A Tale of Two California Towns

The primary election season is underway in many parts of the country. As Democrats and Republicans vie for their party’s approval for the general election, the key results give observers and parties a glimpse of how voters feel about their elected officials’ performance so far and what what they expect of them in the future.

We can learn a lot from California. In that state’s primary election on June 7, voters sent a clear message to their elected officials — a message the Democratic Party should take to heart if it wants its candidates to compete effectively in November’s midterms.

The most publicized race was in San Francisco, where residents voted whether to remove District Attorney Chesa Boudin from office. Boudin was elected in November 2019 on a strong and progressive criminal justice platform. But with violent crime and auto theft skyrocketing in San Francisco, voters in this most liberal city have chosen to fire their progressive prosecutor. Sixty percent of San Francisco voters voted to recall Boudin.

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During his tenure, Boudin enacted a number of criminal justice reforms, including the elimination of cash bail, a reduction in the number of San Franciscans, especially minors, in state prisons, and a accused a police officer of committing manslaughter in the line of duty.

On paper, many of Boudin’s reforms made sense and are part of a movement across the country that has been pursued by a number of progressive district attorneys. But at least based on the recall vote, it appears voters are rejecting these progressive agendas in favor of a more traditional approach to law enforcement.

And then there was the nonpartisan Los Angeles primary for mayor. In that race, Rick Caruso, a billionaire real estate developer and former Republican who only recently registered as a Democrat, took on Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, a progressive, who wants to be Los Angeles’ first black female mayor. The race was tight. Caruso got 40.5% of the vote and Bass 38.8%. Both will head to a runoff election in November.

For many cities in America, such a tight race between a former Republican and a progressive might not be a big deal. But for Los Angeles, it’s a major red flag, as Democratic voters reflect their frustration with progressive policy platforms and enactments — especially when they involve leniency toward rising crime and a tolerance towards an increase in homelessness. San Francisco and Los Angeles are both facing a homelessness crisis with rampant drug use and mental health emergencies overwhelming city streets.

The votes in San Francisco and Los Angeles highlight the challenge of the growing influence of progressive politics on the Democratic Party. Although many elements of the progressive platform are attractive and worthwhile, many of their idealistic program points fail in the real world and are rejected by voters. If the Democratic Party is to remain competitive in November, it needs to put its arms around the progressive agenda and make the appropriate course adjustments.

Bernard P. Love