San Francisco – On Tuesday, the next domino fell as progressive DA candidate Tiffany Caban bucked the establishment, backed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and may well have pulled off another stunning upset for the progressive district attorney movement.
While media is calling it too close to call, the 31-year-old public defender held a narrow 1100 vote lead in Queens, N.Y., over the favored Melinda Katz. Ms. Caban declared victory and with just 3400 absentee ballots left to be counted, it seems highly unlikely the result would change.
Her victory would mark yet another win for the progressive DA movement that began in earnest in 2017 when Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney, stunned the nation by winning the DA’s race in Philadelphia.
On Thursday, the Vanguard was in San Francisco with a crowd of over 300 people watching night two of the Democratic Debate. On hand was activist Shaun King, campaigning for yet another in a long line of progressive DA candidates, 38-year-old Chesa Boudin.
Chesa Boudin told his group of supporters that he was humbled to be there with Shaun King, watching the debate and “reflecting how we make this country and this city places that reflect our values.”
Places, he said, “where we are proud and safe to call home.
“We saw what we are capable of doing with Shaun’s leadership, with people power, grassroots organizing,” he said. “We saw it with Tiffany Caban who everybody said had no chance, pulled off the impossible, just two days ago.”
He said that on Tuesday his team was phone banking. They got the news out of Queens and went to bed happy.
Mr. Boudin explained that he woke up the next morning with a text from Tiffany Caban.
“She said, I’m sorry Chesa that I have not been responsive to you the last couple of days. Then she said, ‘You’re next,’” he said.
He urged his supporters to work “to make San Francisco a city where the law is enforced equally. Where the promise of equal justice is not just a fallacy that is destroyed by money bail. And where we don’t treat people with mental illness and drug addiction with solitary confinement.”
He said, “Where we invest in our schools and our communities, not in building more steel cages where we put human beings in.”
Chesa Boudin spoke about the need to close juvenile hall but also to make sure children with parents behind bars had an opportunity to build a meaningful relationship with them.
“We are going to close county jail number four,” he said. “And we’re not going to replace it with a new jail because we don’t need new jails in San Francisco.”
Mr. Boudin, who has worked for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office since 2012 after graduating from Yale Law School, has already lived an unusual life.
At 14 months of age, his parents were arrested for their role as getaway car drivers in Rockland County, New York. His mother received 20 to life and his father, 75 to life, for the felony murders of two police officers and a security guard.
Even more unusual, he was raised by adoptive parents Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, who, like his parents, were members of the Weather Underground.
During his speech, Mr. Boudin explained that he grew up visiting his parents in prison.
“My parents were arrested when I was 14 months old,” he said. “My father is still incarcerated today. My mother did 22 years before she came home.”
He explained, “My earliest memories are getting searched by prison guards.” He said he remembers “walking through the lines of mostly black and brown women and children.
“Saying goodbye after those visits, never knowing whether to look back one last time, knowing that the price of touching me, of seeing more for my parents was getting strip-searched and then going back into the cages that they call home, that is the reality that every single person who wants to put another person in a cage should experience, should think about, should understand, and should take deadly seriously.”
If Mr. Boudin is to win, like many others he will have to buck the political establishment. Perhaps most prominent of the four major candidates is Suzy Loftus, who has worked in the SF DA’s office for over a decade and is herself running as a reformer.
The political establishment is backing her, led by Governor Gavin Newsom, Senator Kamala Harris – the predecessor to George Gascon, the current DA – as well as Mayor London Breed and Senator Scott Wiener.
But what Mr. Boudin may lack in political establishment support, he makes up in grassroots energy, which was on display on Thursday night.
Shaun King told the Vanguard, “San Francisco has an opportunity to lead the nation on criminal justice reform. I wish San Francisco was already doing that but they have a chance with Chesa Boudin to really step up and lead in a really powerful way.”
He added, “He lives in this city and he wants it to be safe and secure. But for all people.” He said, “That’s something the DA can do.
“San Francisco still has a lot of inequality,” he said. “He’ll address that. He’ll address the role of mental health and how mental health and poverty are often criminalized here in the Bay Area.
“I’m excited about the change he can bring,” Shaun King said. “He can win the race, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work.”
“Chesa is definitely on the front lines (of the progressive prosecutor movement),” he said. “I live in New York, and we just elected a bold, progressive, Latina, queer Tiffany Caban and she and Chesa share a lot of the same values and ideas.”
He felt that while Ms. Caban has pushed the envelope on what you can do, Chesa Boudin could do the same thing.
A large number of volunteers and organizers came out on Thursday to help mobilize and sign up the volunteers and foot soldiers in the movement.
Kaylah Williams, the campaign manager for Chesa Boudin, told the Vanguard that this event came together really in the previous week and a half. It brought out several hundred people – many of them young activists eager for change.
Ms. Williams explained that this is her third straight campaign that she has been involved in and they have mobilized her to seek change in things like income gap inequality and huge racial disparities in the system.
She was tired, but after meeting Chesa Boudin, she realized “how important it was to have equity in our criminal justice system.
“This is the real deal,” she told herself and she committed herself to spend the next 11 months trying to get him elected.
Ms. Williams explained, “Chesa was a dark horse coming out of the blue,” while other candidates seem to be sticking with the status quo. Many of the candidates, she said, “talk progressive but without doing all the progressive things. But now with Chesa running, there is actually a chance to radically change the office of district attorney.”
Roisin Isner, the finance director of the campaign, has a very personal story of involvement in the criminal justice system. When she was 17 years old, she was the victim of violent crime.
“My index finger was amputated following an explosion,” she said. “I really wasn’t happy with the way the district attorney was approaching the case. They were very focused on winning a conviction. They were very zealous on wanting to prosecute someone.”
She said, “The emphasis was all on a conviction and I felt there wasn’t an appropriate concern for victim well-being.”
She has become an advocate for restorative justice.
“In a punitive justice system, crime is viewed as an offense against the state and a victim is really evidence that that crime was committed,” she said. “I felt very exploited by the system so I became an advocate for restorative justice from a victim’s perspective, how it’s a much better system for victims.”
She didn’t know Chesa Boudin but saw he was a public defender and part of a national movement for progressive reform for prosecutors like Tiffany Caban and Larry Krasner.
“I saw that he was running on a true restorative justice platform and he had such an amazing experience,” she said.
Ms. Isner saw this as the next domino to fall.
“Seeing Tiffany’s success,” she said and added, “We’re in an even better position in San Francisco because of the way our campaign finance works.”
Unlike in other cities where big interests can bankroll campaigns, in San Francisco it is a $500 limit per person.
“Here the number of individual contributors actually matters,” she said.
The biggest focus of these progressive movements, however, is changing the tide of mass incarceration.
Mara Gay, a member of the NY Times editorial board, wrote in a column this week, “If Ms. Cabán’s lead holds, New York is likely to be added to the list of cities that have elected district attorneys who want to remake the criminal justice system to undo two decades of policies that led to the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of black and Latino Americans, too often for minor crimes and drug-related offenses.”
For Chesa Boudin, this is a key focus as well.
“If we are going to end mass incarceration…” Chesa Boudin said. “And we are. It starts with changing the people and the ideas that we put in the office of district attorney.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting