Law Enforcement Reformers Sweep Major Races In Los Angeles County
Candidates promising to remake Southern California’s legal system, won major races for DA, county supervisor, and City Council, among others while overcoming significant spending by pro-law enforcement groups.
Los Angeles County residents elected reformer George Gascón for district attorney and approved Measure J, which would require the county to invest 10 percent of its locally generated, unrestricted revenues in the general fund. Through community investment and alternatives to incarceration, that money would address the disproportionate effect of racial injustice. Measure J would also prohibit use of those funds for carceral systems or law enforcement agencies.
Gascón, who previously served as assistant chief of police for the Los Angeles Police Department, chief of police in Mesa, Arizona, and San Francisco’s district attorney, has supported efforts to divert funding from incarcerating people. Criminal legal reform advocates have targeted Lacey, who has exonerated just a few of the thousands of cases her Conviction Review Unit has received and has not charged an LAPD officer for an on-duty shooting since taking office in 2012 (despite the fact that over 400 people have been killed in Los Angeles county by law enforcement or died in custody during her tenure). She has also continued to seek the death penalty despite Governor Gavin Newsom’s moratorium on capital punishment. In November 2019, advocates for reform told The Appeal that Lacey opposed efforts to legalize recreational marijuana and fought efforts to change the state’s felony murder rule.
Gascón’s win is especially consequential because the Los Angeles DA’s office is the largest local prosecutorial office in the U.S.
Gascón won the endorsement of numerous progressive groups, including the Working Families Party and Color of Change, after promising to divert people with mental illness or substance use disorder out of the criminal legal system. “If I win and we can show that [progressive policy] actually works, it will really begin to devalue the scare tactics that are being practiced now by Trump, and by my opponent, and by police unions throughout the country,” Gascón told The Appeal: Political Report in October.
In a Friday morning press conference, a tearful Lacey conceded the race and congratulated Gascón while also seemingly criticizing the criminal legal reform advocates who have been demanding her resignation.
“In looking at how we go forward, we must commit to appreciating the humanity in others,” she said. “The failure to see the humanity in others is what causes us to stereotype a Black man with sagging pants as a ‘gang member’—or to wrongfully assume that all law-enforcement members are abusive.”
In a Friday evening statement posted to Twitter, Gascón said that “this victory belongs to the countless community organizers that worked tirelessly, our thousands of volunteers, and every voter that joined this fight for a healthier, safer and more equitable system of justice.” He also thanked Lacey “for her decades of service to LA, the sacrifices she has made, & the barriers she breached.”
Elsewhere at the county level, state Senator Holly Mitchell won her race for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ District 2, which encompasses portions of the cities of Inglewood, Compton, and Culver City, as well as the Koreatown, La Brea, and Mar Vista neighborhoods. Mitchell criticized her opponent, former Los Angeles City Councilmember Herb Wesson, as an opportunist when it came to criminal legal reform: Although Wesson supported Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles protesters during this summer’s racial justice demonstrations, he supported a ballot measure in 2017 that would have made it harder to hold LAPD officers accountable for misconduct. (The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the LAPD’s largest union, also donated $50,000 to a pro-Wesson PAC this year.)
In contrast, Mitchell focused heavily on criminal legal reform during her tenure as a State Assembly member. In 2018, she announced that she successfully pushed the legislature to pass 10 bills as part of what she called her “Equity and Justice Package”—including measures banned life without parole sentences for children, eliminated significant court fees, prohibited children as young as 14 from being tried as adults, and banned children younger than 11 from entering the criminal legal system. Mitchell won by a significant margin—approximately 61 percent to Wesson’s 39 percent
Los Angeles county voters passed Measure J which could guarantee that anywhere from $300 million to almost $1 billion from the county budget goes toward social services, including housing and mental health treatment. The measure, which passed with about 57 percent of the county vote, bans such funds from being used to support prisons or police. The county Board of Supervisors placed the measure on the ballot in August after months of Black Lives Matter protests.
The Los Angeles County sheriffs union and the Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA) attempted to galvanize voters against the proposal. In July, the ADDA’s Michele Hanisee, argued that the measure was “a knee-jerk reaction to the recent civic unrest and not the product of thoughtful deliberation from a broad cross-section of stakeholders.” Also in July, Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva tweeted that the proposal would make LA streets “look like a scene from Mad Max.” The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs also donated more than $2.5 million to a “No on Measure J” political action committee that circulated documents alleging that the measure would destroy city services.
And Proposition 20, which would have increased the number of felony offenses in the Golden State, failed despite support from law enforcement unions.
But perhaps the biggest upset was Nithya Raman’s victory over David Ryu in the race for Los Angeles City Council. Raman was a political newcomer when she announced her run for the council’s District 4, which includes portions of Sherman Oaks, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, and other cities. Thet race morphed into a local referendum on California’s Democratic Party establishment: Raman, who moved to Los Angeles from India in 2013 and served as the first executive director of Time’s Up Entertainment, centered her campaign on decarcerating the city’s homeless population, shrinking the size of the LAPD, and shifting city resources toward affordable housing efforts. In 2015, Ryu ran as an “outsider” candidate who promised to reform campaign finance laws and strip power from the city’s real estate investor class. But in the years since, housing rights advocates criticized Ryu for taking donations from the same developers he’d previously criticized. After Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont endorsed Raman in October, Ryu’s campaign secured endorsements from Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi while making false claims about Raman, including that she wants to cut the LAPD’s budget “by 98 percent” overnight. After a long wait, Ryu finally conceded the race Friday evening—at that time, Raman had secured 52.4 percent of the vote.
“We showed through the success of our campaign that the ideas we were talking about had real electoral resonance,” Raman said in a live interview with The Appeal last month. “It showed the power of these progressive policies and how many people believed in them in Los Angeles. And I will say that, no matter what happens in November, we’ve already changed the terms of the debate in LA.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story identified Holly Mitchell as a state assembly member, rather than a state senator.