San Francisco–based journalist Erica Sandberg joins Brian Anderson to discuss the Chesa Boudin recall election, the broad-based coalition of voters who ousted the district attorney, and whether this week marks a mere blip for the city or the beginning of a new era.
Brian Anderson: Welcome to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal.
Joining me on today's show is Erica Sandberg. She's been on the show before. She's a consumer-finance reporter based in San Francisco, and she has covered homelessness, crime, and public order in the Bay Area for City Journal. Today, she joins us to discuss the ousting of San Francisco's progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin in a decisive recall election. And we'll talk about what it means for the city going forward.
So, Erica, thanks very much for joining us.
Erica Sandberg: Thanks so much for having me on.
Brian Anderson: Boudin was an unusually lax prosecutor, as became nationally recognized. He systematically declined to pursue entire classes of crimes, including shoplifting. He drastically curtailed fentanyl prosecutions, even as drug use and overdoses were rising fast in the city. He sent all sorts of offenders to diversion programs, as they're called, instead of jail time.
And as you detailed in a story for the City Journal website, voters have ousted him by an overwhelming margin, 60 to 40 percent, I think, on the last count. So how did this come about in what is widely recognized as the most progressive city in the country? Is this the story of ordinary San Franciscans just saying enough is enough? Or is it something that was really a kind of organized campaign put together by civic leaders, donors, grass root groups to remove an official who was, in their view, harming the city? Or is it a bit of both?
Erica Sandberg: Yeah, it's interesting. It has nothing to do with progressivism. It has nothing to do with labels. It has nothing to do with even politics. What it has to do with is the quality of life in San Francisco and dissension.
It is shocking how bad our communities have become. And crime was the motivating factor in this ousting. Crime absolutely increased under Chesa Boudin. It just did. Now, you can look at the numbers and you could say, "Well, it did in some areas and it didn't in other areas." At this stage, and I hate to sound jaded here, but at this stage it's a little difficult to look at those numbers and say, "Well, those are accurate," because they're just not. I don't think that you could find a single person who lives in the city who hasn't been directly or, at the very least, indirectly affected by crime. That did not used to be. It just didn't.
So, again, you could look at the numbers that are disseminated by different media outlets or by Chesa Boudin. And you can choose to believe that. Or you could choose to believe your own experiences, which are more accurate. At the end, I think we discovered last night who people did choose to believe, and that's themselves and their community members.
Brian Anderson: Yeah. This vote follows another kind of surprising vote, which was in February, the school board recall during which three progressive officials were removed from their roles. As the Manhattan Institute, adjunct fellow Michael Hartney wrote at the time, Asian-American voters upset with progressive policies were instrumental in that earlier recall in February. So, while we're still awaiting the release of kind of the real detail from this election, polling and reporting suggests this is indeed a similar story that San Francisco may be seeing the emergence of a kind of multi-ethnic coalition supporting common-sense policies on criminal justice, on education—rejecting a kind of extreme policy agenda that was being imposed on the city. Would you agree with that assessment?
Erica Sandberg: I would 100 percent agree with that assessment. I mean, it's interesting because you said the words, “common sense”—common sense policy. And that's why I do say that people tend not to define themselves here. What do you want? What is it that you're looking for? You want a good education for your children. You want to be able to walk down the street safely. You want to be able to park your car without the threat of it being broken into. Or any other great span of crimes that occur here. And the same thing with drug dealing, we see this on a daily basis, hard to get away from it. Even if you stayed in your home and you work from home now, eventually, maybe you're probably going to go to the airport, and you're going drive through, and you're going go downtown, it's in your face.
So, what people want is what everybody wants—what almost everybody wants—which is peace, security, safety, a sense of order, and a sense of justice. Justice has not been meted out. So, that really worked against this administration as well, which is here's this man who says that he wants to reform the justice system. To what end? Who got the justice here? It's certainly not to the people who have perished on our streets. It's certainly not to the small business owner who closed their business because they can no longer operate. And it's certainly not to visitors who come here, and see and experience the devastation. So it's really across the board. And the Boudin camp made so many mistakes. And part of it had to do with assuming that the residents here were with him, and had the same attitude. We don't. We didn't. And we won't.
Brian Anderson: And it does seem that Asian-Americans have played a big role in both of those political surprises, the school board recall, and now Boudin. You're watching things very closely out there, that's been true, right?
Erica Sandberg: Absolutely. There's been a huge uprising in the Asian-American community here. And that's been exciting to see because most of the time people do just tend to go about their business. This time, they really got involved. And the reason is because there's been an unprecedented number of attacks, both physically, but also their businesses. There's a huge contingent of small business owners who are Asian. And they were dramatically affected. So yeah, they stepped up.
