When Mike Schmidt was elected as Multnomah County District Attorney in 2020, it was in a landslide: Schmidt won with more than 76 percent of the vote, promising in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic to revamp the county’s approach to criminal justice. 

Schmidt’s election didn’t happen in a vacuum. It came instead as part of a wave of progressive, reform-minded prosecutors who were elected in urban counties across the country with pledges to overhaul their jurisdiction’s approach to criminal justice.

Larry Krasner, who was elected district attorney in Philadelphia in 2017, was the first progressive district attorney to make national headlines. But the most prominent member of the movement was likely Chesa Boudin, the son of two formerly incarcerated Weather Underground members who was narrowly elected DA in San Francisco two years later. 

Now, with Schmidt facing an uphill battle in his reelection campaign against veteran Multnomah County prosecutor Nathan Vasquez, Boudin’s tenure—and what has happened in San Francisco since it ended—may prove instructive for Multnomah County voters. 

Boudin, like Schmidt, came into office promising to shake up the status quo—eliminating cash bail, restricting pretrial detention, holding police accountable, and establishing an innocence commission within the DA’s office to evaluate potential wrongful convictions. 

But Boudin’s time in office was shaped most significantly by the COVID-19 pandemic, which arrived less than a year into his term and exacerbated the rampant economic inequality contributing to San Francisco’s most visible issues: homelessness, property crime, and open air drug use. 

As the city suffered in 2020, a group of its most powerful forces worked to blame the chaos not on the global health crisis or systemic inequality and housing issues, but on Boudin himself. 

The result was that, just two and a half years into his term, Boudin was recalled by 55 percent of San Francisco voters in June of 2022. 

The result of the recall election was no surprise: Boudin never led in a single poll of the race and was outspent by a margin of more than two-to-one. His replacement at the helm of the DA’s office was Brooke Jenkins, a prosecutor who resigned from her job in the office to become one of the faces of the recall campaign. 

Jenkins, promising a return to tough-on-crime policies, wasted little time in shaking up the office. She began her tenure by firing 15 attorneys as well as a number of Boudin’s top advisors and reinstating the use of gang enhancements, prosecuting minors as adults, and refusing to try accused drug dealers in community court.

Jenkins also, controversially, dropped a groundbreaking manslaughter prosecution of a police officer who fatally shot an unarmed Black man named Keith O’Neil in 2017. Boudin’s decision to charge the officer marked the first time San Francisco had ever charged a police officer for killing someone while on duty; Jenkins was later accused of lying to protect him.   

A year following the recall, Jenkins’ approach was not paying any noticeable dividends: violent crime in San Francisco had increased along with arrests and convictions.

This was also no surprise to people who study the crime rate, who have long said that the policies of any given DA have no significant effect on the crime rate—a rate instead linked to a number of interwoven factors, including economic factors, police performance, and more. Crime in San Francisco has since fallen, though public perception has been slower to change. 

“There’s really not a lot of evidence—maybe not any evidence that I can think of from the social science literature—that shows any kind of reliable or strong relationship between the policies of a DA, whether [they’re] anti-carceral or traditional lock-‘em-up, law and order” Jonathan Simon, a professor at the Berkeley School of Law said, referring to a DA's impact on crime rates.

That’s true in general, Simon said, but it’s even more true where it concerns the kinds of crime that have been most visible in West Coast cities like Portland and San Francisco since the onset of the pandemic.  

“The kinds of things that are really irritating people, like open-air drug use, low-level property crimes, break-ins to cars, are even further down the food chain of the kinds of things that might be easily changed or affected by DA policies because DAs are typically seeing people who are coming in for more serious crimes,” Simon said. 

A 2021 study of the progressive prosecutors’ reform efforts back Simon’s assertion, finding “no significant effects of these reforms on local crime rates.” 

The study did not look at the effects of possible police work slowdowns in response to reform policies. But generally, Simon and other experts have cautioned that it can be difficult to make sense of year-over-year changes in the crime rate no matter what kind of policy approach is coming out of the district attorney’s office. 

That has not, however, been the tone of the election in Multnomah County. 

“Vasquez is trying to make this a referendum on Mike Schmidt’s tenure, really trying to make it a referendum on people's perceptions of crime, drug use, homelessness, Measure 110,” John Horvick, the senior vice president of DHM Research, said. “The Vasquez campaign and supporting groups are saying, ‘I want you to think about all these things you don’t like, and I want you to think about Mike Schmidt.’”

Vasquez has had plenty of help getting that message across from groups like People for Portland, and a poll commissioned by The Oregonian/OregonLive published at the beginning of May, just as voters were receiving their ballots, suggests it may be getting through. 

The poll, though it only included about 300 voters, showed Vasquez holding a substantial lead over Schmidt, with a large number of voters undecided. In addition to their preference for district attorney, pollsters also asked voters what their biggest issues heading into the election were—and those numbers presented a clear picture of the core of Vasquez’s support. 

“People who said crime and drugs were their biggest issues… overwhelmingly supported Vasquez,” Horvick said.

Whether those issues alone can swing the election remains to be seen. 

Boudin, who now works as the executive director of the Criminal Law & Justice Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has cautioned against using his recall election as a barometer for the Multnomah County race—telling OPB earlier this month that “a recall in San Francisco is a terrible proxy for any normal, general head-to-head election.” 

One thing that Schmidt has that Boudin didn’t is an opponent—and Schmidt’s campaign, boosted by substantial help from the Working Families Party, has tried to shift the terms of the debate in recent weeks: casting Vasquez, who was formerly a registered Republican, as sympathetic to Donald Trump and politically unacceptable to Multnomah County voters. 

Horvick said Schmidt has a viable path to victory, but if he is ultimately defeated, his demise may spell trouble for other progressive prosecutors who are being, in Simon’s words, cast as “the addressee with an unhappiness for the general state of disorder.” 

In Alameda County, across the Bay from San Francisco, reform DA Pamela Price is herself facing a well-financed recall effort later this year. There, criticism of Price has also focused in large parts on crime. 

But if voters there or in Multnomah County are making their voting decision because they feel a more carceral approach in the DA’s office will reduce crime, they are likely going to be disappointed. 

“They may feel better to know that there is a crackdown of sorts going on,” Simon said. “Is it likely to change the actual trendlines in especially serious crime? Again, no evidence to support that.”