Voters in last week’s elections soundly rejected criminal justice reformers in Orange County and San Francisco, sparking debate about the future of California’s progressive movement and the fate of the recall campaign against progressive Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon.
Despite their differences, there is one thing tough-on-crime and progressive factions can both agree on: fear is a great motivator. Whether that fear is well-placed or the product of political spin, voters don’t like to feel unsafe and will mark their ballots accordingly, experts said.
“The ‘NIMBYism’ of California is that criminal justice reform is fine and good, as long as I’m not less safe,” said Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College. “They want reform in theory, they want reform in the abstract. … For all of California’s progressive reputation, we have always been and always will be tough on crime.”
That said, many experts counsel against reading too much into the landslide recall of progressive San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin in one of the nation’s most liberal communities. Boudin faced a well-funded campaign that played on the frustrations and fears of a public that blamed him for local smash-and-grab robberies.
Matt Lesenyie, an assistant political science professor at Cal State Long Beach, said San Francisco voters did not reject the progressive message, just the messenger.
“Was it a landslide repudiation of progressives? No,” Lesenyie said. “If there is a lesson to be learned, it’s who is the face of the movement? … Boudin isn’t a great mouthpiece.”
He added, “People in San Francisco still want to unwind the criminal justice system.”
Similarly, Lesenyie said, Gascon in Los Angeles County could be unfairly blamed if a major crime occurs.
“The worst thing that could happen to Gascon is a prominent case that could happen to any district attorney, some horrific murder,” he said.
Some reformers did well
Cristine Soto DeBerry, director of the progressive Prosecutors Alliance of California, said reformers did well in other California races. Incumbent Attorney General Rob Bonta sailed to a pending faceoff with GOP challenger Nathan Hochman in the November election. Incumbent Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton won re-election outright. And in Alameda County, civil rights lawyer Pamela Price was the lead vote-getter in the race for district attorney, heading to a November runoff.
“People want to point to the recall as a harbinger that reform is dead … but voters are not accepting that point of view,” DeBerry said. “The truth is reform is growing in this state. I don’t believe taxpayers want to continue to fund a failing system.”
One of the components of the progressive platform is that the criminal justice system has relied too long on incarceration as the answer to crime, rejecting the notion of rehabilitation. It is a system based on punishment as a deterrent, in which too many juveniles are charged as adults, too many people of color and those with mental illness are unfairly imprisoned. Yet crime remains unfettered.
“We’re not succeeding (in the criminal justice system) on any side of the equation,” DeBerry said. “Of course we want safety, but do we want it at the expense of all our values?”
In Orange County, incumbent District Attorney Todd Spitzer walloped his nearest opponent, Democratic progressive candidate Pete Hardin. Spitzer capitalized on one of Orange County’s biggest bugaboos — becoming like Los Angeles County.
The tactic worked despite Spitzer’s scandals, including his violation of the state Racial Justice Act in a double-murder case. No sanctions were issued, but Spitzer was soundly criticized for his statement during an internal meeting that some Black men date White women to enhance their status in the community.
‘Progressives need to listen’
When the campaigning was over late Tuesday, Spitzer told the Orange County Register that he was in favor of some reform and wanted to find common ground with Gascon and Boudin. He stressed that his reelection to a second term and Boudin’s recall were a referendum against the “excessives” of the progressive movement.
“When San Francisco rejects a progressive district attorney, the progressives need to listen,” Spitzer said. “People are sick and tired.”
Agreeing is Jon Fleischman, a conservative political consultant and publisher of the Flash Report website.
“The pendulum swung too far away from the people victimized by crime,” Fleischman said. “There’s overreach. (The reforms) all sound great until they don’t work in practice. If you’re afraid to go to the market, that’s pretty real. The sound-good policies of the left fail when they don’t keep people safe.”
In Spitzer’s case, politicos said his strategy of linking his chief opponent, Hardin, to a future of apocalyptic crime was “brilliant.”
“He defined Pete Hardin before Hardin ever got to introduce himself to the voters,” said Fullerton political scientist Balma.
She said Spitzer has been around Orange County politics for 30 years, as a school board member, county supervisor and state assemblyman, so long that people may have voted for him based on past accomplishments — despite his “ready, shoot, aim” reputation.
“Maybe they haven’t paid attention to his last four years as district attorney, but they remember he was against (putting) the airport in El Toro,” Balma said.
As Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University, put it: “Todd is a known commodity. They may not like him, but they trust Todd to be Todd.”