether people who commit smash ’n grab, or police unions — and that is what he is doing.”
For the D.A.’s opponents, however, what he promised to do when he ran for the office is of no consequence to what is going on today. They argue that efforts by Boudin’s office to show a decline in crime in San Francisco are a game of smoke and mirrors, and they quote other data, some of it on domestic violence cases, indicating that serious felonies are, instead, being prosecuted as misdemeanors or, in many cases, simply dismissed. “Chesa Boudin earned his recall,” Greenberg said. “He’s very, very far outnumbered and will be outvoted.”
Iconoclastic Reformer or Inept Rookie?
Two years into Boudin’s somewhat improbable tenure as San Francisco’s district attorney — the son of two notorious members of the radical Weather Underground, he squeaked into office in the city’s first ranked-voting election for D.A. with no support from the city’s political powerhouses — he is facing an onslaught of public criticism.
His defenders argue this criticism is largely unfair; he is, they say, mainly being critiqued for implementing the very policy changes he was clear during the campaign that he would implement if he were to be elected.
Boudin, a Yale Law School graduate and former Rhodes Scholar, has:
- Ended cash bail
- Enacted a primary caregiver diversion program
- Stopped seeking sentencing enhancements for gang members
- Reduced the number of young people in the county’s juvenile detention center by upwards of 50%
- Launched a worker protection unit within the D.A.’s office
- Created an innocence commission
- Established a resentencing unit
- Placed an emphasis on diversity hires within the D.A.’s department (which has, under Boudin, also sued three manufacturers of ghost guns)
But at the same time, his office, never supported by the San Francisco Police Officers Association (the union spent $650,000 during the D.A.’s race to defeat him), has earned the enmity of the SFPD for filing homicide charges against police officers in two cases in which the police killed African American men.
Boudin makes no apologies for his social justice priorities, criminal justice reform agenda, or for filing charges against police officers when he feels the situation merits it. “Change is hard, and there are wealthy and powerful interests, including police unions, who do not want to see change,” Boudin said in an interview in late November. Making enemies is to be expected, he added, given that his agenda “is tremendously threatening to the status quo.”
Some of the opposition to Boudin’s reform agenda is indeed coming from within the criminal justice system, from both the police union as well as former prosecutors whom he either fired or who resigned over disagreements with the new D.A.
“I was there for 20 years,” said Gregory Mendez, who left the office in December 2020. “I put up with him [Boudin] a year and decided I could not tolerate it anymore. I retired from the office. I could not tolerate his way of handling the office.”
Mendez sees Boudin “as a public defender. He’s not a D.A.” Among his pet peeves, he criticized his ex-boss for declining to prosecute quality of life crimes such as possession of a small amount of narcotics and low-end theft.
While Boudin’s team trumpets lower crime numbers to declare their reform model a success, Mendez counters that these declines are more a statistical sleight of hand than a true reflection of crime in San Francisco. After all, if fewer actions are defined as being crimes, it’s hardly surprising that crime rates fall. Moreover, Mendez said, under Boudin the D.A.’s office is trying to divert as many defendants as possible into veterans courts and various other restorative justice systems, regardless of whether they qualify according to the D.A.’s own criteria for diversion.
Mendez accuses both Boudin and his predecessor, George Gascón, of being “socialist pretend D.As.”
The Complaints and the Complainers
Two other former prosecutors, Brooke Jenkins and Donald du Bain, who, unlike Mendez, call themselves reformers and restorative justice advocates, have also recently joined the recall campaign, accusing Boudin of undermining public safety by calling for the early release of repeat offenders.
Both have received media attention — though not in the San Francisco Chronicle — for questionable ethics.
Jenkins was caught on tape coaching a child witness in a case she prosecuted that ended in acquittal in 2019, which the Davis Vanguard, a website that covers San Francisco courts, called “egregious misconduct.” The tape was played in court but Jenkins received no penalty beyond losing the case.
Du Bain was the elected top prosecutor in Solano County for 10 years before being defeated in 2013 following a scandal over a murder trial in which his office withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense. He quit the office with a week’s notice in 2013 and joined the San Francisco prosecutor’s office in 2014.
The criticism isn’t just coming from within the small world of prosecutors and their allies in police unions, however. A group of deep-pocketed ideological conservatives in Silicon Valley has thrown money into the anti-Boudin efforts. Opinion writers for the San Francisco Chronicle, which had endorsed his opponent, have led what Boudin’s office considers a media campaign against him. Heather Knight, whose regular critiques often run on the newspaper’s front page, began lambasting his record months into Boudin’s term.
Taken as a whole, Boudin has become a symbol for conservatives of all that they detest about uber-liberal public figures, and about criminal justice reform in particular, often backed by George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, who have gotten elected in recent years with a mandate to fundamentally rethink how criminal justice is done in the country.
They have singled out the San Franciscan for a level of criticism to which none of his neighboring D.A.s, even in high-crime counties, are subjected, and they blame his policy choices, his signaling that he doesn’t want to send as many people to prison for property crimes as most of his recent predecessors have done, for the spate of smash and grab robberies on retail stores in San Francisco. They do so even though other counties have had similar attacks over the last few months.
“I’m not even halfway into my first term,” Boudin said.
“Two years is a relatively short period of time, especially when it’s been such a tumultuous time. Given the volatility, it doesn’t feel like I’ve been able to settle into the job. I’ve been working from home until recently.”
Lara Bazelon, director of the Criminal and Racial Justice Clinics at the University of San Francisco’s School of Law, is chair of the Innocence Commission that Boudin established shortly after taking office. She believes Boudin is putting in the hard work both to make sure that innocent people don’t languish in prison, and also to reexamine long sentences handed out, at the urging of prosecutors under previous D.A.s, that don’t necessarily enhance public safety.
“It’s really groundbreaking and important,” Bazelon said of the Innocence Commission. If Boudin were to be recalled, she added, the reforms he has set in motion would likely be reversed.
The next five months will either break Boudin’s career, or, if he survives the recall, strengthen his position as he seeks to normalize a swath of big-picture criminal justice reform.
“I believe the single best measure of success is recidivism rates,” he said, “best measured from three years out from release. We want to intervene in ways that prevent future crime. To measure that, you need a larger time frame than I’ve been in office.”
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