Special edition: California elections roundup
A special edition of this substack for people trying to wrap their heads around the election results from last night. Many races have gone to runoffs, and some have yet to be called, but this is my best understanding of what we know now.
CA Attorney General: The biggest story of the night is that Anne Marie Schubert, the retrograde, anti-reform prosecutor from Sacramento (former head of the CA DA’s association, who never filed charges in 72 killings by police) who stepped down to challenge progressive AG Rob Bonta in the California Attorney General race, failed miserably in her effort, ending with 7.5% of the vote. Schubert had hefty financial support from police unions and was staunchly carrying a message about crime control, but this got her nowhere. AG Bonta, a strong criminal justice reform leader, finished 36 points ahead of the next closest candidate and avoids a runoff. As Politico recently wrote, “Bonta’s fight to stay in office could be the most consequential contest in the deep-blue state — a bellwether of Democratic voters’ commitment to criminal justice reform.” The voters have now spoken! The utter collapse of Schubert’s campaign should serve as a warning to regressive challengers that the 90’s tough-on-crime playbook is no longer a free ticket into office.
Contra Costa DA: DA Diana Becton, who is the only Black elected prosecutor in CA and has been a leader on fair and just reforms in her office, handily-won her primary in Contra Costa County. She survived an attack from a challenger who, like Schubert in the AG race, tried to use her criminal justice reform bona fides as a weapon against her.
Alameda (Oakland) DA: Reform candidate Pam Price was the top vote getter in Alameda with 40% of the vote and will face a more moderate candidate in November. In 2018, she fell 15% shy of defeating the incumbent, who stepped down from office leaving an open seat (perhaps seeing that the electorate was no longer interested in her regressive policies), and now Price will be the frontrunner going into the general election.
Sacramento, Orange County, and Santa Clara DA races: Reform challengers did not prevail in other populous counties. Regressive Orange County DA Todd Spitzer, who had a huge campaign war chest, won his battle to stay in office, though he is now damaged goods (with less statewide and national influence), after several racism and sexual harassment scandals broke during the campaign. And in Sacramento, Alana Matthews came up short w/ 40% of the vote. The winner, Thien Ho, will be better than Schubert who left the seat to run for AG. He emphasized drug and mental health treatment, rehabilitation, and equity in his campaign. So, it’s a directionally good outcome. As for Santa Clara, Sajid Khan made a good first attempt and I hope he sticks with it to run again.
L.A. judges: In L.A., four progressive candidates for judge will go to a runoff. They campaigned together on a justice platform. See excellent coverage by Bolts here.
L.A. Sheriff: Sheriff Villanueva, who has disgraced himself in many ways, including by arresting a journalist for investigating his office, will finish with by far the worst primary result of any incumbent sheriff in county history, failing to avoid a runoff. Every single other candidate ran against him, and their voters will likely consolidate against him in the general election.
L.A. other races: meanwhile, candidates for city council, comptroller, and other key offices who are positioned as strong allies to reform came 1st or did very well (Mejia, Gill, Horvath, Hernandez, Yaroslavsky, Darling, Soto-Martinez, and Sandoval).
San Francisco DA: the hard loss of the evening was of course DA Chesa Boudin in San Francisco. The recall has little to do with any broader sentiment around the election of reform-minded prosecutors and even less to do with the appetite for criminal justice reform more broadly. Indeed, Schubert’s loss and Becton’s win, combined with dozens of recent electoral and legislative wins for criminal justice reform across the state, show ongoing strong report for reform.
DA Boudin’s loss is more a story of a bitter local political fight that spiraled out of control—enabled by a dangerously low-bar for recall efforts, magnified by a multi-year misinformation campaign, and deftly exploited by national special interest groups looking to gin up fear of crime. Here is one of many good pieces about these SF dynamics, again in Bolts.
Regressive forces poured over $7 million to claw back the DA seat from progressive Chesa Boudin, including nearly $1 million from a major Mitch McConnell donor. In this city with a population of about 875,000 people (25% smaller than Contra Costa), multiple forces piled on to defeat Chesa: Mayor London Breed and an embittered political establishment that was hostile to Boudin’s progressive leadership from day 1; billionaire Republican donors who took the opportunity to pour vast sums into the recall effort where there were no campaign contribution limits; the challenging conditions of the pandemic that both increased instability and prevented the type of in person organizing and conversations with voters that could have changed the trajectory here; a national right-wing media eager to seize upon opportunities to demonize progressives; and the general trend of recalling progressives (per the recent school board races).
The recall effort was often a fact-free zone – crime in San Francisco has been trending down, that the narratives about the streets of San Francisco were false – yet story after story suggested that it was going up.
The San Francisco tide began to change at the end of the race, with numerous papers and organizations recognizing these lies – all major papers in the city urged their readers to vote no on the recall, pointing out that Boudin was doing what he was elated to do (ending cash bail, prosecuting police for their crimes, cutting the incarcerated youth population in half), but it was too late. Many had started to notice that jurisdictions with pro-policing, pro-prison leaders were having worse crime spikes (such as Sacramento), yet that was not what had been relentlessly covered in the media and lifted up by San Francisco power players.
In the end, Boudin garnered 40% of the vote, far outperforming Schubert’s failed run, but coming up short to retain his seat. Now Mayor Breed will have the chance to install one of her political allies in the DA’s office. The real tragedy here is that the people of San Francisco have been sold the false expectation that a more regressive DA will alleviate the effects of deep inequality in the city. While they may try to arrest away the problem (we will be keeping a close eye on their efforts), their actions will ultimately result in more misery. On the bright side, Boudin’s policies have continued to inspire other local and national leaders, and will live on in other offices.
Polk County, IA: While it’s not California, we also want to lift up a great win in Polk County (Des Moines), Iowa’s largest county, where reform challenger Kimberly Graham defeated two regressive candidates and will replace a retiring 32-year incumbent. A win for reform prosecution in the heartland of America should give pause to those trying to make much of the implications of petty San Francisco politics.