San Francisco – District Attorney candidates vying for an open seat in November met at the UC Hastings Law School on Tuesday in a candidates forum sponsored by Eastern Neighborhood Democratic Club, ACLU of Northern California, Indivisible San Francisco, and Willie B. Kennedy Democratic Club.
All four candidates – Chesa Boudin, Leif Dautch, Suzy Loftus and Nancy Tung – participated. Organizers estimated 350 people were in attendance. The forum was moderated by Yoel Haile of the ACLU.
The debate got lively when the candidates were allowed to ask each other their own questions.
Chesa Boudin asked Leif Dautch about an incident following the Deputy Sheriff Association Endorsement of Mr. Dautch, where the group attacked Mr. Boudin and put out a video created by the John Birch Society.
He noted, “That’s an organization that believes the civil rights movement is a communist plot.”
Given that they took a clean campaign pledge, what did Mr. Dautch do in response?
“I issued the clean campaign pledge, saying I would have no personal attacks on any other campaigns, I also wouldn’t take money from anyone in the DA’s office and I wouldn’t take money from the bail industry,” Mr. Dautch responded. “As soon as I saw that video, I put out a statement publicly renouncing it.
“I made it clear that that’s not the sort of campaign that I’m running,” he added. He pointed out since that conversation that there hasn’t been any repetition of this incident.
Nancy Tung said that the “public defender’s office strategically delays felony cases from going to trial, by flooding the courts with misdemeanor trials.” She noted that Mr. Boudin has said that misdemeanor trials are a tremendous waste of resources.
She asked Mr. Boudin, “How would you if you are elected district attorney, prevent public defenders, currently your colleagues, from engaging in this type of gamesmanship?”
Chesa Boudin said he may be the only progressive candidate in the country, not seeking an expanded budget in his first term in office.
He said that half of the misdemeanors going to trial are victimless crimes – he will see to it that those “don’t go to trial.”
He accused “career prosecutors” of being unable to “fix this broken market place for resolving cases.” He said that 90 percent of cases get resolved without going to trial, but these cases are clogging the court because the offers being made are made by people “who don’t understand the incentives of the people committing the crimes.” He added, “I do.”
He pledged to reduce the number of jury trials by at least one third in his first six months.
One group he wanted to target – misdemeanor DUIs, first offenders, no victims. “Those are the cases that clog the courts,” he said. “Those are the cases that can be resolved through treatment… rather than wasting our tax dollars by clogging up a courtroom that should be used to try a murder or a rape.”
Nancy Tung used her rebuttal to say, “I think driving under the influence cases are some of the most important misdemeanors that we try in the San Francisco District Attorney’s office because that is the intervention point for people who have decided they’re going to put your lives on the line… by driving under the influence.”
She said this was about making sure people get treatment with these convictions. “It’s critically important that we make sure our streets are safe,” she added.
Leif Dautch asked Suzy Loftus, given that she did not sign a pledge to not take money from people in the DA’s office, how she would ensure that there will not be favoritism to those who gave thousands to her campaign.
“I made my own pledge,” she said. “I looked at the kind of campaign I want to run.. I committed to not soliciting contributions from any city employees at all.” DAs and Public Defenders are included in that.
She noted that when the Public Defenders lost Jeff Adachi, “that office made a large plea that people that work in that office should decide who their boss is. So no one has actually challenged the person who was appointed.”
She said, “There are people in the DA’s office who work hard every day, and they want to be a part of the reform efforts. They want to be part of a vision that looks at a different way to build safety. If I have earned any of their support, I’m honored.”
Leif Dautch clarified their pledge, “We would not solicit or accept any donations within the DA’s office.” He added, “The pledge that Suzy took, not to solicit city employees, is the bare minimum requirements of the law, which I don’t think is much of a pledge at all.”
Suzy Loftus asked Nancy Tung what the role of prevention is as a DA.
“There’s a lot we can do within the community in order to make communities safer and stop crime from happening,” Nancy Tung said, suggesting that we invest in violence prevention programs. “That’s one of the ways that we can participate in prevention rather than see what we do when someone ends up in the criminal justice system.”
