As The Votes Roll In, It Suddenly Doesn’t Seem Like Californians Rejected Criminal Justice Reformers

With only a fraction of the votes counted in California’s low-turnout, off-year primary elections, The New York Times confidently declared last Wednesday What It All Meant: voters had rejected progressives and their vision of criminal justice reform in favor of tough-on-crime candidates.

“Election results in San Francisco and Los Angeles were the latest signs of a restless Democratic electorate that remains deeply unsatisfied and concerned about public safety,” the subhed of the Times’ story read, referring to the recall of San Francisco’s progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin and the early lead of billionaire Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso.

Heiress Nellie Bowles, the descendant of a California land baron, took it a step further, claiming that San Francisco had become a “failed city” under progressive leaders because they failed to sufficiently criminalize poverty and drug addiction.

The San Francisco district attorney recall, a well-funded campaign that began before Boudin took office in California’s 12th most populous county, was never a good proxy for statewide sentiment. Although Boudin’s ouster is a blow to the progressive prosecutor movement, it is not necessarily indicative of broad rejection of his policies, which are more popular than he is.

“With more mail-in ballots counted, the notion that California voters had resoundingly embraced a more carceral approach to governance started to fall apart.”

And by the following week, with more mail-in ballots counted, the notion that California voters had resoundingly embraced a more carceral approach to governance started to fall apart. This wasn’t surprising in a state where every registered voter receives a mail-in ballot. People who vote by mail tend to lean progressive and because they have until Election Day to put their ballot in the mail, many of their votes will not be counted until days or even weeks later. County election officials have until July 8 to report official results to the Secretary of State.

In Los Angeles, the state’s most populous county, Caruso is now in second place, behind the more progressive Karen Bass, despite spending $39 million of his own fortune. Caruso, a longtime Republican who recently became a Democrat, campaigned on hiring an additional 1,500 police officers to the country’s most lethal law enforcement agency and forcibly removing people from homeless encampments. Although Bass also called for a much more modest increase to LAPD staffing, she promised to fund programs to help people find jobs, housing, food and transportation, warning, “Los Angeles cannot arrest its way out of crime.” Under California’s top-two primary system, Caruso and Bass will compete in a runoff election in November.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who oversees a law enforcement agency overrun with deputy gangs, currently has less than 32% of the vote, leaving him vulnerable in the runoff if his challengers unite behind a single candidate. Villanueva unexpectedly ousted the incumbent sheriff in 2018 by portraying himself as a progressive, but once in office he worked to cover up misconduct within his agency, pushed a recall of reformist District Attorney George Gascón, and railed against the “woke left.” Although several of Villanueva’s eight challengers have positioned themselves as reform-minded, many activists remain skeptical and have been wary of throwing their weight behind anything other than getting rid of Villanueva.

Two Los Angeles City Council candidates who both received endorsements from the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter are currently leading their races. Abolitionist organizer Eunisses Hernandez — who has worked to close a Los Angeles jail, remove California’s sentencing enhancements for drugs, and allocate taxpayer money to alternatives to incarceration — is narrowly ahead of incumbent Gil Cedillo with 50.65% of the vote compared to his 49.35%. Labor organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez, who called for an end to “traumatizing” sweeps of homeless encampments “that waste millions of dollars pushing people from block to block” is nearly five percentage points ahead of incumbent Mitch O’Farrell, who oversaw last year’s forced removal of unhoused people from Echo Park.

Kenneth Mejia, a 31-year-old CPA and housing-justice activist who ran billboards illustrating how little Los Angeles spends on combating homelessness compared to policing, is 16 percentage points ahead of veteran politician Paul Koretz in the city Controller race. And a slate of public defenders and a civil rights lawyer running for judgeships are on track to make it to November’s runoff.

Outside of Los Angeles, other races are complicating the picture of a state desperate for more punitive elected officials. California Attorney General Rob Bonta is on track to easily keep his job, despite a challenge from tough-on-crime Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert. Schubert, who ran as an independent, has failed to crack 10% of the vote.

In Contra Costa County, about 40 miles east of San Francisco, voters reelected District Attorney Diana Becton, who is part of a progressive prosecutor alliance with Boudin. Becton, the county’s first prosecutor to bring felony charges against a law enforcement officer for an on-duty shooting, won her primary outright by receiving more than 50% of the votes, staving off a challenge from a colleague backed by law enforcement unions.

In Alameda County, home to Oakland, voters ousted Sheriff Gregory Ahern, who oversaw the county’s deadly jail, cooperated with ICE on deportations and platformed the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia. Ahern lost to Yesenia Sanchez, a sheriff’s commander who has called for alternatives to jail for people with mental illness and reducing the use of solitary confinement.

Ballots are still being counted and the results of close races could still change. With statewide turnout hovering around 29%, progressives who fared well in the top-two primary could still lose in the general election as candidates consolidate and more voters show up. But with the information currently available, handwringing takes about a crime-terrorized electorate desperate for law and order just don’t hold up.

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