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California’s Elections Sent an Important Message. What Is It?

Derek and author Ron Brownstein discuss the San Francisco recall of Chesa Boudin and Rick Caruso’s showing in the L.A. mayoral primary

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Today’s episode is about two California elections and the message they sent to the rest of the country. In San Francisco, progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin was recalled by voters after years of complaints about the rise of disorder, shoplifting, and homelessness in the city. In Los Angeles, Republican turned Democrat billionaire Rick Caruso had a strong showing running as a crimefighter in the L.A. mayoral primary.

In the late 1970s, politics was defined by two topics: crime and inflation. Well, look around today: Various measures of crime are weighing on people, and inflation is near its 40-year high. Are we stepping into a time machine that’s taking us back to the ’70s?

To answer that question, we have journalist and author Ron Brownstein, a CNN senior political analyst, writer for The Atlantic, and author of the book Rock Me on the Water: 1974, the Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, TV, and Politics. So if we are headed back to the ’70s in a newly waxed maroon Pontiac Grand Am, this is the guy who can tell us what it means.

In this excerpt, Derek and Ron discuss the recall of San Francisco progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin, and potential takeaways for politics in Democratic cities.

Derek Thompson: Ron, I want to break this show into two parts. We’ll talk about these California elections, and then I want to talk about what they might mean nationally and for the future of politics. So, we’ll start in San Francisco and the recall of progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin. Ron, what was this recall all about?

Ron Brownstein: Fundamentally, it was about public order and public safety. There are, as always, many complicating factors. The supporters of Boudin will point to the big role played by some Republican donors, some big tech entrepreneurs who have a lot of money, and the police unions, and elements of his own office that fought him from the beginning—a combination of the Republican minority, the state minority in the city, and the entrenched law enforcement interest. There’s no doubt that was part of the story, but in a city like San Francisco, where Republicans are less than 10 percent of registered voters, this could not have gotten this far unless there was also a broad range of ordinarily Democratic-leaning voters who were very dissatisfied with what was happening.

The crime trends in San Francisco were not unequivocal. I mean, some categories of crime were going up. Others were going down. I think what hurt him even more than crime per se, and, certainly, this is going to be the case when we talk about Los Angeles, was a broader sense of disorder, of the city losing control of the streets to people who are using drugs on the streets, who are obviously suffering from mental illness. In San Francisco, as in L.A., it has become very difficult to get through your day without encountering someone who seems a threat to themselves or to others. I think his recall, above all, shows us that when order is removed from voters’ lives, they don’t like it, and they want government to focus on providing that order. More than one person has said, I think accurately, that, “As the district attorney, he continued to see himself primarily as a public defender.”

The big story for Democrats here, I think, out of this, is not that Americans, in general, but certainly Democrats in particular and Democratic-led cities in particular, have not abandoned the cause of criminal justice reform. That’s a mistake. People are not erasing the tape as if the summer of 2020 had not happened, but I think what is being demanded here, what Democratic voters are demanding in San Francisco and also in L.A., is a recalibration. I think Boudin gave the impression that reform of the system, reducing incarceration was almost his sole goal. I think what voters are saying is that that has to be balanced against the necessity for public safety and public order.

I wrote in a piece earlier this spring in The Atlantic that both Boudin and the DA in L.A., George Gascón, who is facing his own recall that may reach the ballot this fall, they have both allowed the perception to develop through their choices that they are more concerned about the relative minority of people who are ever accused of crime than they are about the vast majority of the citizenry whose principal concern with the criminal justice system is that it keep them safe. I don’t think you have to abandon the former in a Democratic city, but you can’t seem to abandon the latter, either.

Thompson: Yeah. That’s a real interesting way of putting it. One theory that I had that maybe I’ll take out for a test drive here is, you know Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the pyramid? All right. For people who aren’t familiar with Maslow and his pyramid hierarchy of needs, at the bottom, you have utter necessities for life, food and water, and then if food and water are provided for, you go up one level to safety needs, and then if safety needs are met, you go up one more level of needs to relationships, love, friendship. At the very, very tippy top, you have self-actualization. Am I achieving my full potential in life? OK. This is typically a theory about happiness, about satisfaction, about individual needs. It’s this idea that people who are starving aren’t concerned about whether they’re maximizing career opportunities, but I had a thought about whether or not this applies to progressive criminal justice policies.

If you are Chesa Boudin or if you’re a progressive criminal justice reformer, and you believe that the criminal justice system is flawed and needs to treat the rich and poor equally, doesn’t burden non-white Americans, you have a lot of utopian ideas about how to change the prison system, you can do that. That’s a noble goal, but that’s at the top of the pyramid, and voters will only go for it so long as foundational needs are met, foundational needs like public safety, public order, public trust. Maybe what Boudin lost is the faith among his constituents that he was meeting those foundational needs in order to focus on the top of the pyramid.

Brownstein: I think that I completely agree. I think that’s a really good way of thinking about it. As Rush Limbaugh would’ve said, “Ditto.” Look, I think that for most people in any community, the bare minimum requirement of the criminal justice system is that it keep them safe to the greatest degree possible, and that further, that when you are running to be the prosecutor, you have to accept that that is part of your job. Your focus cannot be solely on increasing the supply of justice, in effect, in the community. You also have to deal with bad guys. One Democratic consultant said to me early on in this, “If you don’t accept your job description, you’re asking for trouble.”

This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Ron Brownstein
Producer: Devon Manze

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