Chesa Boudin added two points in rebuttal, pointing out the huge numbers who are drug-addicted, mentally ill, or both.
“If we continue to dump this mental health crisis on the county jail, we are never going to decrease the crime statistics,” he said.
He added that many of the kids who joined him, visiting their parents in prison, ended up incarcerated themselves – and therefore reducing incarceration is a way to reduce mass incarceration in future generations.
Nancy Tung started the second round, asking Suzy Loftus about her experience as a woman in law enforcement.
“There’s not enough of us,” Suzy Loftus said. “We do not have enough women in law enforcement who are doing justice.”
She noted that Kamala Harris gave a speech in a domestic violence event and said that “the prosecutor is the one person in the courtroom whose job it is to do justice.”
“You got one job and that’s to do justice,” she said.
She also said she encountered bias from people in the office when she was pregnant, saying, “I was a disappointment because I’m going to be a mom rather than a real prosecutor.”
Leif Dautch asked Suzy Loftus about a case in which she has been sued by Heather Marlow because her rape kit went untested for years. Given this, he asked, “How can we trust that you will deliver justice for survivors of sexual assault?”
“What happened to Heather Marlow is a tragedy,” Ms. Loftus responded. “As soon as I learned of it as president of the police commission, I got to action.
“No one on this stage has done more than me to help victims of sexual violence,” she said.
She said that backlogs were being created because sergeants in the sexual violence unit had discretion as to which rape kits got tested. “If I believe you, I’m going to send this kit to the crime lab. If I don’t believe you, I’m going to send this kit to the property room,” she said. “The victim was never told. There was no investigation.
“We took away that discretion,” she said, and required that each kit got tested within 120 days.
Suzy Loftus asked Chesa Boudin what he has done to protect victims of homicide and gun violence in and outside of the courtroom.
Mr. Boudin responded, saying that a year ago he had a client who was the victim of attempted homicide, and it was caught on video which they uncovered through investigation.
“It turned out there was a warrant that identified by name the person who attempted the murder against my client,” he said. “That sergeant learned that the person was actually a police informant. He decided not to arrest him, to allow him to continue targeting my client.”
When the client defended himself, “he was arrested and charged.” That case was ultimately dismissed because the DA’s office and police department “refused to disclose that they had a hired hitman on their payroll.
“They’re trying to cover up their dirty deeds,” he said.
He said that no one called the police to report that shooting – 12 shots fired, broad daylight. He said that until “we restore the trust with the police, we will never be safe.”
Suzy Loftus responded, “The interesting thing listening to that story, it’s entirely based on the perspective of a defense attorney representing a client.”
Chesa Boudin asked Suzy Loftus about the sanctuary city policy, noting that she had worked for Kamala Harris, who opposed that policy. He said, “She even handed over kids to ICE, you never spoke out against that, are you willing to do so today?”
“Sanctuary city is critical to who we are as a city today,” she responded. “I’ve often said that sanctuary city makes us more safe.
“There’s no place for local law enforcement to care about what your status is,” she added. “In the climate that we’re in with Donald Trump, we all need to speak with one voice.
“Right now what we’re seeing is that domestic violence victims are not calling the police, because their abuser is saying, Trump, is going to deport you.” She said to forget about 10 years ago, “right now we’re in a crisis.”
She added, “We don’t care about what your status is, what we care about is making you safe.”
Chesa Boudin said that was a yes or no question, and she didn’t answer it. “The reality is that there is one of us on this stage that has been committed to immigrants’ rights since way before it was a popular thing to do.”
He added, “I’m the only one who is committed to creating an immigrant defense unit within the district attorney’s office.”
Nancy Tung said, “Chesa if you were running for public defender, I would vote for you.”
Leif Dautch in his rebuttal said, “I have seen the benefits of our sanctuary city policy, I’m proud to live in the sanctuary city.”
He told the story of a rape victim, afraid to come forward, but was willing to do so because of the sanctuary city policy – which led to a serial rapist being convicted and sentenced to 116 years.
“It only happened because of our sanctuary city policy,” he said.
—David M. Greenwald reporting