A historically unique race for District Attorney comes into focus this month with a series of intense debates. Four candidates struggle to differentiate themselves, balancing equity issues with the emerging challenge of increased property crimes.
With George Gascon leaving, this District Attorney election will be the first without a running incumbent in over a century. The office has no term limits, so whoever wins could end up setting policy for decades.
The election comes as California struggles with justice reform. Policies like Three Strikes exacerbated mass incarceration, prison overcrowding, and inequality. After a Supreme Court order to cut California's prison population, Proposition 47 reduced sentences for minor offenses. Critics argue that Proposition 47's passage has led to a sharp increase in property crimes. According to the FBI, San Francisco now has the most property crime of any major city.
Four candidates – Deputy Public Defender Chesa Boudin, Deputy AG Leif Dautch, Sheriff's Department Counsel Suzy Loftus, and Alameda County prosecutor Nancy Tung – are vying for the office. Following an initial debate in the Mission last May, they tackled two debates in a row last week.
"This is going to be a close race, one of the most important elections for a long time," said Austin Hunter, a board member with the Eastern Neighborhoods Democratic Club, which sponsored a debate at Hastings Law School on August 6 along with Indivisible SF and the Willie B. Kennedy Democratic Club.
The activist audience had a keen interest in the equity-driven issues of the race, such as mass incarceration, police misconduct, and implicit bias in prosecutions.
Loftus staked out the center, stressing her varied experience in San Francisco's justice system along with the need to balance both safety and justice equally. She cited her work as President of the City's Police Commission on body cameras and use-of-force policy, and recommended police misconduct cases be investigated by the state Department of Justice.
She also emphasized her endorsement by progressive leaders such as Supervisor Shamann Walton and her support of restorative justice-based solutions as part of "a seamless, responsive and culturally competent web of services" to tackle neighborhood crime. She also pledged to start a Civil Rights Unit in the DA's office and to combat implicit bias.
"Racial disparities exist in arrests, they rise further with booking, charging, conviction, and sentencing," said Loftus at the Hastings debate. "We've got to train prosecutors on the science of bias, to look to our practices and tell everyone, this is our charge to fix."
On immigration issues, she urged elected officials to stand together to protect undocumented immigrants, and for the DA's office to ensure defendants don't face deportation as the result of plea deals.
Boudin staked out one end of the field, emphasizing his experience as a Public Defender, and a message of more radical reform.
"It's not enough to have a District Attorney who isn't racist," said Boudin. "As Angela Davis, who I am proud to have as an endorser, said, 'we don't just need no racism, we need anti-racism'… not just committing to be race-neutral, but to undoing historic wrongs that manifest themselves so brutally and ferociously in the system."
Boudin endorsed the recent decision by the City to close Juvenile Hall and also supported closing County Jail Number Four. "Let's do it the first year that I'm in office."
He also pledged to personally make all charging decisions in officer-involved shootings, and throw out evidence tainted by bias and police misconduct.
Nancy Tung emphasized her experience as a prosecutor both in San Francisco and Alameda County, along with her local roots and support for "Community-Centered Justice." She stood out by voicing opposition to closing Juvenile Hall.
"It's like saying let's have cotton candy for breakfast," said Tung. "There's still going to be juveniles detained because a judge says they're too violent. When you have a child who at this point… We need to make sure that they're not removed from their community. Right now we have juvenile suspects we can't service here being shipped off to Los Angeles. What will their families do? Who's going to pay for their flights to LA?" Tung stressed a continued need for a juvenile detention facility, "even with a reduced footprint."
On police misconduct issues, Tung pointed out that she was the only candidate who actually had experience investigating police misconduct and who "had actually put bad cops away." She pledged to make misconduct prosecutions transparent, "making sure that the public and officers understand what we're doing, and that when the line is crossed, we're holding bad actors accountable."
Dautch emphasized a centrist reform agenda, touting his prosecutorial and management experience.
He touched upon his experience as President of the City's Juvenile Probation Commission, citing the current approach to juvenile justice as a model for other prosecutions. "I intend to stop Three Strikes sentencing because there's no room for baseball in our criminal courts."
He also called for "replacing reckless reform with thoughtful reform," proposing converting Juvenile Hall into a "Mental Health Justice Center" targeting juveniles and young adults, and increasing the speed and transparency of police misconduct cases, as examples.
