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Billionaire Democracy? San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin Ousted in Recall & L.A. Mayor Race Heads to Runoff

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Image Credit: Chesa Boudin

Progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin was ousted by voters Tuesday in a special recall election, after facing well-funded tough-on-crime attacks by the real estate industry. “He made enemies with very, very deep pockets,” says Lara Bazelon, professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and chair of Boudin’s Innocence Commission, who describes the primary challenge as a “perfect storm” to take down Boudin. Bazelon also discusses the mayoral race in Los Angeles, where billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso and Congressmember Karen Bass will head to a runoff in November after placing first and second in Tuesday’s primary. She says the two candidates will be competing for the Latinx voting bloc, which could ultimately determine the outcome of the election.

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

AMY GOODMAN: Voters went to the polls Tuesday for primaries in seven states, but we begin today’s show in California with two closely watched races there. In San Francisco, voters supported a multimillion-dollar-funded effort to recall progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin as district attorney of San Francisco. Boudin aimed to reform the criminal justice system but faced mounting attacks by the real estate industry. Boudin told supporters Tuesday night he would not stop fighting for restorative justice.

CHESA BOUDIN: When this recall started, my wife Valerie said to me, “I know we’re going to win.” And she’s right. She’s always right. And the reason I knew and I know today that she was right is because this was never about one vote count. It was never about one election night party. It was never about specifically which person gets to be in the office of the district attorney. This is a movement, not a moment in history. …

I want to be very clear about what happened tonight. The right-wing billionaires outspent us three to one. They exploited an environment in which people are, appropriately, upset. And they created an electoral dynamic where we were literally shadowboxing. Voters were not asked to choose between criminal justice reform and something else. They were given an opportunity to voice their frustration and their outrage, and they took that opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the mayoral race is now down to a billionaire and a longtime progressive lawmaker. Billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso and former [sic]Congressmember Karen Bass are headed to a runoff in November after placing first and second in Tuesday’s primary. Caruso is a Republican-turned-Democrat who sits on the board of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. He spent some $40 million of his own fortune on the race and could spend much more in the general election. Congressmember Bass — former [sic] Congressmember Bass is attempting to become the first woman, the first Black woman, as well, to lead the second-largest city in the United States.

REP. KAREN BASS: Tonight the city will see that it’s hard to defeat a people-powered campaign. It’s hard to defeat passionate door knockers, no matter how much money is spent. And it’s hard to defeat folks who are committed to a cause, not just a candidate.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s mayoral candidate Karen Bass addressing supporters last night in Los Angeles.

But for more, we go to San Francisco to speak with Lara Bazelon, professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, where she’s director of the school’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice and Racial Justice Law Clinics. She’s also chair of San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin’s Innocence Commission, which she wrote about in a San Francisco Chronicle piece headlined “My team set an innocent man free under Chesa Boudin’s guidance. Let us keep working.”

Well, can you talk, Professor Bazelon, about what happened last night, about the whole recall effort that succeeded in ousting Chesa Boudin as the DA of San Francisco?

LARA BAZELON: Yes. And good morning, Amy.

I think what happened was a perfect storm, because you had, as Chesa said in his concession speech, millions of dollars — I think over $7 million — being poured into the effort to recall him. And I think that money bought a lot of ads and messaging around this idea that everything that San Franciscans are feeling about being unsafe, about rising burglary and auto crimes had to do with Chesa Boudin, and that if they could just sort of vent their frustrations and recall him, they were going to wake up the next day magically with some kind of a better outcome.

And I think that that messaging is false and that San Franciscans are going to be pretty disappointed to find out that they’re waking up today with the same mayor, the same grossly incompetent police department, that has a 9% clearance rate, and really messengers who are telling them that returning to tough-on-crime policies are going to be the answer to the myriad of problems the city faces, many of which are not even in the purview of the District Attorney’s Office.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Bazelon, this whole issue of getting tougher on crime, the perception of increases in crime, what are the actual statistics, crime statistics, in terms of San Francisco in recent years? And also, my understanding is that there’s been a sharp drop in the number of arrests that the police have been conducting in recent years.

