The former San Francisco DA got the nod over incumbent Jackie Lacey, whose tenure advocates and activists have long criticized as lackluster.
The Los Angeles County Democratic Party endorsed George Gascón on Tuesday for Los Angeles County district attorney.
The L.A. County Democrats’ decision to back Gascón, the former San Francisco DA, over incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey signals both a shift in the importance of criminal justice reform as a plank of the party, as well as Lacey’s declining status as a standard bearer on the issue. Rachel Rossi, a former federal defender, is also running. Richard Ceballos, a current Los Angeles prosecutor, withdrew from the race shortly after the party endorsed Gascón.
“The fight starts here,” Gascón said to the crowd in a statement following the endorsement. “We must stop the death penalty. We must stop caging our juveniles as adults. We must stop fighting every single reform effort. We must provide equality in the way we do our work, this is not just for the rich and powerful. I pledge to you that I will work with every single one of you to bring a different kind of justice to LA County and to lead the country on the path to reform and redemption.”
According to an L.A. Times reporter, chants of “Bye, Jackie” filled the room as Gascón received almost 80 percent of the recommendation committee’s vote.
When Lacey was elected in 2012, she had the unanimous endorsement of the county’s Democratic Party and was the only Democratic candidate in the race. “She will demand that LA’s criminal justice system uphold the Democratic values of justice and equality for all, while promoting innovative approaches and solutions to the prosecution and disposition of criminal cases,” a press release read. Her campaign was bipartisan, including endorsements from other state prosecutors not known for their reforms, local and state law enforcement, and an enviable list of high-profile California Democrats and Republicans. Her platform, in reality, differed little from her mentor’s, former-District Attorney Steve Cooley, who, as a Republican, supported the end of California’s infamous three strikes law and sought to inject some fairness into a system that had become one of the most punitive in the nation.
But Lacey’s two terms as district attorney in the biggest prosecutor’s office in the country have largely been a disappointment for community members and grassroots organizations. Black residents of Los Angeles are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of white residents. The ACLU and Black Lives Matter have criticized her office for continuing to seek death sentences despite the high costs and current moratorium on executions in California, which means there’s no realistic timeline for executions to occur. As The Appeal has reported previously, activists have also protested Lacey’s failure to prosecute law enforcement shootings.
A meaningful sign of Lacey’s retrograde policies is the vigorous endorsement she received from the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, a group of prosecutors within the L.A. County offices, who opposed her in 2012. A recent piece of emailed propaganda features the views of Nancy Tung, a prosecutor who ran for San Francisco DA this year and came in third behind the reform-minded winner Chesa Boudin and Suzy Loftus, the former head of the city police commission.
Perhaps most damning of all is the degree of outrage among activist communities, which signifies that Lacey is either not engaged with her electorate or is not effectively communicating her decisions to the public. Lacey’s obfuscations and failure to engage with the people of Los Angeles has always been hard to interpret, going back to her first election in 2012. While she has often accepted money from questionable donors in Los Angeles, these practices are now under scrutiny by criminal justice organizations, immigrant rights groups, and the Black and Latinx community. Activists slammed Lacey for her failure to prosecute Ed Buck, a rich white man accused of drugging and sexually assaulting Black men. It wasn’t until a dead body surfaced that she prosecuted Buck at all, and Lacey’s campaign still took cash contributions from the man.
In stark contrast to Lacey, Gascón appears to align with a new wave of reform-minded prosecutors. In the eight years since Lacey took office, voters across the U.S. have elected to office prosecutors who identify as progressive and who espouse ideals that largely match a larger criminal justice reform agenda: dismantling the money bail system, investigating prosecutorial misconduct, understanding the biological differences in young defendants, and overall seeking a more fair and less burdensome legal system for everyone, especially the poor and people of color who have suffered the brunt of tough-on-crime policies.
Gascón has consistently advocated for decarceral ideals, including reducing the use of pretrial detention and seeking just outcomes rather than wins. He has also championed legislative changes in California that would change the use-of-force standard for police.
In San Francisco for the last year or two of his tenure, Gascón faced the community’s anger over his failure to prosecute police for shooting unarmed civilians. He was even heckled off the stage at a community meeting about police violence. (Gascón has maintained that the legal standard did not permit him to prosecute the shooting officers.) He was also caught in the politics of the San Francisco Police Department’s incompetency and change in leadership.
But Gascón is engaging in a way few have in Los Angeles, advocates say, showing up at debates and being a general voice for reform in Los Angeles. Advocates and activists in the city have championed him enthusiastically and feel they have someone to rally around as a real promise for reform.
“The Los Angeles Democratic Party stood on the right side of history by not endorsing Jackie Lacey,” said Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter and chair of local advocacy group Reform L.A. Jails, in an email to The Appeal. “They stood on the side of families who’ve been killed by police violence, homeless and mentally ill people who are cycled in and out of L.A. County jails, and so many other vulnerable communities who Jackie Lacey tossed to the side. L.A. made history today. And we will make it again in 2020 when we vote Jackie Lacey out of office.”
Update: This article has been updated to reflect that Richard Ceballos has withdrawn from the Los Angeles County DA race.