LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Jackie Lacey, the first black woman to lead the nation's largest local prosecutor's office, is fighting for a third term as Los Angeles County district attorney against a former police chief who says Lacey is too protective of law enforcement and puts too many people of color behind bars.
Her chief opponent, George Gascon, and a third candidate, former public defender Rachel Rossi, accuse Lacey of having an outdated vision of justice and locking up large numbers of mentally ill people and minorities, often for low-level crimes. They criticized her for continuing to seek the death penalty despite a statewide moratorium, and challenged her record of not prosecuting officers for shootings.
“She's just incapable of holding police accountable when they do something wrong,” said Gascon, who led San Francisco's police department before becoming that city's district attorney. “She’s so tightly allied with police unions that she’s incapable of doing the work.”
Lacey claims Gascon coddles criminals and did the very things for which he’s criticizing her, such as failing to prosecute police shootings. She said his authoring of California's Proposition 47, which reduced some felonies to misdemeanors, led to the nation's highest property crime rate per capita in San Francisco.
Lacey says she's done more in the name of reform than Gascon.
“He now moves down to LA and says, ‘I’m here to fix things, and I’m here to save you, and I’m the true progressive,'" Lacey said. “But a lot of things he’s saying he didn’t fix in San Francisco.”
The district attorney race is nonpartisan and will be decided if one of the candidates receives more than half the primary votes on Tuesday. If no one achieves a majority, the top two will face off in November.
Lacey's challengers are trying to ride a wave of criminal justice reform that has put a new generation of progressive prosecutors in district attorney offices in Philadelphia, Boston, St. Louis County, Missouri, Denver and Houston.
Those district attorneys have won by advocating for racial justice, increasing focus on serious and dangerous crime, challenging the wisdom of cash bail, and ending a lock-em-up mentality by using programs that divert lower-level criminals from jail.
Miriam Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles and now executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, a group pushing for criminal justice reforms, sees the race as a test of how far those changes will go.
“I absolutely think that voters in Los Angeles and throughout the country are tired of a starting point that has presumed we can and should incarcerate our way out of poverty, out of substance abuse disorder, out of ... mental illness,” said Krinsky, who has worked with Gascon but is not taking sides in the campaign.
The Los Angeles district attorney oversees the largest prosecutor’s office in the U.S., with nearly 1,000 lawyers, and a territory that covers the nation’s second-largest city and 10 million residents spread over 4,700 square miles (12,150 square kilometers).
The stakes are high. Money is flowing into both campaigns, and some of California's top Democrats find themselves on opposite sides.
Lacey has strong support from law enforcement groups, including $1 million spent by the Los Angeles police union through political action committees. Lacey has the endorsements of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and, in a snub to Gascon, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, that city's first black female leader.
Gascon is endorsed by California's other senator, Kamala Harris, whom he replaced as San Francisco DA. U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, whose heavily minority district includes South Los Angeles, and the editorial boards of the Los Angeles Daily News and Los Angeles Times also back Gascon. An independent expenditure committee for Gascon received $1 million from Patty Quillin, the wife of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who lives in Northern California.
Lacey, who grew up in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood, has spent her professional career in the office. She was an upset winner in 2012 and ran unopposed four years ago.
Lacey is not a highly visible DA but recently has ramped up public appearances. She held news conferences to announce an $18.8 million settlement with Time Warner for misleading customers over internet speeds, the dismissal of 66,000 old marijuana convictions, and criminal sex abuse charges against film mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was convicted this week in New York on similar charges.
But she's ducked other events after routinely being heckled by members of Black Lives Matter and people who have challenged her record prosecuting cops and the well-connected like Ed Buck, a Democratic operative and donor who gave to her campaign and now faces federal charges for allegedly injecting methamphetamine into two men who fatally overdosed in his apartment.
Gascon spent his adolescence in LA after fleeing Cuba with his family. He became a police officer, got a law degree and rose through the ranks to assistant chief of the Los Angeles Police Department before being appointed top cop in Mesa, Arizona, and then San Francisco.
Then-Mayor and now Gov. Gavin Newsom tapped Gascon to be San Francisco district attorney in 2011, and he then was elected to two terms.
Gascon has touted his work in San Francisco to close juvenile hall and divert cases involving the mentally ill from jails to treatment. During a boisterous debate last month, he criticized Lacey's diversion program, saying it's understaffed and run by someone with no expertise. He also alleged prosecutors are told to not divert defendants from the court system.
Rossi added that about two-thirds of inmates in Los Angeles jails have mental health problems, and public defenders say they are consistently turned away from alternatives to incarceration.
“I think we need to see more action and not just words," Rossi said. “I think we need to put more resources to actually expanding access to the program."
Lacey has labeled Rossi a lightweight with no prosecutorial experience. And she said Gascon didn't know what he was talking about regarding the diversion program. During a recent interview, Lacey said she would try to push for more treatment facilities for people with mental illness and drug abuse issues.