(The worker-business coalition that toppled Chesa Boudin last week is a model for other communities. It succeeded in taking action against a failed ideology, and in bringing together a multi-racial working class and middle class constituency.)
A report issued last Friday showed office occupancy in San Francisco’s core business district down to 26.4% of the pre-pandemic occupancy level, with a high number of vacant storefronts and high worker and customer safety fears. Three days earlier, San Francisco voters had overwhelmingly voted to recall the District Attorney Chesa Boudin. The two events are closely related.
Of course, Boudin’s policies are not solely responsible for San Francisco’s empty and struggling business district. Other major factors have been in play—the length and severity of the economic lockdowns in 2020-2021, the outsized role of tech and high-end white collar jobs in the local economy. But Boudin’s policies significantly contributed to the situation.
Before the recall is forgotten it is worth saying a word about the relation of public safety and economic vitality, and the importance of addressing quality of life/“broken windows” crimes. It is also worth saying a word about the unusual coalition of workers, small business owners and employers that came together to topple Boudin.
Over the past three decades, I’ve been a member of numerous advisory committees, on the state and regional levels, charged with developing a “jobs strategy”. Almost always these committees are looking for Brookings Institute-type ten-point programs that involve this-or-that tax credit, this-or-that technical assistance to small businesses, or some new government fund. But the fact is that in promoting economic vitality nothing is more important than the basics, of which ensuring public safety is at the top.
During more than two years in office, Boudin ignored the concerns of businesses, small and large, just as he ignored the concerns of ordinary residents. He came in with his ideology of “progressive criminal justice reform”, and believed he knew more than victim rights advocates and others who questioned him. Families of crime victims came away from meetings complaining that Boudin lectured them. Early on in the recall campaign, a NBC news report found 51 prosecutors, more than one third of the office, had either been fired or resigned in less than 2 years. Two career prosecutors, Brooks Jenkins and Don Du Bain, spoke about their frustrations, and Jenkins came to play a prominent role in the recall campaign.
Boudin even drove away natural allies, such as Randy Shaw, the longtime head of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic and advocate for more than four decades for the city’s homeless and low income residents. After Boudin pointedly refused to prosecute the open-air drug dealing in the Tenderloin area, Shaw came to support Boudin’s recall, as did other Tenderloin activists, including recovery expert Thomas Wolf, who explained, “Fentanyl has killed hundreds of San Franciscans since Chesa Boudin took office, yet he hasn’t pursued a single felony drug dealing case. Instead, he sends dealers to drug courts, where they face little to no consequences and are able to get right back to selling on the streets.”
Despite widespread dissatisfaction with Boudin’s ideology, Boudin was not an easy official to bring down. For one, he was able to tap into the enormous reservoir of money supplied by uber-wealthy donors on the left, the majority of whom live outside of San Francisco. According to the Ethics Commission report a few weeks prior to the recall, Boudin had raised a staggering $3.3 million, including $350,000 from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California—and the amount is likely to rise in the final accounting.
Additionally, Boudin had the support and resources of the local Democratic Party apparatus, which sent out and walked anti-recall flyers (linking the recall to Senator Mitch McConnell and to abortion opponents). He benefited from the support of most of the city’s elected officials, as well as a largely compliant local print media—nearly all of whom actively opposed the recall.
The success of the recall in part was due to the funding it also was able to achieve. But this funding would have meant nothing without the coalition of workers, ordinary citizens and businesses that were willing to stand up to Boudin and to the city’s political and media establishment.
Boudin ran around the city denouncing the recall as led by Republicans, even though he knew this to be false (only 7% of San Francisco voters are registered Republicans). He later switched to “Republican billionaires”, which he continued up through the night of the election.
Boudin’s claims fell flat because of the large number of middle class and working class residents who rallied to the recall, and volunteered in canvassing. As this map of the election results shows, support of more than 60% for the recall came from the city’s remaining working class districts, the multi-racial districts in the Excelsior, Visitacion Valley, and Portola. Support of over 70% came from the solidly middle class districts of the Sunset and Lake Merced.
Boudin’s claims also failed due to the willingness of high profile Democrats to break ranks and risk political ostracism. Mary Jung, the former chair of the SF Democratic Party, stepped forward as a recall leader, as did former prosecutor and Democratic Party official, Nima Rahimi who chronicled Boudin’s ideological rigidity and hubris.
The city’s business associations (the SF Chamber of Commerce, the hotel council, the realtors association) came off the sidelines, risking blowback from the Boudin-supporting Board of Supervisors, as did individual businesses. “Our members repeatedly told us that their employees no longer felt safe in San Francisco,” explained Daniel Herzstein, Director of Public Policy at the Chamber, “So we knew we needed to act.”
The Shorenstein family for more than sixty years have been major Democratic Party funders in California and nationwide. During their lifetimes, Walter Shorenstein and later his son Doug Shorenstein were active in almost every major civic initiative from the 1960s until Doug’s death in 2015 (they were generous supporters of several inner city employment programs I was part of with businessman Bill Russell-Shapiro in the 1980s and 1990s). The Shorenstein Company, now headed by Doug’s son Brandon, took a lead in the recall (Walter and Doug would be proud of Brandon’s leadership).
In the past week, numerous articles have appeared in nationwide publications diagnosing and interpreting the recall, and a number offer good insights. But they largely miss a key takeaway: this willingness and ability of ordinary citizens and workers, joining with employer organizations, to go beyond complaining about Boudin, and taking action.
For some time in 2020-2021, as thefts, assaults, and car smash-and-grabs escalated, Boudin and his allies dismissed this escalation as “urban living”. By spring 2021, though, a number of business people and neighborhood activists started to push back, saying, “This is crazy. We don’t need to live like this. Boudin’s ideology hurts all of us, and it especially hurts our most vulnerable citizens: our poor, our elderly, our adults with developmental disabilities and mental health challenges.” As they reached out to their employees and neighbors, they found a deep pool of support. Within a short time, more than 83,000 residents signed the recall petition.
The same can occur in other cities, as workers and businesses come together and find that they do not need to accept as inevitable or unchangeable the failed public safety or other social policies. Similar middle class and working class constituencies exist in these cities, and the past year has shown how they were activated—for example, to combat failed school policies. It’s possible to utilize the tools of citizen participation and direct democracy, to build a multi-racial and worker-business partnership, and the Boudin recall provides a template.
Among recall supporters, nobody believes things will change overnight. But in the past few days, you hear in neighborhood conversations and read on Nextdoor a new optimism. Small businesses and residents believe their concerns about quality of life crimes are finally being heard.
As for San Francisco’s core business district, that’s a complex issue. It will never go back to its pre-pandemic form, never achieve the traffic and office occupancy. Remote work, or hybrid remote work, is here to stay, and is showing itself to be popular with workers, as well as bringing traffic reduction and other social benefits. A new model will emerge, perhaps with more housing, perhaps with other uses.
But the recall is the start of reclaiming the downtown and neighborhoods. Last week brings to mind the final sentence in Sue Miller’s novel, The Good Mother: “This is how it begins.”