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Hiltzik: Who “failed” in San Francisco?

Say what you will about the recall last week of Chesa Boudin, the liberal San Francisco prosecutor, that came as a gift to pundits looking for signs of backsliding against progressive criminal justice reforms.

“Most San Franciscans have just realized that doctrinaire progressivism has become a suicide pact,” wrote Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal, declaring the end of “the big city’s long transition to hair-blooming progressivism. “. James Hohmann of The Washington Post called Boudin’s defeat “a final wake-up call for Democrats, who have lost public confidence in criminal justice.”

But the prize goes to Nellie Bowles, who weighed in with a screed of nearly 8,000 words in the Atlantic, calling her former hometown a “failed city” and attributing its decline to “progressive leaders” and their “values ​​of left”.

In San Francisco, the word developer is basically an insult.

— Nellie Bowles, in the Atlantic

More on Bowles and the Atlantic in a moment. But first, a little background on the election. There are few, if any, signs that voters are actually “fed up” with criminal justice reform, as Bowles claims, either in San Francisco specifically or the Bay Area in general.

In Alameda County, across the bay, Yesenia Sanchez is poised to win her run for sheriff without facing a runoff, despite progressive reforms no different from those of Black pudding. Diana Becton, another progressive, appears to have won a second term as Contra Costa DA, while civil rights attorney Pamela Price will head to a runoff for Alameda County DA with a sizeable lead.

Boudin grappled with distinctive negatives. These included clumsy political skills that led him to make easily cartoonish public statements. He won the election in 2019 by a very slim margin, marking him out as a vulnerable office holder from the start.

(As he told his followers on Monday, thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the recall vote, he actually received more votes this time around — i.e., “no” to the recall — than when he initial victory.)

Boudin was targeted by real estate developers and real estate agents, who contributed to a war chest of some $6.4 million, more than double the amount raised to oppose the recall.

The general public, it turns out, approved of many of Boudin’s signature policies, with majorities polled in a survey in mid-May support its efforts to protect workers’ rights and review past cases for possible wrongful convictions. Majorities in the poll backed his pledge not to charge children with adults and to end the practice of cash bail.

Election night returns showed Boudin losing easily, leading to reports that townspeople had “voted overwhelmingly” against Boudin by more than 60%. Still, the latest near-final tally shows that about 55% of those who voted chose to reject Boudin, but less than 45% of registered voters voted. In other words, the recall vote stood at 24.6% of San Francisco voters, which is less than “overwhelming” anyway.

These data points do not fit the preconceived narrative that is the hallmark of cheap pundits, which brings us back to Bowles’ analysis. A former New York Times reporter now contributing to the Substack blog run by his wife, conservative commentator Bari Weiss, Bowles described Boudin’s recall as a citizen response to crime, a glut of homelessness, lots of dirt and grime , and crazy left-wing city officials.

Bowles’ bill was not too different from many other analyzes striving to make sense of the recall vote. One line from his article, however, caught my attention. It was Bowles’ apparent attempt to present himself as the offspring of a working-class San Francisco family dating back six generations by mentioning that at the time of the gold rush “my great-great-great-grandfather German worked in a butcher shop on Jackson Street.

I happen to know something about Bowles’ ancestor, because I learned about him while researching my next book, A History of California.

It was Henry Miller, and he didn’t work long in a butcher shop. In the early 1870s, he was one of California’s wealthiest men, a land baron known for exploiting the labor of traveling homeless people to build a fortune in farming and cattle ranching. (Another descendant of Miller, via a different branch of the family tree, is Tucker Carlson.)

Miller’s name does not appear in Bowles’ article, nor does his wealth-building practices. A witness before a congressional committee in 1914 called Miller’s practices, which included monopolizing water rights in the Central Valley by threatening their rightful owners with costly lawsuits, “a cause of social unrest”.

Miller established what was called the “dirty plate route”, by which he made it known that a tramp could get a free meal at a Miller rancho, but only one meal and only from one plate already used. In this way, he maintained a constant flow of cheap labor moving across an empire that spanned over a million acres. The Miller empire lives on today as Bowles Farming Co., a direct descendant of his former company, Miller & Lux.

The real problem with Bowles’ description of San Francisco’s decline is not its family history. It is the use of cherry picking to create a misleading picture of conditions in San Francisco, the causes of its ostensible “failure” and how they relate to Boudin’s recall. I reached out to Bowles for a comment via Weiss and the Atlantic, but she did not respond.