LARA BAZELON: I’ll take the last part of that question first. That’s absolutely correct. So, the clearance rate, which means the arrests that they’re able to bring to the DA’s Office for prosecution, has dropped to below 9% for most crimes. And it’s at about 1% for auto burglaries, which perhaps is the most triggering issue for San Franciscans. So, of course, what that means is that if I were to go out and commit one of these crimes — and I don’t intend to — I have somewhere between a 91 and a 99% chance of not even being arrested. And, of course, the DA can’t prosecute people who the police don’t arrest. And I feel like if we were going to have an honest conversation about crime, the conversation would stop right there, and the buck would stop with the mayor, who of course appointed the police chief.

But broadly speaking, in terms of is crime rising in San Francisco, it’s really a mixed bag. Some crimes have dropped. Other crimes have risen, but not at all in the statistically exponential way that we’ve seen in cities, for example, like Sacramento, which has had a huge spike in murders and violent crimes. Ours has been relatively small.

It’s less about what the actual statistics say than about how people feel. And that is what I continued to hear in the weeks leading up to the recall, is friends and neighbors and the pediatrician, whoever, telling me, “I’ve been a victim of a crime,” or “I know somebody who had their car broken into, and I don’t feel safe.” And that, I think, was the message and the — that, really, the recall supporters were able to capitalize on. That was the thing that resounded and resonated with voters, because that’s how they’ve been feeling. And so, the problem is that statistics are really important, but at the same time, when you tell someone you don’t have a reason to be that worried because property crime is only up by 1%, that’s not going to be a message that’s going to resonate with someone who just had their car broken into.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And we’ve mentioned the role of the real estate industry, but what about the police themselves? Weren’t they essentially sworn enemies of Chesa Boudin? And to what degree did the police unions play a role in these elections?

LARA BAZELON: The police unions played a huge role. I want to back up for a second, because you did mention some of these special interests. One of the things that Chesa Boudin did was he instituted prosecutions against wage theft to get to the misclassification of workers. Those are the kinds of things that happen routinely in the tech industry, and so he made enemies with very, very deep pockets.

But, yes, to go back to the dysfunctionality in the police department, that has been a long-term problem. It predated Chesa Boudin. And it’s interesting. You know, some of them will tell you, “Oh, well, there’s no point in arresting, because he won’t prosecute,” as if he wouldn’t prosecute a serious violent crime or send somebody to something like diversion for a less serious crime. So, it’s not true, but they’ve also been peddling that message for decades, really. When Kamala Harris was the DA, they routinely told people, “Oh, we’re not going to arrest, because San Francisco juries don’t convict.”

And as for the POA, they have been a sworn enemy of Chesa Boudin from the very beginning of his campaign. And, in fact, towards the end of it, in 2019, they dumped $700,000 into attack ads. One thing I think they did that was smart was that they stayed behind the scenes, because they are detested in the city of San Francisco.

AMY GOODMAN: And let’s be clear. I mean, Chesa Boudin has been under pressure from the beginning, because they first attempted to get enough signatures to recall him before. They didn’t do that, and then they’ve done this. So, the power of money right now in elections in California? Of course, it’s the case all over the country, Lara. In a moment, we want to talk about Karen Bass and who she is up against, a billion Republican-turned-Democrat. But before we end on this issue, I wanted to ask you about the Innocence Commission that Chesa Boudin set up, how unusual it is, you also an expert in restorative justice.

LARA BAZELON: Thank you so much for asking. This is perhaps the achievement that he is the most proud of, and I know that I am, too.

