Current San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón’s decision not to run for reelection makes this Nov. 5 more important than ever. Not since William Langdon stepped aside in 1909 has the city had a district attorney race without an incumbent. As I wrote in my last Reynolds Rap (“State of emergency,” Marina Times, Sept. 2019), San Francisco is in the midst of a full-blown crisis, with rampant drugs, homelessness, and mental illness — and violent crimes as well as “quality of life” crimes resulting from various combinations of the three. The new district attorney will inherit this mess, and he or she must be willing to go after drug dealers relentlessly, hold drug users accountable for their bad behavior, and send a clear message to auto burglars that they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The new district attorney will also need to lead a robust effort to conserve people so mentally ill they can’t care for themselves or negatively impact the lives of others.
I saw a few glimmers of hope while watching a recent district attorney debate, but I don’t feel any of the four candidates, other than San Francisco deputy public defender Chesa Boudin, really distinguished themselves. Of course, the reason Boudin stands out is by virtue of being the “only person on the stage to never prosecute a case.” He proudly mentioned that several times, which I found odd. The job he’s vying for is “top cop” — by definition, a fierce prosecutor — so Boudin basically disqualified himself. Boudin is unapologetically sympathetic to defendants, favoring a “help them, don’t jail them” system, which stems from firsthand experience. When he was a baby, his parents — members of the militant group Weather Underground — were involved in the infamous 1981 Brinks armored car robbery outside New York City where two police officers and a security guard were killed. His mother served 22 years in prison and his father is still incarcerated. The issue Boudin is most passionate about, though, is ending cash bail, which I totally get. Bail should be based on the seriousness of the crime and flight risk, not on the defendant’s wallet. How big a priority is cash bail for San Francisco voters? I’d say pretty low.
Front-runner Suzy Loftus has endorsements from a who’s who of current and former San Francisco politicians, including Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, Assemblyman David Chiu, state Senator Scott Wiener, and Mayor London Breed. Critics say she’s too entrenched in that circle to be independent. Currently an attorney for the sheriff’s office, Loftus has served on the Police Commission (something she frequently touts) and as a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office under Harris. Loftus did have a standout moment during the debate: After Boudin talked about moving the city away from “mass incarceration,” she noted that San Francisco has the nation’s lowest incarceration rates (half that of California and one-third that of the rest of the country). With drug dealers and car burglars released by judges within hours of being arrested, I think most San Franciscans would say lax incarceration is the problem. But Loftus doesn’t talk very tough on crime. She supports Supervisor Matt Haney’s desire for a task force to study the Tenderloin’s open-air drug bazaar. She also wants to bring drug dealers before a neighborhood panel to hear about the impact of their crimes. Frankly, most San Franciscans are tired of task forces, studies, and criminal coddling — they just want a district attorney who puts drug dealers in jail.
With Leif Dautch, a fresh face belies an impressive resume. A 34-year-old deputy attorney general for California, he served as president of the San Francisco’s Juvenile Probation Commission from 2016 to 2018 and has tried more than 400 cases, from trials to arguing before the California Supreme Court. While he lives in Cow Hollow, his office is in the Tenderloin, so he’s well aware of the catastrophic effect drugs and mental illness are having on that neighborhood. He also has firsthand knowledge of the juvenile justice system — his mother was a juvenile hall nurse who brought 12 foster kids home (they adopted two). He wants to turn San Francisco’s juvenile hall (set to shutter in 2021) into a mental health justice center with short-term care as well as a locked facility for those who have been conserved. He’s tougher than Loftus on dealers, saying they should be prosecuted to the fullest degree, but he’s soft on users, supporting optional treatment and safe injection sites. I prefer a model like Austin’s Community First Village (“Dignity through accountability,” Marina Times, Aug. 2019), where residents, many of them addicts or recovering addicts, must work and pay rent. They have an 89 percent success rate, which is more than we can say after years of letting addicts chart their own course.
Nancy Tung worked in the state attorney general’s office before spending 11 years as a San Francisco prosecutor, where she served under Gascón (she recently moved to the Alameda County district attorney’s office). Tung was the only candidate at the debate to criticize the failure of Judge Christine Van Aken to keep the Watermark condo attack suspect in jail. I am a longtime advocate of holding lenient judges accountable, so for me that was key. Tung also supports the federal government’s crackdown on open-air drug dealing, and believes police should take passed out users off the streets and to treatment facilities. Of the four candidates, Tung talks the toughest.
When it comes to the Tenderloin drug epidemic, however, only Boudin didn’t contradict himself. As an unwavering supporter of all things sanctuary city, Boudin wants help and understanding for the Hondos — a nickname given to young undocumented Honduran men commuting mostly from the East Bay to flood the Tenderloin with meth and heroin. All three prosecutors said they wanted to stop drug dealers, but also declared support for sanctuary city policies (like not cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) that inadvertently protect criminals like the Hondos. While Tung and Dautch earn my ranked choice votes (one and two, respectively) I might feel more strongly about one of them had they said, “If I’m elected district attorney, the Feds won’t have to get rid of the Hondos, because I’ll do it myself.”
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