San Francisco's progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin is again garnering a national spotlight in a piece in The New Yorker that tries to parse our current moment with criminal justice reform, and the polarizing position he has landed in.
The general gist of the piece by Benjamin Wallace-Wells is this: If San Francisco can't get behind a progressive district attorney, how does the criminal justice reform movement expect to succeed anywhere else in the country?
For those who didn't get his backstory when he was running for election, Boudin's biography is summed up again in the piece — he was born to radical parents who were part of the Weather Underground and were both jailed for a triple murder of two police officers and a security guard during the armed robbery of a Brink's truck in 1981. He ended up being adopted by Bill Ayers and his wife, the same Bill Ayers who co-founded the Weather Underground, was a fugitive from the FBI due to his participation in several bombings, and was spuriously linked to Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Ayers tells the New Yorker what's meant to be telling story from Boudin's childhood about his stubborn determination. Boudin had, along with other kids, gotten pledges from adults for a fundraiser in which he was to raise a certain amount of money per lap he swam in the school swimming pool.
“He was a graceless swimmer,” Ayers said. “But he got everyone he knew to pledge a dime or a quarter for each lap and we all thought we’d be shelling out five or ten bucks. He never got out of the pool. Everybody else had left. The staff was trying to go home. Zayd and Malik”—Ayers and Dohrn’s other children—“were waiting for dinner. And the motherfucker was still in the pool.”
Boudin's determination took him to Yale, and to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and to Yale Law. And friends tell the New Yorker that he was always destined for public office.
But the past year has proven especially challenging to Boudin in convincing a pandemic-weary, and crime-weary public in San Francisco that he's the best person for the top prosecutor's job. A series of highly publicized and tragic cases — in particular two vehicular homicides in the first few months of 2021 in which the alleged perpetrator was a repeat offender recently let out of jail — along with a growing perception of lawlessness and rampant property crime in the city, have had Boudin on the defense,
Local politicos tell the New Yorker that they don't expect the Recall Chesa campaigns to succeed, and indeed neither has gotten the necessary signatures to trigger an election yet. But whether Boudin can turn his critics' impression of him around before it's time for him to be reelected is another question.
"No one wants to be told that their feelings aren’t real or that they need to look at our studies," says Lara Bazelon, professor of law at the University of San Francisco, who says she's known Boudin for a decade. "But if that’s not effective — what is? And for me that’s the big question Chesa needs to answer if he wants to survive this recall and get reelected."
Certainly Boudin has been hit with a number of high-profile incidents beyond his control, but the media and the recall proponents have latched on to enough key talking points to damn him in the minds of many — including the revelation that, as a public defender, he stepped in as attorney for a court date in 2018 for Troy McAlister, the repeat offender believed responsible in the New Year's Eve crash in SoMa that killed two women, while he was allegedly intoxicated and driving a stolen car. (But Boudin's office has previously clarified that he never served as McAlister's defense attorney, and was filling in for another public defender that day.)*
That talking point highlights the awkwardness of moving from the public defender's office into the the DA's office, especially at a moment when a larger narrative has formed about the city failing to be tough enough on criminals.
Wallace-Wells concludes by surmising that SF voters who voted in Boudin — albeit by a fairly slim margin of 3,000 votes — wanted to see what would happen if the top prosecutor focused on the bigger players criminal organizations and didn't waste time prosecuting, say, low-level drug offenders. "But they wanted other things, too," he writes. And those other things include the confidence that the city isn't descending into some new stage of chaos, and all the stats in the world on crime going down aren't likely to overcome that perception problem.
*This post has been corrected to show that Boudin never defended McAlister in any case.