Both debates provided gotcha opportunities for candidates.
Dautch touched on the current lawsuit filed by a rape victim against the City over rape kits, laying blame on Loftus, who responded with an account on how she investigated the problem and worked to change policy to resolve the issue.
Boudin went after Dautch over a redbaiting video attacking him, posted on social media by the Deputy Sheriffs Association, a Dautch endorser.
But the most significant gotcha moment may well have come from Nancy Tung against Chesa Boudin, over misdemeanor prosecutions.
"A common tactic of the Public Defender is to delay felony cases by flooding the courts with misdemeanors. Yet you deem those cases to be a waste of resources. How are you going to prevent this sort of gamesmanship?" asked Tung.
Boudin proposed cutting misdemeanor trials for what he termed "victimless crimes" such as first offender drunk driving, to some surprise from both Tung and the crowd. "DUIs are important to try because of the danger they represent to everyone in the community," she shot back.
This exchange would come back to haunt Boudin.
The following day, the candidates met a clearly different crowd at the County Fair Building in Golden Gate Park. This debate was sponsored by Stop Crime SF plus other groups, including the Coalition on San Francisco Neighborhoods.
"Most of us are interested in law and order issues. It'll be interesting to see which candidates cater to that, in different ways than they have in other parts of the City," said Stop Crime SF vice president and moderator Joel Engardio.
The discussion was dominated by the topic of neighborhood property crime. Engardio started off by asking everyone how many had their cars broken into recently. More than a few hands shot up.
Loftus emphasized neighborhood-based solutions, and working to stop the "blame game" between the District Attorney's office and the Police Department over arrests versus charging decisions. "We need a DA who is deeply rooted in San Francisco, who understands the problems that we face, and has a track record of working with the community to change outcomes."
Boudin again stressed the role of deemphasizing minor crimes to pursue more serious offenses more effectively.
"Less than 2% of reported auto burglaries resulted in arrests. It's impossible for the DA to prosecute someone who isn't arrested… It's not helpful to have more laws to punish people more harshly if we aren't focused on how to prevent crimes that are occurring."
Dautch emphasized his experience in both prosecutions and team management to deal with what he described as the morale and leadership problems plaguing the DA's office.
"I handle felony convictions from the 18 northernmost counties in California. We see the good, the bad, and the ugly. All too often, the ugly is coming out of San Francisco. There is a serious morale problem."
In addition to her trial experience, Tung emphasized her work with debate sponsor Stop Crime SF on issues like safety cameras. When asked about a state initiative slated for 2020 that would amend Prop 47, Tung said it was "worth looking at."
"Just because there may be increased penalties, it doesn't mean prosecutors will go hard on every case. We'll just have more tools we can use constructively. Right now our merchant corridors are suffering. There are thieves going in and stealing $949 worth of merchandise at a time, it's a giant problem, causing stores to close... What we're doing by ignoring property crime is really affecting our neighborhoods… if it's put to the people, and they say yes, let's use it."
Other candidates weren't big on the idea. Loftus emphasized changing prosecutorial strategies to adapt to the new legal environment. She cited how property crimes in San Joaquin County actually went down because agencies worked together to target them better.
Dautch recommended starting "a five-person auto burglary task force to handle the charging decisions for these cases," mostly committed by organized crews from out of town. "San Mateo and Santa Clara counties are already doing this."
Later on, Boudin came under attack again over his remarks on misdemeanors. Loftus talked about how traffic fatalities were outpacing homicides in San Francisco and asked him, "if you dismiss traffic fatalities as accidents, what are you going to do to keep our streets safe?"
Tung joined in, asking how he could "justify taking trials off the table for defendants who are putting the public at risk when the average drunk driver has offended over 80 times before his first arrest?"
Boudin doubled down. "Do we really want a third of our time going into these, or do we want to devote more serious crimes? I want people to be held accountable for drunk driving, but I don't want them clogging our courts."
Voters can count on hearing this issue again between now and November. Last night, Tung's campaign sent a fundraising email to supporters with the following:
"It's incredibly irresponsible for a candidate to tell drunk drivers he won't prosecute them if they haven't been caught before. But that's what my opponent is doing. He's also already outraised us 4-1 and I need your help to fight back."
The candidates meet again in another debate, sponsored by the San Francisco Reentry Council, on Thursday, August 22, at 5:30 PM, in the Koret Auditorium of the Main Library.