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Vowing to End Cash Bail & Reform Justice System, Chesa Boudin Wins San Francisco DA Race

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In a stunning victory, public defender Chesa Boudin has been declared the winner of a hotly contested district attorney’s race in San Francisco. Boudin ran on a platform to end cash bail and dismantle the war on drugs, and was endorsed by Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders. His win sends a pointed message to the Democratic establishment, which had mobilized in full force against his campaign. San Francisco Mayor London Breed, California Governor Gavin Newsom and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris all endorsed Boudin’s opponent, Suzy Loftus. Boudin is the child of Weather Underground activists Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, who were both incarcerated when he was still a toddler. He learned the news that he’d won the race by a razor-thin margin while he was on a plane flying back from visiting his father, who remains in prison in upstate New York. After four days of ballot counting, Boudin was declared the winner. From San Francisco, we speak with Chesa Boudin.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in a stunning victory, public defender Chesa Boudin has been declared the winner of a hotly contested district attorney’s race in San Francisco. Boudin is the child of Weather Underground activists Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, who were both incarcerated when he was still a toddler. He learned the news that he had won the race by a razor-thin margin while he was on a plane flying back from visiting his father, who remains in prison in upstate New York. As of the latest numbers, Boudin had 36% of the vote; his opponent, Suzy Loftus, had 31%.

Boudin ran on a platform to end cash bail and dismantle the war on drugs. He was endorsed by Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. His win sends a pointed message to the Democratic establishment, which had mobilized in full force against his campaign. San Francisco Mayor London Breed, California Governor Gavin Newsom and Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris all endorsed Boudin’s opponent, Suzy Loftus. The mayor even named Loftus interim district attorney just weeks before the election, in a move condemned by the ACLU as an unfair tilting of the scales. The Police Officers Association had also spent up to $650,000 on ads attacking Boudin. Despite this, after four days of ballot counting, he was declared the winner.

AMY GOODMAN: Chesa Boudin is the newest addition to a growing number of public defenders around the country who have vowed to use the district attorney seat to end “tough on crime” tactics and restore civil rights, including District Attorneys Rachael Rollins of Boston, Larry Krasner of Philadelphia. Krasner tweeted, quote, “Americans are more humane and compassionate than institutions created and controlled by the powerful few. Our movement for a truly just system that supports the well-being of all communities has a new technician in @chesaboudin,” Krasner said.

Well, Chesa Boudin joins us now from San Francisco, California.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! So, how does it feel to have won? And talk about when you learned you had actually won?

CHESA BOUDIN: Well, thank you, Amy. Thank you, Juan. It’s great to be back.

And, of course, I’m humbled by the support we received, by the outcome of the election and by the confidence that the voters of San Francisco have put in me and my vision for making the city a safer, more humane place for all of its residents.

I was on the middle seat of a coach-class ticket on my way back from the East Coast, as Juan said, after a couple days of visiting my father at the maximum-security prison where he has lived for the last 38 years. And we had internet on the plane. We checked the Department of Elections website. We saw the news. We saw that it was a margin of victory that was insurmountable, given the outstanding ballots left to count. And I was with my fiancée. We did our best to celebrate there on the plane, in the cramped quarters that we found ourselves in.

And then, you know, we began preparing for what comes next. In many ways, the real work lies ahead of us. We’ve been given a tremendous amount of responsibility. And with that comes hard work and the focus of proving voters right and fulfilling the promises that we made throughout this campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re celebrating by getting married Friday?

CHESA BOUDIN: I am getting married this week. I’m going to be out of the country for a couple weeks. I’m going to put in place a transition team. And we’re going to do a lot of listening and a lot of planning. You know, it’s imperative that when I take office, we have really detailed plans and a team in place to execute those plans, to make sure the structures and the staff at the District Attorney’s Office are ready to implement the policy vision that the voters elected me to put in place. And that’s going to take time. We don’t want to make mistakes. We want to move carefully and judiciously. So, we’re going to be working really hard over the next couple of months to put in place that transition plan, to listen to law enforcement leaders, to community leaders, to merchants, to go around the city and really sit down with every stakeholder we can, and make sure their voice is being heard, as we go about transforming San Francisco’s approach to criminal justice.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Chesa, could you talk a little bit about the counting process in your election and the impact, let’s say, of the campaign against you by the Police Officers Association? Because San Francisco has ranked-choice voting, doesn’t it? So there was an issue there of how the votes went through each cycle of the counting?

