The stunning recall of progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin prompted declarations around the country Wednesday that the Bay Area is now ground zero for a revolt against law enforcement reforms, as voters in one of the nation’s most liberal cities voiced their discontent over gun violence, property crimes and homelessness.
But experts say other contests for top law enforcement jobs across the region undermine that lofty claim and suggest the region’s voters are making a more nuanced statement about when reform is desirable — and when it may go too far.
Led by the comfortable victory of an incumbent progressive district attorney in nearby Contra Costa County, several reform-minded candidates on each side of the Bay either cruised to victory Tuesday or appeared to have solid footing heading into runoffs against politically weakened incumbents. While voters are increasingly concerned about crime and homelessness, they’re still making up their minds on how best to combat those problems.
“Does this mean progressive criminal justice reform is over, that it’s seen its heyday? I think it’s scattershot. I think it’s really all over the place,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “The pendulum in some places is swinging, but in almost all of those instances, we can point to something unique about the race that means we need to be careful about painting a broad narrative.”
Veteran political analyst Dan Schnur agreed, noting that California voters aren’t done with criminal justice reform. They may just want to rein it in a bit.
The primary results “don’t suggest a return to the ‘lock them up’ policies of the 1980s and ’90s, but it does appear that a lot of progressives have decided they’d like to proceed more cautiously,” he said.
In Contra Costa County, incumbent District Attorney Diana Becton fought back a challenge from a more conservative prosecutor within her own office who sought to portray Becton as soft on crime. The victory came even though opponent Mary Knox nabbed the endorsements of police unions across the East Bay.
“Contra Costa voters have spoken. They want a justice system that works for everyone,” said Becton in a statement Wednesday that spoke of the need to “reimagine” the county’s criminal justice system and reduce racial disparities. “We also must continue to hold anyone who harms our communities accountable — even if they are in elected office or wear a badge — because that is what real safety demands.”
In Alameda County’s open race to replace retiring District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, progressive reformer and civil rights attorney Pamela Price was finishing ahead of longtime prosecutor Terry Wiley, setting up a November runoff.
Meanwhile, two incumbent sheriffs — one in Alameda County, the other in San Mateo County — suddenly found themselves vulnerable to challenges from reform-minded candidates who sprung to early leads, prompting likely runoffs in those races.
Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern — a lawman who had never faced an opponent since he was first elected in 2006 — was trailing Yesenia Sanchez late Wednesday, the commander of the Santa Rita Jail who had portrayed herself as a reformer, rallying people who, in her words, were “frustrated and tired of seeing what’s going on across the nation.”
San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos also had fallen behind Captain Christina Corpus, who is vying to unseat her boss to become the first woman sheriff in the county and the first Latina sheriff in California. Corpus has said she wants to end Bolanos’ “reactionary” reign over the department, which she claims has led to community distrust in the agency. If the results hold, the two will face off in November.
Corpus on Wednesday defended the reform movement in the face of Boudin’s ouster, lamenting the “negative light” that has recently been cast on its work. “Reform is always seen in a negative light, but reform is really changing things,” she said. “I’m not saying that we have to let public safety go out the window. Public safety is my number one priority.”
Statewide, liberal Attorney General Rob Bonta easily won the top spot in his primary. His strong showing provides another counterpoint to the anti-reform narrative. Appointed last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Bonta has defended voter-approved criminal justice reforms such as Prop. 47, which reclassified some felony drug and theft offenses as misdemeanors. That’s a reform Corpus doesn’t support, saying it’s not working. Bonta will face off in November against one of two Republicans: former federal prosecutor Nathan Hochman or conservative lawyer Eric Early.
What the results show, observers said, is that voters are still gauging their feelings on how best to reform policing, highlighting the growing pains of a movement that only hit its full stride within the last decade. The picture that emerges is not of political winds shifting right but of an unsettled atmosphere across California and especially in the Bay Area, said Eric Schickler, co-director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California Berkeley.
The recall of Boudin — a former deputy public defender who rode to office on a unique wave of progressive support, despite having never previously been elected to any level of state or local government — was a special case, many experts said Wednesday.
Boudin fell victim to people who were underwhelmed by him personally, not necessarily all of his policies, said W. David Ball, professor at Santa Clara University’s School of Law. Many of Boudin’s policies — ending adult charges for children and doing away with the cash bail system, for example — are still widely supported by liberal voters, he said.
“Voting no to reject somebody is a lot easier than voting yes to somebody,” said Ball.
Staff writers Nate Gartrell and Aldo Toledo contributed to this report.
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