The S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council held an interfaith candidate forum on Tuesday for the hotly contested district attorney seat in San Francisco. It was JCRC’s first candidate forum for the city’s top prosecutor job in recent memory, a JCRC spokesperson said.
But she’s facing an unexpected challenge from public defender Chesa Boudin, who has pledged to transform the criminal justice system and is nipping at Loftus’ heels. Deputy Attorney General Leif Dautch and first-generation Chinese American prosecutor Nancy Tung also participated in the forum.
All four Democrats are vying for a job that was held by Sen. Kamala Harris from 2004 to 2011 and is wide open for the first time in 100 years, with George Gascón deciding not to seek re-election on Nov. 5.
The Jewish Community High School of the Bay hosted the forum, the candidates’ 11th of the campaign season, Dautch said. It was co-sponsored by Calvary Presbyterian Church, Catholic Charities, Congregations Emanu-El and Sha’ar Zahav, Muslim Advocates and other religious organizations.
Rabbi Howard Ruben, head of school at JCHS, gave some introductory remarks that included a short d’var Torah on the commandment to pursue justice.
“I think the reason we’re all here tonight,” he said, “is because we’re trying to figure out — how do we enact justice in our community?”
The upstart Boudin, who is Jewish, is the only candidate without a background as a prosecutor. He’s a public defender running a reformist campaign with endorsements from Larry Krasner, the high-profile progressive district attorney of Philadelphia, and Our Revolution, the political action organization that spun out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
The United States is “addicted to incarceration,” Boudin said, citing a recent report that said nearly half of all Americans have an immediate family member who has been jailed.
“It matters to have someone who can see things from multiple perspectives,” he said.
In contrast to Boudin, Loftus has worked around law enforcement for most of her career (she’s now a lawyer in the San Francisco sheriff’s office). She’s positioned herself as a commonsense prosecutor, and a “fighter” who has advocated for police reforms such as body-worn cameras.
“We can be a city that is both safe and just,” she said.
Raised by an Irish immigrant mother in San Francisco, Loftus was leading in donations as of Friday, Sept. 13, with $412,000, followed by Boudin at $382,997, according to the city Ethics Commission. But with $86,000 set aside in a youth and families organization that supports him, Boudin could be considered the money leader.
Boudin’s outlook on criminal justice comes directly from personal experience. His parents were members of the radical anti-war Weather Underground movement of the 1960s and ’70s and were jailed after a botched robbery attempt in 1981, when Boudin was a baby.
Boudin, who was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and earned a degree from Yale Law School, was profiled in a 2002 New York Times piece under the headline: “From a Radical Background, a Rhodes Scholar Emerges.” Earlier this year, the Times revisited Boudin in “Dad’s in Prison, Mom Was on Parole. Their Son is Now Running for D.A.”
As a whole, the slate of candidates contains many firsts. Boudin, 39, whose father, David Gilbert, is still incarcerated, would be the first S.F. DA with a loved one behind bars; Loftus, 45, would be the second woman to hold the job and the first mother, she said to applause; Tung, 44, would be the first American of Chinese descent (and the first mom); and Dautch, 34, would be the youngest DA in San Francisco history.
“I think it’s really important to have generational leadership,” Dautch said. “When I woke up on Nov. 9, 2016 [the day after Donald Trump was elected president], I looked around and said this isn’t the country that I believed it was.”
The format was not a debate, but a forum, with candidates given one minute to respond to each question, plus deliver opening and closing statements. Topics included racism in the criminal justice system, sanctuary cities, gun violence and the recent rise in hate crimes locally and nationally. Many of the questions were prepared by religious and community leaders, including Rabbi Beth Singer of Emanu-El.
“With anti-Semitism and white supremacy on the rise, and mass shootings taking place in our cherished houses of worship,” Singer asked, “what ideas do each of you have for working with other criminal justice and public safety officials to encourage California to pass and implement meaningful gun violence reduction laws?”
Dautch accused the DA’s office of “inaction” on hate crimes, and said some tools, such as gun violence protection orders, were not being sufficiently utilized.
Tung said she has lobbied with Moms Demand Action in Sacramento for gun violence prevention laws, and said she’d use a “strong hand” in prosecuting gun violence cases.
Boudin lambasted the administration for taking little action to “rein in gun violence,” and said he’d use “impact litigation” to bring gun cases into the national spotlight.
Abby Porth, executive director of the JCRC, moderated the forum and gave opening and closing remarks.
“Fostering strong democratic institutions is really an essential part of JCRC’s work,” she said. “The health of our pluralistic society requires that we all invest in educating and preparing an informed citizenry.”