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George Gascón Wins Race for Los Angeles D.A. in Major Victory for Progressive Prosecutor Movement

Los Angeles County, with the country’s largest jail system and largest local prosecutor office, is considered a crown jewel in a nationwide push for criminal justice reform.

George Gascón, right, defeated incumbent Jackie Lacey, left.(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photos from Getty Images.)

George Gascón will be the next Los Angeles County district attorney, winning a hotly contested race on a platform of greater police accountability and decarceration. The former San Francisco district attorney defeated incumbent Jackie Lacey, the first woman and first Black person to head the office, ending her eight-year tenure. During her time in office, she has largely fought reforms and defended the use of the death penalty

Lacey congratulated her opponent on his expected victory in a news conference Friday morning, and said her consultants had informed her she would not be able to close the gap in votes between them. At the time, Gascón was about 229,000 votes ahead of her in the race, with 53 percent of the vote.

Gascón’s win gives the nationwide movement to elect reform-minded prosecutors one of its biggest victories yet. He said during the campaign that he was looking to bring that wave to Los Angeles. “The problem is that LA County has come to a place where they use the most expensive and the most intrusive tools of the criminal justice system to deal with every behavior, and that is prosecution and incarceration,” he told The Appeal: Political Report in January.

The race, called the “most important DA race in the country,” narrowly went to a runoff in the March primary.  Months later, a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, setting off calls for criminal justice reform across the country that buoyed Gascón’s campaign. 

The race for Los Angeles County DA has long been viewed across the country as a test of the criminal justice reform movement, even before Floyd’s death. Los Angeles County, with the country’s largest jail system and largest local prosecutor office, is considered a crown jewel in a nationwide push to elect progressive prosecutors. 

Now Gascón heads into office with a mandate to reshape that office, with a jurisdiction of over 10 million people. He has pledged to take people off death row and reopen investigations into four fatal police shootings that Lacey declined to prosecute. 

Gascón’s campaign platforms have made him an enemy of law enforcement unions, which spent millions of dollars opposing him. His critics say Gascón’s emphasis on alternatives to criminal prosecution and lighter sentencing will bring about higher crime in Los Angeles, pointing to the high rate of car burglaries during his time as San Francisco DA. San Francisco Mayor London Breed has accused Gascón of pursuing reforms that contributed to higher property crime. Gascón has said that he prosecuted the large majority of car break-ins but blamed police for not making arrests in most cases. He points out that San Francisco’s current DA, Chesa Boudin, has pursued similar reforms while crime in the city has gone down overall. 

Gascón co-authored California’s Proposition 47, which reclassified many drug and theft charges from felonies to misdemeanors. His campaign was largely backed by wealthy donors, including a late contribution from billionaire George Soros. 

Gascón says his tenure as Los Angeles DA will be the biggest test yet of the movement to elect progressive prosecutors. Crime rates in the county will be closely watched by his critics and supporters as a reflection of the reform movement’s success or failure. “It will impact elections in other parts of the country, where you have progressive prosecutors that are facing mounting challenges by police unions,” Gascón said in a September interview. “If I win and we can show that it actually works, it will really begin to devalue the scare tactics.”

Police accountability was a major theme in the race. Black Lives Matter accused Lacey of being beholden to law enforcement and failing to prosecute police shootings, organizing protests outside her office and home. And while Lacey has presented herself as a reformer, her most vocal supporters often mirrored President Trump’s tough-on-crime rhetoric. Jamie McBride, the face of the LAPD union that funneled $1 million against Gascón, called BLM a “hate group.” 

Although Lacey worked within the DA’s office for decades, Gascón, who immigrated from Cuba at 13, spent most of his career in law enforcement. He grew up in Los Angeles and served in the Los Angeles Police Department for almost 30 years, with stints as chief of police in Mesa, Arizona, and San Francisco before heading San Francisco’s DA office from 2011 to 2019.

At the time of the Democratic primary, Lacey had secured the endorsement of LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and other members of the local political elite, though Gascón earned the local Democratic Party’s endorsement. But after Floyd’s death, Lacey lost some prominent endorsements, including Garcetti’s. And BLM protests against Lacey swelled in size over the summer. 

Now Gascón, like Lacey, will have to contend with a vocal Black Lives Matter movement. BLM’s Los Angeles chapter effectively backed Gascón’s campaign, despite his record of never prosecuting a police shooting during his tenure as San Francisco DA. Melina Abdullah, co-founder of BLM LA, says they plan to continue protesting for police accountability, regardless of who holds the DA seat.