CHESA BOUDIN: That’s right. So, there were four candidates in the race, and every voter had the choice or the option to put as many as four choices in order. Many voters only put their first choice; some put all four; some put less. I was the candidate who had the most first-choice votes. I was also the candidate who ended up with more than 50% of the votes after the ranked-choice analysis, which basically works as follows. The candidate who gets the least number of first-choice votes is eliminated, and all of their ballots who — or, which put a second choice then get redistributed. And if no one has 50%, which was the case in this race, the next least vote-getting candidate is eliminated, and the ballots that have a third choice, or in some cases a second choice, are then redistributed to the remaining two candidates. That happened in this race, and it took several days of counting to get through enough ballots before I passed the 50% threshold. Part of that is because, in San Francisco, a significant majority of voters vote by mail, and ballots can be postmarked as late as Election Day. And so, many of the votes that were necessary to be counted didn’t even arrive at the Department of Elections until a couple days after the election itself. That process took a few days. We were watching the returns every day eagerly. And we saw the trends, and we realized, a couple days ahead of the final outcome, that we were very likely to win. We understood the dynamics in the race and the neighborhoods we needed to have a strong performance in.

And I have to say, it was a tremendous testament to people power, to a principled and positive campaign. You know, we made the choice not to do negative attacks, even in the face of the onslaught of dishonest attacks from the Police Officers Association. And I think that strategy, in combination with the real grassroots organizing led by local groups like San Francisco Rising, like the hard-working members of SEIU 1021 and the United Educators of San Francisco and the National Union of Healthcare Workers — you know, all of the groups, community groups and unions that stepped up to support this people-powered campaign, that really made the difference in terms of the outcome.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, it’s safe to say that as ranked-choice voting moves into major cities, as it’s increasingly doing across the country, that we should all expect our elections to take several days, if not weeks, to declare the winners. No more election night declaration of winners now with ranked-choice voting, right?

CHESA BOUDIN: Well, it does depend on the dynamics. This was a particularly close race for first-time political candidates running for the same seat. And also remember that a big part of it is San Francisco’s use of vote by mail. I think that if we were a jurisdiction where most voters voted on Election Day, it would probably be a bit faster to process the votes than with vote by mail. But certainly, when you have a close race and ranked-choice analysis has to be conducted, it can take a few days, for sure.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Chesa Boudin, talk about this almost unprecedented police effort, attack on you, $650,000 in attack ads. Yet you still win. And it might not have been despite that; it might be that that infuriated many people and might have turned them in a close race to support you. How do you now deal with the police and also the many communities of San Francisco?

CHESA BOUDIN: Well, that’s right, Amy. You know, the onslaught of attacks all came in about a 10-day period. And the police union spent, in that 10 days of attacks, pretty much the same amount as my campaign spent over the entire year. So it was a tremendously impactful last-minute onslaught. But you’re right that it’s hard to say what the impact was. Certainly, there were many, many voters who rejected the attacks. And I think it speaks to the ways in which the leadership of the police union is really disconnected from the values of San Francisco voters. The attacks backfired both because they were dishonest and racist, but also because voters simply didn’t want that kind of interference or tone in local politics. And so, you know, it’s hard to say specifically whether I won more or less votes because of the attacks. But what is clear is voters rejected the attacks and saw through them.

I think, you know, going forward, we have to be mindful of the fact that the police union leadership has been on the wrong side of so many issues and so many races for years in San Francisco politics. There’s a real disconnect, as I said. But my job isn’t to hold grudges, isn’t to attack back, but rather to roll up my sleeves, sit down at the table with everybody who’s willing to talk, and be willing to listen to them, so we can rebuild the trust between our communities and the law enforcement that’s supposed to serve and protect those communities. If you look at the protests, if you look in the eyes of the parents of Alex Nieto and Mario Woods and other people who have been killed by police violence in San Francisco, it is clear that we have a tremendous amount of work to do to rebuild that trust. And I’m committed to doing it with everybody at the table.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering: Did you get the normal congratulatory phone calls from all of the other political leaders in the state — Gavin Newsom, the two U.S. senators, all of whom are originally from the San Francisco area, aren’t they?

