Political drama boosts interest in San Francisco’s heated…

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It was supposed to be a historic San Francisco election: The first race for district attorney without an incumbent in 110 years and four accomplished candidates in the wide-open contest were closing in on the finish line.

Then came the mayor’s appointment.

With just one month to go before the Nov. 5 election, Mayor London Breed tapped Suzy Loftus, the candidate she endorsed, to serve as interim district attorney after George Gascón announced he was resigning early, likely to pursue a run for the same job in Los Angeles.

Many observers were quick to accuse the mayor of unabashedly seeking to boost her political ally’s name recognition by gifting her incumbency in an off-year election. But the decision has also invigorated supporters of the other candidates — Chesa Boudin, Leif Dautch and Nancy Tung — who have accused the mayor of attempting to interfere in the race.

It’s unclear if Breed’s appointment will ultimately help Loftus or prompt voters to turn to one of the other candidates. But to be sure, all the political drama has more people paying attention to the race for one of the most important jobs in the city.

All four candidates recently sat down with The Chronicle to discuss their vision for the office — touching on issues like quality-of-life crimes, mental health, police shootings and criminal justice reform.

While a central job of a district attorney is to promote public safety and seek justice for victims — the top prosecutor in San Francisco for decades has focused on criminal justice reform in a city well-known for its progressive values.

Each candidate recognizes the legacy of the office, and each has vowed to continue pushing for a more equitable criminal justice system. But the candidates have markedly different views on how they would carry out the job — including cleaning up street-level crime in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods and easing punishments for some offenders.

Suzy Loftus, named interim district attorney. Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

Suzy Loftus, named interim district attorney.

Suzy Loftus: The San Francisco native came up as a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office under Kamala Harris and later headed to the state attorney general’s office. Loftus’ most visible position came while serving as president of the Police Commission where she helped usher in a new use-of-force policy, emphasizing de-escalation during a period of high-profile, officer-involved shootings.

She currently works as assistant chief legal counsel at the Sheriff’s Department.

Loftus announced last year she would challenge incumbent Gascón for district attorney, dropping the mayor and her former boss Kamala Harris’ names as endorsements. Gascón later bowed out leaving Loftus as an early front-runner with a growing list of major backers from all sides of the political aisle.

As district attorney, Loftus said she will make the city safer and continue to push for reforms.

“I’ve spent the last year talking with communities across San Francisco,” she said. “They don’t feel as safe as they should in a progressive city and they want a leader who will reject the idea that our city can either be safe or we can have systems that are just. We have to do both.”

Loftus would be one of the most progressive district attorneys in the country and has emphasized crime prevention through community partnerships while vowing to continue the office’s work on bail reform, and efforts to eliminate racial bias in charging decisions.

But any gains she may have received with Breed’s appointment come with some taint to her platform of progressive reform. Her opponents have hurled allegations of political cronyism and some of the mayor’s political rivals have seized on her campaign as a proxy for San Francisco establishment politics.

Chesa Boudin, in public defender’s office. Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

Chesa Boudin, in public defender’s office.

Chesa Boudin: His earliest memories include visiting his parents at maximum-security prisons. The left-wing radicals were imprisoned when Boudin was an infant for acting as getaway drivers in a botched armored car robbery in upstate New York that led to the death of two police officers and a security guard.

Boudin — an attorney in the public defender’s office and the most progressive candidate in the race — uses his story to drive home his message of criminal justice reform, illustrating the system’s impact on offenders, victims, family members and many others.

While his experience has been as a defense attorney, Boudin says he’s the only candidate currently working in the Hall of Justice, giving him unique insights into the daily operations of the city’s criminal justice system.

Boudin grew up in Chicago, studied law at Yale and earned a Rhodes Scholarship before coming to San Francisco. During his time on the West Coast, he’s established his progressive credibility by working to eliminate the state’s cash bail system. He also developed the immigration unit and the pretrial release unit at the public defender’s office.

Boudin is the only candidate who said he would have filed criminal charges against some of the officers in the controversial 2015 police killing of Mario Woods in the city’s Bayview. Gascón cleared the officers last year.

“When it comes to reform we need someone who doesn’t just have good ideas, but who also has the experience on the ground to implement them,” he said.

Boudin so far is getting the biggest bump of all the candidates from Loftus’ appointment. He said his campaign saw a five-fold increase in volunteers during a recent weekend of canvassing.

Nancy Tung, S.F. prosecutor for 11 years. Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

Nancy Tung, S.F. prosecutor for 11 years.

Nancy Tung: Working as a prosecutor for 16 years in the Bay Area — including 11 in San Francisco — has given her vital insight into the challenges of the city’s district attorney’s office, Tung said.

Her campaign is focused on addressing the core operations of an office that she believes has lost its way under Gascón. She points to a recent surge in staff transfers, mounting caseloads for line attorneys and unfavorable outcomes for the office in jury trials.

She’s also the candidate most focused on street-level crime. Residents in drug-infested neighborhoods like the Tenderloin should be a major focus of the next district attorney, Tung said.

“I’m not a politician. I’m a prosecutor,” she said. “I’m really running to make sure neighborhoods have a voice in what happens. I want to make sure San Francisco is safe, but we do it in a progressive way.”

The Tenderloin has one of the highest percentages of low-income seniors and school-age children, and a progressive district attorney, Tung said, should be focused on helping the city’s most vulnerable residents by targeting street-level crimes.

Leif Dautch, backed by the sheriff’s deputies. Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

Leif Dautch, backed by the sheriff’s deputies.

Leif Dautch: With a major endorsement from the city’s sheriff’s deputies’ union, Dautch is hoping to parlay the support from law enforcement and his experience as a state prosecutor to blaze a path to victory.

He currently manages a team of prosecutors in the attorney general’s office and regularly argues cases before the state Supreme Court and in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

He’s served as president of the city’s Juvenile Probation Commission and is pushing the bold plan to turn the city’s juvenile hall, which is scheduled to be shut down in 2020, into a mental health justice center.

As district attorney, he said he would form an auto burglary task force to address the city’s epidemic of car break-ins, start an environmental justice unit and work to stop illegal evictions.

“We’ve got a chance to do something big here,” Dautch said. “We’ve got a chance to redefine what it means to be a progressive prosecutor.”

He’s also been openly critical of Gascón — saying his leadership on national reforms “came at the expense of day-to-day operations” of the district attorney’s office.

Evan Sernoffsky is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: esernoffsky@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @EvanSernoffsky

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