Bowles’ play is another installment of the Atlantic “death of the California dream” genre I wrote about last year. The Atlantic is in danger of becoming addicted to these threads due to their popularity with non-Californians, in the same way that the first taste of human blood has a reputation for turning African lions into incorrigible man-eaters.

Like that earlier play, Bowles uses exaggeration and special pleading to make his point. She calls petty crime “rampant” and offers anecdotal evidence to prove it: The antique store where she bought her wedding ring for her wife was “ransacked in late December”, she reports. She cites car break-ins and shoplifting, and cites CVS and Walgreens reps complaining of retail theft.

Yet statistics from the San Francisco Police Department do not indicate that the city is besieged by a crime wave. So far this year, burglaries and robberies are down from the same period a year ago, and both were lower in 2021 than in 2020.

Motor vehicle thefts are about the same level now as they have been since the start of 2020; it’s bad, obviously, if it’s your car that’s been stolen or smash-and-grabed, but not exactly a new phenomenon in a city where on-street parking is the norm in many residential neighborhoods .

As for robbery, the category that includes shoplifting, it jumped in 2021, but appears to be operating at a slightly lower rate this year. In any case, it is about 25% lower than the pre-pandemic levels of 2019 and 2018.

Either way, as my colleague Sam Dean has documented, shoplifting statistics are notoriously unreliable. They seem to be greatly exaggerated by the industry and retail chains, and often used as an excuse by chains to close stores that are not profitable for other reasons.

Bowles dismisses the narrative told by the real numbers, remarking that “you can spend days debating San Francisco crime statistics and what they mean, and a lot of people do.” She also acknowledges that the city “has relatively low rates of violent crime and, compared to cities of similar size, one of the lowest homicide rates.”

None of this is to say that perception is entirely separate from reality. Let’s accept for the sake of argument that the people of San Francisco believe the place is going to hell. If so, why? One answer may be the atrocious performance of the San Francisco police.

The department’s clearance rate, which was already one of the lowest in the nation, fell last year to its lowest in a decade, with just 8.1% of reported crimes leading to an arrest. Some of the SFPD’s defenders, including Bowles, argue that the cops just assume that as a liberal Boudin wouldn’t prosecute the culprits they arrest, so they don’t care. But since they arrest less than one in 10 criminals, how would these supporters know?

Many of the ills that Bowles and other critics attribute to left-leaning politicians and savage progressiveness in San Francisco are not even due to city initiatives.

Boudin was charged with treating drug possession as a misdemeanor rather than a felony, but that was the mandate of Proposition 47, which was passed statewide overwhelmingly in 2014, as the acknowledges Bowles. Voters easily rejected an attempt to roll back part of Proposition 47 in 2020.

Drug-related deaths are on the rise in San Francisco, but as Bowles acknowledges, that’s an artifact of the national opioid crisis, not local politics.

What does Bowles see as an answer to the city’s illnesses? Less neighborhood opposition to new housing construction. (“In San Francisco, the word developer is essentially an insult,” she wrote.)

An oft-cited manifestation of the city’s paralysis is the constant struggle between residents and property developers.

Among his examples of mindless NIMBYism was the neighborhood’s resistance to a 63-unit project on a plot that was a horticultural farm, which residents wanted to see redeveloped into a community garden and market. Bowles mocks this as “some sort of utopian banjo-and-hive fantasy,” whatever that means.

Be that as it may, the promoter is continuing with his project to put 63 dwellings on the site. Bowles quotes a local lawyer observing “you could house 50 children and their families on this site.” That may be true, but since the construction cost will be close to a million dollars per unit, one can imagine that these families will not look like those who would be homeless if the development did not exist.

Like other critics of municipal liberalism in San Francisco, Bowles is heartened by what she sees as the public picking up its voice and rising to drive out the far left. Does this match his contempt for those who stand in the developer’s way?

No, but it betrays the game. Conservative pundits love to promote “free speech” and public activism, unless it’s aimed at people in their class, like developers and those who think good way to deal with drug addicts is to throw them in jail. If Boudin’s recall truly reflected the strengths they praise, San Francisco might just turn into a different city. It may be better, but the question would be: Better for whom?


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Post expires at 7:35pm on Monday June 27th, 2022