By David M. Greenwald
San Francisco, CA – Gil Duran yesterday in the NY Times delivered what I think is one of the better media takes that I have read so far on the San Francisco recall—and it contains a stark warning to the political leadership of the Democratic Party which has taken cities and places like California for granted.
Duran argues the results last week “conveyed a warning to Democrats about the political threat posed by rising public anger toward the increasingly visible poverty and disorder on city streets — in this case, San Francisco’s.”
DA Boudin “became a scapegoat for the city’s social ills,” but Duran warns, “His loss in a recall attempt had much to do with California’s chronic failure to deal with homelessness, mental illness and poverty. These issues will persist without him.”
Further, “What his ouster was not, despite claims to the contrary, was a clear rebuke to the movement for criminal justice reform in California: State primaries delivered victories for that very movement.”
Duran writes that “the conflation of criminal-justice reform with urban disorder is a threat to Democrats across the country.”
This is what happened to the left in the 1960s—the civil rights movement and the war on poverty dissolved into a white backlash and a war on crime, when the left either failed to address rising crime rates and the conflation of urban riots with urban disorder that led to a generation of losses for the left nationally.
Duran is correct when he writes, “The recall made Mr. Boudin an emblem of the city’s dysfunctions, but its problems predate his election in 2019, and conservatives have long derided ‘San Fransicko’ as a symbol of the Democratic Party’s excesses and failures.
“Democrats should heed the signal sent by voters here who directed their wrath at a neophyte politician. This vulnerability will persist in the wake of the recall because the city’s problems provide an irresistibly visceral way to portray the shortcomings of Democratic leadership.”
But as Governor Newsom said after the recall election, “People want the streets cleaned up.” They want “a sense of order, from the disorder they’re feeling” in parts of the city.
To me one of the biggest problems is that this is a narrative problem.
As Duran points out, “There seems to be a growing sense of impatience and exasperation, a general ‘feeling’ that the streets are unsafe, regardless of what statistics say.”
For Duran, “the thing is, data and statistics also say that California’s crime rates are at historic lows. That’s why Mr. Boudin’s overthrow probably represented an expression of frustration, not a true referendum on reform.”
What troubles me is the role that the media have played in this. I got a birdseye view of San Francisco from 2019 to the present. What I saw was the media blowing up incidents in the early days of the Boudin administration.
It took a long time for the media to do a good job of putting high profile incidents into proper context. The Troy McAllister incident was troubling, but if the McAllister incident is seen as a tragic exception to the rule rather than the embodiment of failed early release policies, it changes the narrative.
By the time the media did a good job of debunking the baseless allegations, it was already too late.
The op-ed by Judith Garvey, a former prosecutor under six San Francisco DAs, carried an important lesson about how deeply engrained this narrative became.
She wrote of entering CVS and was almost run into by a shoplifter leaving the store.
She writes, “I asked a clerk if they planned on calling the police and he said no because ‘the district attorney won’t prosecute.’”
That’s the narrative we have heard time and time again. It has seeped into the public consciousness.
Garvey responds, “I told him that I was an assistant district attorney and that’s simply not true. Boudin files charges for shoplifting — just like his predecessors. But this man, like many in our city, has been subjected to months of ads and recall rhetoric that is awash in falsehoods and outright lies.”
That’s the problem. Moreover, she told this story at the end of the campaign, when it needed to be told much earlier, like in the spring of 2021 when opinions were being formed by the community and businesses.
Duran cites the Examiner poll that “found strong support for the recall — and strong support for the criminal justice policies he embraced.”
It also “found that 66 percent of voters felt less safe than they did 10 years ago, with 64 percent indicating the presence of homeless and mentally ill people on the street as their top concern.”
As Governor Newsom put it, “And tag, the D.A. was it,” Duran writes, “meaning that Mr. Boudin took the blame for the city’s woes, many of which are beyond his jurisdiction.”
He goes on to show the success that progressives had on Tuesday.
There is another level here. And Duran does a good job of showing this one too.
He points out, “Mr. Boudin’s defeat is being portrayed as a sign of ordinary voters’ outrage, but the campaign to recall him was fueled by donations from a Republican billionaire and Peter Thiel acolytes like David Sacks.”
As he notes, “Republicans have now uncovered a rich vein of Democratic voter discontent.”
Republicans have now learned that they can go into the heart of Blue America and drive a wedge just as they could in 1968.
The issues that Boudin got hammered on were failures by Democrats—local, state, and national—to address biting social issues of poverty, mental illness, homelessness, housing and the like.
That’s aside from the pandemic, climate change, and the economy that is teetering on the brink. And where is the national leadership or even the state leadership?
Duran warns, “With enough political funding and strategy, San Francisco’s voter revolt could spread, sending a powerful message to the rest of the nation about the failures of progressive policy in this liberal bastion.”
The left better wake up. This was a shot across their bow. LA is next.