On June 7, San Franciscans voted overwhelmingly to recall their city’s progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin, from office—an outcome foreshadowed by pre-election polling showing that a majority of residents were so tired of Boudin’s soft-on-crime policies that they were willing to fire him after just two years on the job. Some election postmortems have asked whether Boudin’s recall portends broader challenges for progressives in 2022, and that remains to be seen. Meantime, observers would do well to understand the vital role that San Francisco’s Asian voters played in the Boudin recall.
After helping to unseat three progressive school board members earlier this year, San Francisco’s Asian-American community served up an impressive encore last week. Asians’ rejection of Boudin’s version of criminal-justice reform, in tandem with their dislike of progressive education policies, complicates Democrats’ (and some Republicans’) favorite bit of conventional wisdom that “demographics are destiny.”
In the early 2000s, political scientists Ruy Teixeira and John B. Judis argued that the country’s shifting demographics were giving rise to a new Democratic coalition, one in which racial minorities would come to play a central role. President Barack Obama’s electoral coalitions in 2008 and 2012 appeared to validate these claims. Republicans looked to be in deep trouble amid the nation’s increasingly nonwhite electorate.
But in our own analyses of San Francisco’s school board and district attorney recall elections, we find evidence that the “demographics is destiny” thesis is—at least at the local level—far more complicated for Asian voters. In short, many Asian voters appear skeptical about the policies espoused by the most progressive wing of the Democratic Party, particularly when it comes to crime and admissions policies in education.
Before examining data on the Boudin election, consider some anecdotes. Mallory Moench, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, revealed a telling exchange that she had with Jade Tu, a resident of San Francisco’s Sunset District, the night of the recall election. Tu had been volunteering for the pro-recall campaign since 3:55 a.m. that morning. “She never got involved in politics before,” Moench wrote, “but felt compelled as she saw attacks, some fatal, against Asian Americans, and what she felt was a lack of empathy and consequences from Boudin.” Tu told Moench: “I just want hard criminals to be prosecuted and those who deserve a second chance to get a second chance. When someone murders someone, they don’t deserve a second chance. I care about my community, and they are suffering because of policies. [Boudin] needs to go.” Similarly, the San Francisco Examiner interviewed a 64-year-old Chinese American woman named Wai-fong Lam who, despite having arrived in the U.S. from China almost 40 years ago, had voted in only two elections: this one, and the recall of three progressive members of the San Francisco School Board back in February. “I don’t understand politics, and I barely even speak English,” Lam said to the Examiner in Cantonese, “but I do know that we no longer feel safe in this city, and that my grandchildren’s good grades will no longer be enough to get them into the best public schools. Someone needs to be held accountable.” Kit Lam, a Chinese-American parent and activist who spearheaded the school board recall and was also involved in the effort to remove Boudin, told the paper: “This is just the beginning. A lot of Asian immigrant parents were just too busy to pay attention to politics, but the recent events have provided us an opportunity and incentive to form a mechanism to organize and mobilize.”
As in other cities, that mobilization extends to political activism. Mary Jung, the former chairwoman of the San Francisco Democratic Party, spent the last several months as chairwoman of the Safer SF Without Boudin campaign. “[Boudin’s] failure has directly resulted in increased crime against Asian Americans,” Jung said on the campaign’s website. “The number of anti-Asian crimes has increased six-fold, but he is refusing to prosecute violent attacks as hate crimes and has allowed perpetrators to get away with only misdemeanor charges.”
Our evaluation of two key data points largely validates the anecdotal evidence showing that Asian-Americans played a key role in ousting Boudin. We compared support for the recall across the city’s 11 supervisor districts relative to the share of registered voters in each district who requested a Chinese language ballot. In the three districts with the smallest share of Chinese ballots (2 percent or less), just 50 percent of voters supported the recall (5 percentage points less than the citywide average). In contrast, in the three supervisor districts with the highest share of Chinese language ballot registrants (10 percent or more), 65 percent of voters voted to recall Boudin.
We also examined another measure of citizen support for the recall: campaign donations. Using publicly available campaign-finance data, we examined the share of donors to the pro- and anti-Boudin campaign committees who had Asian surnames. What we found largely confirmed the thesis that the pro-recall movement drew heavily on Asian support. Notably, one in five individual contributors to the Boudin recall effort had an Asian surname. By contrast, a much smaller share of pro-Boudin contributors (closer to one in ten) had an Asian surname. What’s more, 17 percent of all of the anti-Boudin money raised via individual contributions came from Asian donors, whereas less than 13 percent of such money on the pro-Boudin side came from contributors with Asian surnames.
While Asian residents of one of the nation’s most progressive cities are unlikely to become reliable Republicans, these dynamics suggest that many of these voters have begun to feel meaningful political cross-pressures. Democrats have embraced positions on education and crime that are unpopular with many Asian voters, including recent immigrants. With Asian-Americans representing the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the United States, events like the Boudin recall suggest that a potentially major national political development may be underway.
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