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A Win in San Francisco

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Chesa Boudin has won the race for San Francisco’s District Attorney. The son of incarcerated Weather Underground activists, Boudin’s entire life has been shaped by the criminal punishment system.

When Chesa Boudin learned he had won a tight race to become San Francisco’s new district attorney, he was flying home from a visit with his father at a prison in upstate New York.


Boudin was just 14 months old when his left-wing activist parents were incarcerated for their role in an armed robbery that killed three men. His close-up view of the criminal justice system shaped his career as a public defender who vowed to make sweeping reforms if elected to serve as the city’s top prosecutor.

Boudin’s remarkable biography appeared to play to his advantage. His parents were members of the radical leftist group Weather Underground and began serving their sentences in the mid-1980s. His mother was released in 2003, and his father could remain behind bars for the rest of his life.


Boudin, 39, said he thinks that real-life experience resonated with the city’s voters.


“It made them appreciate that this is not just a kind of opportunity for political gain or power — this is a life journey for me,” he said. “This is something I’ve been affected by, thinking about, working on pretty much my entire life, and not something I got interested in in law school.”
Though he wasn’t the favored candidate of California’s political establishment, Boudin received important endorsements from prominent liberal politicians and prosecutors from outside the state, including Chicago Dist. Atty. Kim Foxx, Philadelphia Dist. Atty. Lawrence Krasner and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.


The presidential candidate tweeted congratulations on Boudin’s “historic victory,” writing that “now is the moment to fundamentally transform our racist and broken criminal justice system by ending mass incarceration, the failed war on drugs and the criminalization of poverty.”

Regardless of what one makes of the Weather Underground’s politics, Boudin ran as someone with direct knowledge of the evils of this system and as a devoted advocate of reimagining it. This is a good thing.

Boudin said he plans to do a lot of listening and intends to establish a restorative justice program for crime victims.


The Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School graduate said he expects more like-minded prosecutors will be elected in other American cities in 2020.

The desire for change “is not limited to San Francisco,” he said.
“I think people understand that the massive amount of money we’re spending on punishment is not making us safer and is really destroying our collective humanity in ways that are profound and far-reaching and deep seated,” Boudin said.


The political environment of San Francisco is different from that of other cities, said Jason McDaniel, a political science professor at San Francisco State University.


It is so thoroughly blue that it has long elected liberal Democrats as district attorneys. That includes George Gascón, who abruptly quit as the city’s district attorney last month to run for the same office in Los Angeles County.


“What this election shows is that voters are not scared off by candidates who go even farther to the left of liberal Democrats to propose pretty radical change to the way the criminal justice system works,” McDaniel said. “It’s a continuation of something we’ve seen in San Francisco for a couple of decades, but we’ve seen it pick up steam nationwide.”

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