Commentary: If Progressive Prosecutors Are Bad, Why is Everyone Still Claiming the Mantle?

Chesa Boudin speaks in 2020 on a progressive prosecutor panel in San Francisco as Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins listens

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

The San Francisco recall is trying to thread a needle—Chesa Boudin is incompetent they say, they disagree with his policies, but at the same time, they are not wanting to roll back criminal justice reform.

As I opined last week, they don’t appear to know what criminal justice reform is, but they don’t want to roll it back—or at least that’s what they claim.

“I share in the opinion that the system is broken, and that Black and Latino defendants have been disenfranchised and disadvantaged in the criminal justice system throughout the history of this country,” Brooke Jenkins said.  “But what reform looks like is not simply deciding not to prosecute and is not simply that we will not hold criminal offenders in this city accountable.

“I don’t think we are calling for a tough-on-crime DA. What we’re calling for is a competent DA, a DA that, that places as a priority public safety.”

Later Don Du Bain added, “I’ve known plenty of progressive DAs in my time—Nancy O’Malley over in Alameda County, Jeff Reisig in Yolo County. Here in San Francisco we had both Kamala Harris and George Gascón, who were very progressive DAs and they were progressive because they created new innovative programs to try to keep our young people out of the criminal justice system in the first place.”

Of course, anyone calling O’Malley or Reisig progressive is clearly missing the point.  But it continues to show that, despite the perpetual attacks on progressive prosecutors from POAs (police officers’ associations) and the right, the notion that the criminal legal system is in need of reform remains a firm plank in most challenger’s arsenal.

Jeff Reisig of course has adroitly attempted to position himself between the more aggressive progressives like Boudin and Gascón on the one hand and traditional DAs like Sacramento’s Anne Marie Schubert on the other.

Reisig says he recognizes that the criminal justice world has changed and that he needs to adapt with it.

“I’m not an ideologue,” said Reisig in an interview with the Sacramento Bee.  “I’m not in the same category as hardcore progressives that are looking to fundamentally rip down the system and rebuild it. I view our job more as threading the needle of criminal justice reform and public safety at the same time.”

They note, “Their work contrasts with that of well-known progressives such as San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón. It’s a model that traditionalists like Sacramento’s Anne Marie Schubert can and should be emulating.”

While the Vanguard has consistently argued that Reisig is much closer to Schubert—to the point where there really is no difference in their actual policies.  But the fact that he pays lip service to progressive reforms is telling.

As for O’Malley, I asked Alameda DA Candidate Pamela Price about the Du Bain comment regarding the outgoing DA—she ran against O’Malley in 2018 and now is running to take her vacated seat.

Pamela Price was not familiar with Du Bain, but she noted, “Because it’s California and we’re overwhelmingly Democratic, and the Democratic Party is a big tent party, we people in our criminal justice system that have been so much part of the problem, but want to have been able to pretend that they are progressive, they take the label, that’s all it is.”

She said, “They take the label because they want the branding, but in practice, Nancy O’Malley has not been a progressive reformer at all for Alameda County.

“Our county is so far behind in terms of wrongful convictions and accountability for district attorneys and police accountability. I mean, by every measure, youth justice, we are horrible in terms of the racial disparities in this county. And that has been acceptable under Nancy O’Malley’s regime.”

She added, “Nancy O’Malley was bred and brought to us in the same line of district attorneys that we have been living under since the 1960s.”

Price added, “She has been able to effectively essentially deceive the public into believing that she’s progressive by adopting—when the term became popular, they adopted it.  It means nothing when you’re looking at who they really are.

“That’s what you have to look at—the policies,” she said.  “Anybody can say they’re progressive, but what have been their policies and what have been their practices and anybody that looks at Nancy O’Malley’s practices knows that she has not been a progressive performer in that office.”

A similar phenomenon appeared in the Alameda debate.

Terry Wiley—who is backed by outgoing incumbent Nancy O’Malley—said that “we have a district attorney’s office that needs new leadership.”

Price points out “he is of that office.  He is their champion.  He talks out of both side of his mouth.  On the one hand, yes, there are all these problems, but on the other hand, we’ve been doing so well.

“So it’s confusing,” she said.  “That’s the troubling part, is that his dialogue and his presentation is going to be confusing to voters.  And as a trial lawyer, if the people are confused that means you lose.”

Meanwhile, in Yolo County Reisig also talks out of both sides of his mouth.  On the one hand, he has cozied up with Measures For Justice and For the People on transparency and early release.  On the other hand, he opposes Prop, 47, signed onto litigation fighting various early release proposals and attacked his opponent as being pro-criminal.

In the same month, he appeared with reformers like Hillary Blout (For the People) and Nazgol Ghandnoosh from the Sentencing Project in a discussion of resentencing, as he unleashed an attack that took a page out of QAnon, accusing his opponent of taking thousands from convicted sex offenders and child rapists who are “seeking a soft on crime district attorney.”

In all three races, we thus see this carefully threaded needle, on the one hand attacking progressive prosecutors while at the same time embracing at least the pretense of progressive policies.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Bill Marshall

    Simple answer… counting likely votes… simple politics… easy answer to the question posed…

    Thinking that it comes from ethics, morals, philosophy, is likely “wishful thinking”, delusional, and simply incorrect, in the majority of cases…

    1. Keith Olson

      BM is correct.  It’s the same reason that we now see some progressive DA’s acting more like law and order DA’s in order to try and stave off recalls or to get elected. Maybe the Vanguard can do an article about too? Fat chance of that…

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