To sort of give you a context, we’re known as a liberal city, but in the entire history of San Francisco, there had never been a collaborative exoneration of an innocent person. And what I mean by that is that, traditionally, when people in San Francisco claimed to be wrongfully convicted, the DA’s response was to double and triple down and insist that they were guilty and force these people to fight for years to get out. They would then turn around and sue the city and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

And when Chesa took office, there was a Conviction Review Unit that was supposed to be evaluating these claims objectively. They had exonerated no one. So, his response was to create an independent commission. There’s five of us, and it is my honor to chair it. What we do, we work pro bono, and we reinvestigate these cases from the ground up. We review thousands of pages of documents. We interview witnesses. We retain experts and listen to their opinions. And then, at the end of that, we transmit our findings to the DA. And obviously, of course, at the end, it’s the DA’s decision. Our first case concluded in April. A man named Joaquin Ciria was exonerated after spending 32 years in prison for a murder that another man committed.

And this is just one of the many reforms that I think is so important and really only came about because San Franciscans had the vision and the courage to elect someone who is truly progressive. And as I said in my op-ed, I’m very worried that our work is on the chopping block and that whoever comes in — and, mind you, this is someone who the mayor will appoint, who almost certainly will bring in tough-on-crime policies to try to capitalize that in the election we’re having in November — will either disband us or stack us with people who really aren’t interested in doing that job. And that concerns me and makes me deeply sad.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you this — this whole issue of the recall movement. California, of course, is famous for recalls. What’s the impact of these recall movements in terms of a democratic process, of someone who’s elected to office having to constantly battle to be thrown out?

LARA BAZELON: They are, in my opinion, toxic. When we enacted this mechanism, it was supposed to be a bulwark against fraud and malfeasance. And it’s really been weaponized. At this point we’re using it to recall judges who hand down sentencing decisions we don’t like, to go after the governor out of frustration over his COVID policies, to go after this DA, potentially to go after the district attorney in Los Angeles. I know we’re going to be talking about the political climate there, and it’s similar. And the message really to elected officials is that they have to watch their back at all times and hold up their finger to the wind at all times. And that’s really, really disheartening, because what we want are people who run on a platform and deliver on that platform, which is precisely what Chesa Boudin did, and then look at this outcome.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we wrap, we want to get to Los Angeles, the mayoral race. It will pit two Democrats against each other — well, Karen Bass, longtime Democrat, former [sic] congressmember, versus a Republican, Rick Caruso, billionaire, who just became a Democrat. He spent $40 million just on the primary. He’s on the board of the Reagan Library. Can you talk about the significance of what’s happening and the power of money?

LARA BAZELON: I don’t think, Amy, that you can overstate the significance of money. I mean, we just talked about the $7 million that was dumped into the recall in San Francisco. Mr. Caruso — and as you say, he was a Republican until about five minutes ago — dumped $40 million of his own money into trying to win the mayoral race. And I don’t think that anyone believes that he would be in the position that he’s in without that money, and using that money again to sell sort of a similar tough-on-crime, we-need-to-end-progressive-reform message. And so, at this point, he’s actually leading in the polls against Congresswoman Karen Bass, who I think was really expected to kind of walk away from the whole thing in the lead, at least a few months ago. And it will be really interesting to see what the political climate is like in November, when they go head to head. And, of course, when they do, he’s going to have this astronomical financial advantage.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, if —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you, in terms of that — a key situation there in Los Angeles will be how Latino voters decide between the two candidates, because Kevin de León, who was another candidate, had a remarkably poor showing, about 7% of the vote, but, clearly, he still has influence. And he hasn’t yet announced who he’s supporting in that race?

LARA BAZELON: Yes, that is absolutely right. That is a critical voting bloc. And I think they’re going to be fighting over trying to get the support of that voting bloc, absolutely. And, of course, it’s not monolithic, either, so it’s a tricky balance.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you, Lara Bazelon, professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, chair of the Innocence Commission, author of the book Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction.

Next up, President Biden is heading to Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americans today, as Mexico, the Mexican president, skips the event, joined by Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Bolivia, to protest the exclusion of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. We’ll be back with more.

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