CHESA BOUDIN: Yeah, they are. I did get a number of phone calls. I was on the airplane when the news broke, so I landed and had a very warm voicemail from both Mayor London Breed as well as from my rival candidate and interim District Attorney Suzy Loftus. I have heard since then from a large number of local leaders, the chief of police — we’re scheduling a meeting — the city attorney and many others, including people who were on the other side of this campaign. I have not heard from the U.S. senators or the governor yet.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Chesa, if you could lay out for us what your plans are right now, what you think are the most serious issues that you want to take on, that you ran on, that really unites you with this new breed of district attorneys around the country?

CHESA BOUDIN: Well, I do think that this election is a bellwether for what’s to come in 2020, and I’m tremendously hopeful that in places like New Orleans and Honolulu and Arizona and Ohio and even right here in Los Angeles, in Southern California, we’re going to see more people running on progressive reform platforms win. And I think it’s a testament to the broad recognition that the “tough on crime” policies of the 1990s and 2000s are not working and voters are rejecting them across the board. I’m excited to see that.

Some of the specific policies, to your question, Amy, include ending money bail. And that’s a fight that I’ve been involved in, in the courts, for going on five years now through litigation. I’m excited, on day one, to be able to put in place a policy that prohibits my staff from ever putting a price tag on freedom. And, you know, the problem with money bail, for folks who aren’t familiar with it, is that when someone gets arrested, under the money bail system, they can buy their way out immediately, if they have resources. And that’s without regard to their risk or to their community ties. So, someone who’s really dangerous but has access to wealth can be out of jail and back on the streets within a matter of hours, while another person, charged with a less serious crime, with weaker evidence against them and stronger ties to the community, would languish behind bars simply because of their poverty. It’s a system that actually undermines the integrity of the entire criminal justice system. And so, when I’m district attorney, we’re going to use risk rather than wealth to determine who’s incarcerated pretrial. That’s one of the policies that I think, on day one, will make a tremendous difference in restoring trust and integrity to the criminal justice system.

AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, the influence of your four parents, two sets of parents? All were Weather Underground. You have the parents who raised you, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, and your parents were behind bars for decades — your mom out now, your father in for life. The influence of growing up, yourself, in a sense, behind bars, or at least going back and forth to visit your mother and father?

CHESA BOUDIN: That’s right. I mean, I’ve spent thousands of days of my life in prison visiting rooms and inside prisons. And, you know, the Weather Underground and that history was all way before I was born. And so, I remember it the way that many people of my generation do: through the history books, primarily. But what I do remember is going through steel gates and being searched by prison guards and waiting in line at metal detectors, just to see my parents, just to give them a hug.

And, you know, one of the things that I learned as I began studying these issues is that I’m not alone. There are millions of Americans, millions of children, who have grown up in this country who have had to visit their parents behind bars. It turns out that the majority of Americans have an immediate family member who is either currently or formerly incarcerated. So, while it’s true that in my circles at Yale and at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, my experience of having parents incarcerated made me an outlier, I am firmly in the majority of Americans in sharing that experience.

And I think it’s a critical perspective to bring to the difficult job of deciding who to send to prison and for how long. I intend to lead the office of district attorney with compassion for everyone whose life is touched by the criminal justice system, whether they’re children of incarcerated parents, whether they’re crime victims or family members of crime victims, or whether they’re the people who themselves have committed crimes. We need to lead with compassion, with intelligence, with data-driven and empirically informed policies. And we need to end this approach that relies on jails and prisons as the answer to all of our social problems.

AMY GOODMAN: Chesa Boudin, we want to thank you for being with us, district attorney-elect of San Francisco. And Happy Wedding.

CHESA BOUDIN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: When we come back, we’ll look at another big election win, in Seattle, where a group of progressive city councilors beat back a one-and-a-half-million-dollar campaign by Amazon to flip to Seattle City Council. Stay with us.

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