And I went to the party last night—basically, the election watch party. And I looked around and what I saw was what San Francisco is. I saw the demographic, it was right there in front of me. It was what we have, a lot of Asians and they were representing. So, it was really interesting to see.
Brian Anderson: Now, Boudin became a kind of symbol for San Francisco's downward trajectory in recent years. An emblem not only of violence and disorder, but also of a wider failure by government officials in the city to just take public order seriously.
He's out of office now. Much of the attention that he was absorbing is now going to turn to the mayor, London Breed. She's a Democrat, she has progressive credentials. But, in recent months, she's displayed, like many San Franciscans, exasperation with the trends of drug use that you referred to, crime, homelessness. She decried in a widely discussed press conference, "The bullshit that has destroyed our city."
So first, I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about Breed's background? How did she arise to this office? And how would you characterize her tenure to date? And, with that in mind, do you think she's going be able to engineer a real change in governance that could push the city in a better direction?
Erica Sandberg: Yeah, I think London Breed has the capability. Does she have the willpower, and even the desire? That I can't say. She goes back and forth. We've seen her do some wonderful things. And we've heard her speak like what you just repeated: we've gotta stop the bullshit. And I think a lot of that is genuine. She's a San Franciscan. She was born and raised here. She was a supervisor. This is her city. And I have never gotten the impression from her that she does not love San Francisco. But just because you love something doesn't mean that you're going to take it in the right direction.
She's made some critical errors. She truly has. This Tenderloin Center that she opened up as part of the emergency declaration was a brilliant concept. It failed dramatically. That's a problem. That's a big problem. I believe she doesn't want people to see it as a failure. But if you go by, and I go by a lot, and I bring journalists, and I bring citizens and I say, "Take a look, does this look like, a success to you?" And it's laughable. So she's really made some major mistakes.
If she wants to keep her job, she's going to have to change. She really is. And she's going to have to react. We are all waiting now. Who is she going to appoint? Who is it? I have a guess. And I think if I'm right, I think that guess is the right guess. But we shall see. I hope, truly hope that she sees the writing on the wall that San Franciscans do not want this bullshit any longer, and we're ready to fight for it.
Brian Anderson: Well, speaking of the next DA, who do you think it's going to be?
Erica Sandberg: If I were a betting woman, I would guess Brooke Jenkins, who was with the DA's office. She left. She's young. She's smart. She's progressive. It's interesting because she says she's progressive, but I listen to her and I'm thinking—I really loathe labels. I don't know if you can detect that or not. But she's on the ball. And I think that she would be a very good successor.
Another person is Catherine Stefani, who is one of the supervisors. She's one of the most moderate of all our city supervisors. We shall see. So, at this stage, we're waiting.
Brian Anderson: And what do you think Boudin's future is politically after this? Does he have a future in San Francisco?
Erica Sandberg: He'll try to run again. Almost guaranteed, he will. And he does have a lot of people behind him. And I'm not going to demonize him. He is what he is. He loves what he loves. He's got his own perspective. He's absolutely not right for the job. He has been a dreadful, horrible DA, but he's committed. And he's got his ideas that are very near and dear to him. So yes, he will try again.
Brian Anderson: Now, there's a big essay published today in the Atlantic by Nellie Bowles, the journalist, who wrote that this recall may—this is an optimistic view—mark a turning point for the city. “There is a sense," she writes, "that, on everything from housing to schools, San Francisco has lost the plot—that progressive leaders here have been [role playing] left-wing values instead of working to create a livable city," she writes. So, do you think this could mark a turning point for San Fran? And if you were to project the next couple of years in the city's history, where do you think things are heading?
Erica Sandberg: Yeah, I think that Nellie got it right. I've been saying for some time now that San Francisco's like a cruise ship, and it takes a long time to make that turn. It's not a speed boat. It has a long arc. So, I absolutely believe that it is in that process of turning.
And I think this actually marks kind of a key change and the speed in which it's going to change. So, this is one. There's more to come. I think this is terrifying to people like Chesa Boudin and his supporters, the supervisors who were behind him, the journalists who were behind him. It's thrown them into a flurry. They don't know what to do right now. They were confident. And now what? So, I mean, to me there's a lot of kind of joy in that, I have to say. It's lovely to see a little bit of squirming because they made us squirm. So, I am optimistic, for sure.
Brian Anderson: It's a beautiful and great American city. So, I hope that optimistic scenario is true, or proves true.
Erica, thank you very much as always. Please keep reporting on the city for us. You've written so many great pieces. Readers can check out Erica Sandberg's work on the City Journal website, that's www.city-journal.org. We'll link to her author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And if you like what you've heard on today's podcast, please give us a ratings on iTunes. Erica, great to talk with you. Thanks for the update.
Erica Sandberg: Thank you, Brian.