by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
In what may turn out to be his last official act, earlier this week disgraced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo granted clemency to convicted murderer David Gilbert. For readers who are wondering who Gilbert is and why he merits such special consideration, this may be a good moment to republish a research brief from 2019 called “Leftist Children of Privilege Play by Different Rules.”
San Francisco has a new district attorney, and his name is Chesa Boudin. His background is interesting, not just for what it reveals about San Francisco’s voters but also for what it reveals about the pernicious and persistent effect that Marxist ideology has had on America’s intellectual elite.
Chesa’s parents, David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin, were sentenced to long prison terms when he was only 14 months old, and he was raised by guardians chosen by his parents, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn. His parents and his guardians had a lot in common. They were highly intelligent, well-educated baby-boomers from middle-class or upper-middle-class families. They were radical Marxist revolutionaries who had helped form the Weather Underground, a domestic terrorist organization that formally declared war against the United States in 1970. And, by the time Chesa was born in 1980, they had all committed multiple violent acts of terrorism in support of that war.
In addition to being among the founders and intellectual leaders of the Weather Underground, Ayers and Dohrn helped plan and execute a number of bombings of public buildings, including the New York City Police Department headquarters in 1970, the United States Capitol building in 1971, and the Pentagon in 1972. After the Pentagon bombing, they married and went into hiding, and they appear to have lived quietly under assumed names in Chicago until 1980 when they finally turned themselves in. As a result of prosecutorial bungling, the charges arising out of the bombings fell apart, and, while Dohrn was briefly imprisoned on unrelated charges, Ayers never served time at all.
Unlike Ayers and Dohrn, Gilbert and Boudin remained active revolutionaries throughout the 1970s. Indeed, they continued to be active revolutionaries even after Chesa was born. In 1981, however, their revolutionary activities came to an abrupt end when they were arrested while attempting to flee from the scene of an armored car robbery in which one guard and two policemen were killed. Gilbert was found guilty of three counts of felony murder and sentenced to 75 years of imprisonment. Boudin received a 20-year sentence after pleading guilty to one count of felony murder and to robbery.
Gilbert and Boudin made Ayers and Dohrn their son’s legal guardians after they were sentenced, and, as a result, Chesa was raised almost entirely by two un-convicted terrorists and only saw his parents, who were convicted terrorists, on occasional visits to the maximum-security prison in which they were serving their time. These might not seem like very auspicious circumstances for a growing boy, but, in fact, things worked out well for him. And they did so primarily because things also worked out very well for Ayers and Dohrn.
Their well-documented hatred of America and their history of terrorist acts notwithstanding, after Ayers and Dohrn emerged from hiding, they were welcomed back into the governing elite from which they had come. Dohrn, who had a law degree from the University of Chicago, was given a job at Sidley Austin, one of the country’s preeminent law firms, by the managing partner, who was a friend of her father-in-law. A few years later, she was appointed to the faculty at Northwestern University Law School where she remained until her retirement in 2013.
After receiving a Ed. D. from Columbia, Ayers went on to become a highly influential professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He worked on school reform with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and co-authored a grant proposal that won a $49.2 million Annenberg grant for the city’s schools. In recognition of this achievement, the city awarded him its Citizen of the Year award in 1997.
Together, Ayers and Dohrn became a “power couple” within the Illinois Democratic Party hierarchy. In 1995, retiring Illinois State Senator Alice Palmer introduced Barack Obama as her chosen successor at a gathering at Ayers’ and Dohrn’s elegant Hyde Park home, and, in 1999, Ayers joined Obama on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago, a philanthropy that supports progressive causes.
What all this reveals is that, if you’re born into America’s governing elite, little things like signing Marxist manifestos and bombing government buildings won’t hurt you. Indeed, they may actually help by making you a celebrity. Unlike many ex-offenders, when Kathy Boudin was finally released from prison in 2003, she had no trouble re-integrating into society despite the fact that she had driven the getaway car in a robbery that took the lives of three innocent men. Following Ayers’ example, she quickly earned an Ed. D. from Columbia University and went on to become first an adjunct professor at the university’s School of Social Work and then the Co-Director and Co-Founder of the university’s Center for Justice. In 2013, she was Sheinberg Scholar-in-Residence at New York University School of Law.
But let’s return to young Chesa Boudin. How did he get on in his guardians’ world of wealth and privilege? The answer is that he flourished. Notwithstanding Ayers’ and Dohrn’s avowed commitment to communism, and notwithstanding Ayers’ supposed commitment to Chicago’s public schools, the couple saw to it that Chesa received the best private education money can buy, first at the University of Chicago Laboratory School (current tuition, $35,952 per year) and then at Yale (current tuition, room, and board, $72,100 per year).
For his part, Chesa took full advantage of the educational opportunities provided by his guardians. He did well at Yale and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and he later returned to Yale to complete his education at the School of Law. In between, he demonstrated that his guardians hadn’t just secured him a place as part of America’s governing elite. They had also imbued him with a commitment to radical socialism. He traveled to Venezuela and worked in the administration of Hugo Chavez. While he was there, he translated Understanding the Bolivarian Revolution: Hugo Chavez Speaks with Marta Harnecker into English; he co-edited Letters From Young Activists: Today’s Young Rebels Speak Out; and he co-authored The Venezuelan Revolution: 100 Questions – 100 Answers.
Chavez, of course, was the ruthless Marxist dictator who transformed Venezuela from the richest country in South America into an economic basket case and destroyed the lives of millions of Venezuelans. You might think that Chesa’s admiration for Chavez would count against him with San Francisco’s voters, but it doesn’t seem to have done so. And his parents violent past seems to have actually helped. Here’s the opening passage from his campaign website:
Chesa’s Boudin’s parents were incarcerated when he was just fourteen months old for driving the getaway car in a robbery that tragically took the lives of three men. Chesa’s father is still in prison. Chesa knows first-hand the destructive impacts of mass incarceration – he had to go through a metal detector and steel gates just to give his parents a hug. Though he was not physically injured that tragic day, he was one of the dozens of people whose lives were devastated. But restorative justice saved him – and did more to rehabilitate his parents than any number of years in prison ever could. This experience caused Chesa to dedicate his career to making our country safer by reforming our criminal justice system.
A solid majority of San Francisco voters liked the sound of that enough to choose Chesa for their district attorney. And who knows what will come next? Kamala Harris started her political career as the San Francisco district attorney and then went on to become first California’s attorney general and later a U.S. senator. Now she’s running for president.