Tense DA debate Heats Up Byers Auditorium

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Understanding the irony of Suzy Loftus’ unoccupied seat at the opening of the Monday, Oct. 21 district attorney debate in a packed Genentech Hall Auditorium requires some context.

The race for San Francisco’s top prosecutor took an especially dramatic turn earlier this month following an abrupt resignation by former DA George Gascón, who officially stepped down on Oct. 18 to better focus on his prospective bid for the Los Angeles office.

Following Gascón’s announcement, SF Mayor London Breed quickly appointed then-candidate Loftus as interim DA, swearing her in during a much-protested ceremony over the weekend. San Francisco’s first open district attorney race in a century now had its incumbent.

The remaining candidates were quick to take notice.

“The move came at a time when most voters were just getting their ballots and thinking about who to vote for,” candidate and public defender Chesa Boudin said in an interview with Laura Steiner of the weekly You Tube Show “The Robust Opposition.”

“Suzy Loftus will not be in a position to run the office in any meaningful way,” Boudin said. “The mayor [was throwing] her weight and [creating] an incumbency with just weeks to go prior to the election.”

Breed’s move was also condemned by the ACLU. The organization highlighted the reality that incumbent DAs win 95% of contested elections.

“The ACLU… strongly opposes this appointment for the political machination that is, designed to give one candidate an electoral advantage over others,” the organization stated in a press release.

These events were set to make Loftus’ newfound incumbency a primary issue in Monday night’s debate, so a brief announcement at the debate’s opening — that Loftus was going to be delayed in arriving — came as a bit of a surprise.

After filling the vacant seat in the district attorney’s office, it seemed Loftus could no longer fill her own.

The remaining candidates took quick advantage of her absence, with Boudin, Deputy District Attorney Nancy Tung, and Deputy Attorney General Leif Dautch stressing the need for increased police accountability, protection of sanctuary city status, and novel solutions to addressing San Francisco’s homeless population.

But much of these candidates’ efforts focused on attacking Loftus’ newfound advantage.

“On the ballot, [this] is still the first open-seat race for district attorney in 110 years,” Dautch said in his opening statement.

He stressed that the printing of this election’s ballot predate Loftus’ incumbency.

No candidate stole the spotlight more than Boudin, whose campaign released polling data Sunday that gave him a slight edge over Loftus.

Boudin captured the sizeable audience with personal stories of experiencing restorative justice and eloquent expressions of the kinds of progressive law enforcement that many voters have called for this election cycle.

By the time Loftus arrived, 20 minutes after questions began, it was far too late to reclaim the advantage.

This was most evident in the debate’s final moments, when candidates were given the chance to ask one of their peers a question. Unsurprisingly, these questions had a particular target.

Dautch challenged Loftus on her refusal to deny campaign donations from individuals in the district attorney’s office, citing potential favoritism or conflict of interest if she were to remain in the role.

Loftus rebutted, characterizing the donations as an exercise of free speech.

“We can’t pick and choose who to silence,” she said.

Moments later, moderator Brie Williams had to silence an uproar of protest from the crowd.

Tung was similar in her approach, asking whether Breed’s appointment could threaten the independence of the district attorney from the mayor’s office if Loftus was elected.

An embattled Loftus touted such endorsements as a strength.

Boudin, Loftus’ primary challenger, had a final surprise in store when his time arrived.

“I have a question for Nancy [Tung],” he announced.

“Wait, really?” interjected Loftus, softening what had become a tense moment.

Boudin’s purpose became clear when he asked Tung about a scandal she had encountered when serving in the district attorney’s narcotics office.

In 2010, it was discovered that a lab technician in the narcotics division had been tampering with cocaine being tested as evidence, with 750 ongoing cases potentially affected.

Tung was the sole attorney in the office who refused to prosecute these compromised cases.

She challenged her management to fire or transfer her and was eventually reassigned to the domestic violence division.

The office management then proceeded with the cases.

As Boudin and Tung were quick to point out, that management included Suzy Loftus.

Loftus attempted to interject but had reached her quota of rebuttals.

Boudin’s standout performance came at a time when many voters are frustrated with Loftus’ appointment, and with a larger political machine that they feel has underserved San Francisco’s most vulnerable populations.

Despite Breed’s maneuvering, Loftus’ seat will be functionally empty on the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 5.

This time, it will be up to voters to decide who will fill it.

Watch the entire debate on a recorded livestream here.