The Billionaire-Funded Campaign Trying to Recall SF's Progressive DA Chesa Boudin

A Republican billionaire is behind the effort to oust San Francisco’s criminal justice reform-minded District Attorney.

Piper French

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin speaks at a press conference in protest of Mayor London Breed's plan for more policing and enforcement of laws that could affect drug users in the Tenderloin neighborhood on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021 in San Francisco, California. Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO — On the morning of Saturday, March 5, slugabed residents of San Francisco’s historic Painted Ladies awoke to the discordant sounds of bullhorns. Embattled District Attorney Chesa Boudin was launching his anti-recall campaign at Alamo Square Park.

This sort of banal confrontation, and its use as an emblem of racial conflict and criminal impunity, has been typical of the recall effort, which is speeding toward a June 7 election.

The recall is coming after me because we’re not limiting our prosecution to poor people of color,” Boudin tells In These Times. We’re also holding those in power accountable: operations that systematically steal from their employees, police officers who use excessive force, corrupt politicians and government appointees, manufacturers of ghost guns. That non-traditional, proactive approach to public safety and equal enforcement of the law is exactly why I’ve been targeted for a recall.” 

At the event, a small but vociferous contingent from opposition group Safer SF Without Boudin flexed their vocal cords from the sidewalk. The Boudin campaign, undeterred, turned up the sound system. At one point, an elderly white woman with a cane, wearing a Boudin pin, approached a younger, Asian American protester from Safer SF Without Boudin, complaining that the group was blocking the sidewalk. 

Nick Berg, president of a local property management company, posted a video of the confrontation on Twitter; in it, the older woman pushes the younger woman’s bullhorn away. Berg, who donated $2,500 to Safer SF Without Boudin’s PAC in 2021, captioned the video, Chesa Boudin supporter attacks Asian woman for protesting on the public sidewalk.” It garnered more than 7,700 views and spawned a flurry of comments from Boudin’s opponents, one of whom suggested Boudin’s soft on crime” approach emboldened the behavior. 

This sort of banal confrontation, and its use as an emblem of racial conflict and criminal impunity, has been typical of the recall effort, which is speeding toward a June 7 election. (A prior recall attempt failed to qualify for the ballot.) Boudin stands accused of neglecting the voices of crime victims, especially Asian Americans. He responds by pointing to his office’s creation of 10 new victim advocate positions, a significant expansion of the number of Chinese-speaking victim advocates, and partnerships with local nonprofits to help connect crime survivors with various city services. 

People are scared, people are being hurt — those are real issues,” says Tinisch Hollins, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice. (The organization does not make political endorsements.) Hollins, a crime survivor herself, works at the intersection of public safety and criminal justice reform. Victimization has been weaponized from the very beginning to try to justify the need for tough-on-crime policies,” Hollins says, but it hasn’t benefited victims very much.” 

According to Boudin, rather than offering nothing more than punitive justice, than the hollow satisfaction that comes from revenge,” his office is trying to hold those who commit crimes accountable in ways that prevent future crime, and also provide real services and supports for [victims] — not simply tell them to be satisfied with the death penalty or a life sentence.” 

Celi Tamayo-Lee, the March 5 event emcee, is co-director of SF Rising Action Fund, which organizes low-income communities of color. As a multiracial alliance,” Tamayo-Lee says, we are working really hard to ensure that the AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] community doesn’t become a wedge issue of criminal justice, because so many of the solutions being called to address AAPI hate crimes have been more police and harsher punishments.” (Tamayo-Lee is Asian-American.) Tamayo-Lee adds that the organization’s sister organization, SF Rising, is working with Boudin’s office and community organizations on a restorative justice collaborative, with the goal of offering space to mediate conflict outside of the traditional legal system. 

The extent to which the Boudin recall effort is truly a homegrown phenomenon remains nebulous. A recent poll by Boudin’s opposition claims 68 percent of voters — including a majority of Democrats — support the recall. But the Safer SF Without Boudin PAC spent tens of thousands of dollars in November and December on advertising and campaign consultants. One recall campaign donor alone — the Neighbors for a Better San Francisco PAC — has contributed nearly $1.8 million to the effort. That PAC’s largest contributor, by far, is Republican hedge fund manager William Oberndorf, a frequent benefactor of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and supporter of anti-homeless measures. 

Safer SF Without Boudin didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

The impact of that money has, at times, been highly visible. In summer 2021, for example, it was not uncommon to see paid, out-of-state recall signature gatherers on the streets, many of them young Black men. I think [the recall effort was] very intentional about having people of color, Black people, come to our events,” Hollins tells In These Times. She approached one gatherer who told her, It’s a job, I had no idea.” Boudin himself was even approached by recall signature gatherers while standing in line at the DMV. They didn’t recognize him. 

Of the recall campaigners, Boudin said: The T-shirts they’re wearing — the signs they’re carrying — were paid for by a Republican billionaire.”

Piper French is an independent journalist living in Los Angeles.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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