After Chesa Boudin, San Francisco Looks for a Way Forward

Reform might be laudable in theory, but when your child finds a dead body in the park, politics go out the window.

AP/Noah Berger
The San Francisco district attorney, Chesa Boudin, and his wife, Valerie Block, leave an election night gathering June 7, 2022. AP/Noah Berger

When San Francisco’s district attorney, Chesa Boudin, was voted out of office in a recall election, it was hailed on the right as a rebuke of radical criminal justice reform and anti-incarceration policies, but his replacement will need to balance a tough-on-crime stance with these same progressive ideals.

After all, this is San Francisco, a liberal bastion where the Democratic presidential candidate garnered 85 percent of the vote in 2020. Despite Mr. Boudin’s claim on election night that “rightwing billionaires” funded the recall and caused him to lose, it was regular citizens who voted for change amid concerns about rising crime, widespread homelessness, and open-air drug use.

“The electorate in San Francisco just got tired of it,” a civil rights attorney, Joe Alioto Veronese, told the Sun. “The voters’ mandate on Tuesday was they need somebody in there that’s going to clean up the city.”

Mr. Veronese is hoping Mayor Breed will pick him as Mr. Boudin’s temporary replacement on July 8. Either way, Mr. Veronese will be running in November for the job. He is pushing a “Safer in 60 Days” plan to go after fentanyl dealers, “smash and grab guys,” and armed robbers.

“That nonsense stops under me. We target those guys, and we go after them. Not the drug users, not the homeless people,” Mr. Veronese said. His campaign tagline is “father, civil rights attorney and criminal justice reformer.” He reiterated several times that “homelessness is not a crime” and said he thinks “cash bail is discriminatory.”

Mr. Veronese said property and violent crimes need to be prosecuted: “We can go in there and still be true to our progressive values by fixing the system on the inside without tolerating the nonsense.”

The other top contenders for district attorney are a longtime prosecutor, Nancy Tung, who lost to Mr. Boudin in the 2019; Brooke Jenkins, who worked in Mr. Boudin’s office but then quit and emerged against him, and a moderate member of the Board of Supervisors, Catherine Stefani.

While violent crime in San Francisco is lower than other American cities, property crimes have skyrocketed over the past two years. Burglaries and auto thefts increased more than 45 percent and 35 percent respectively since 2019, and larcenies have risen more than 40 percent since 2020.

Videos of smash-and-grab burglaries at high-end stores have made national news. If you rent a car at the airport, the employee at the Avis counter warns, “Don’t leave anything in the car.”

On top of this, residents have complained about the rising homeless population; tent cities on streets and in sanctioned locations, including next to City Hall; overt drug use in broad daylight; and discarded syringes and human waste. There were more than 6,000 registered complaints about syringe sightings last year.

More than twice as many people have died in San Francisco from drug overdoses in the past two years as from Covid-19. Under Mr. Boudin, the San Francisco district attorney’s office secured only three drug dealing convictions in 2021. Mr. Veronese said a group of 15-year-olds found a man dead of an apparent overdose in the park near his house last month.

“This is just not the experience people want for their kids,” he said.

While high housing prices contribute to the homelessness crisis in San Francisco, a walk around the Tenderloin or one of the tent cities makes it clear that drug use plays a large role. People who use drugs need to feed their habits, and so enter property crimes. Mr. Veronese says people are taking advantage of California’s Proposition 47, which makes shoplifting goods valued at less than $950 a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

“The misdemeanor division in the District Attorney’s office was entirely eliminated, so you can commit a misdemeanor in San Francisco and get away with it,” he said. “So you’re sitting in Walgreens, somebody comes in, they fill their bags up and walk out, and you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Why the hell am I paying for things?’”

Mr. Veronese contends that Mr. Boudin is ideologically opposed to incarceration because his parents spent nearly his entire life in prison for taking part in a Weather Underground robbery that resulted in two police officer deaths.

“You don’t take incarceration off the table. You have to have some incentive to not commit the crime,” Mr. Veronese said. He added that police officers “won’t do their job because they know that if they take the risk of arresting somebody there’s a chance they may get prosecuted because the DA started going after cops.”

While Mr. Boudin is not entirely to blame for rising homelessness, drug use, and crime — overdose deaths and crime have spiked nationally — he became the focus of San Franciscans’ ire. The more than 500 percent increase in anti-Asian crimes also hurt him.

Asians make up 36 percent of the city’s population and 67 percent favored the recall, according to a San Francisco Standard poll. Asian Americans also played a large role in the city’s February school board recall.

Mr. Veronese says he is “the right candidate at the right time,” a blend of progressive and effective he says the city desperately needs. He worked as a San Francisco police officer for three years, was a criminal investigator in the DA’s office, and served as a California criminal justice commissioner under Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown.

Under Mayor Newsom, Mr. Veronese also served on the San Francisco police commission as a “reform commissioner, the one who went in there and challenged the police department,” and served a term as San Francisco fire commissioner. He is from a long line of “Alioto” Democrats, a political dynasty in San Francisco.

Mr. Veronese has also worked as a civil rights attorney for more than 20 years, representing victims of discrimination. “I come to the table with both credentials: I have the police credentials and I also have civil rights credentials,” he said.

Whether Mr. Veronese is appointed or wins the election in November, Mr. Boudin’s recall makes clear that while dedication to social and criminal justice reform is laudable in theory, when your child finds a dead body in the park, politics go out the window.

The New York Sun

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