(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photos from Getty Images.)

Much has changed in the seven months since George Gascón faced off against incumbent DA Jackie Lacey in one of the most important elections in the country.

In March, Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey was a hair’s breadth away from a runoff in what had been heralded as “the most important D.A. race” in the country. 

For days after the Democratic primary, her share of the vote hovered around 50 percent; she needed to cross that threshold to win. With all ballots counted, Lacey took home 48 percent against her progressive challengers, former San Francisco DA George Gascón and former public defender Rachel Rossi. It was enough to force her into a runoff with Gascón, who nabbed 28 percent of the vote. 

Much has changed since early March. The pandemic amplified existing social inequities, and nationwide protests against racism and police violence drew more widespread scrutiny to the criminal legal system, adding newfound pressure to Lacey’s campaign. Those changes could stand to benefit Gascón, a former Los Angeles Police Department assistant chief turned prosecutor who made his name in progressive circles as the co-author of California’s Prop 47, which reclassified many drug and theft charges from felonies to misdemeanors. 

As the political climate shifted over the summer, so have many of Lacey’s political backers. U.S. Representative Adam Schiff withdrew his endorsement over the summer, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti switched his endorsement from Lacey to Gascón. Gascón has gone from an insurgent candidate to the mainstream Democratic pick, with endorsements from Governor Gavin Newsom and U.S. Senator Kamala Harris. 

Los Angeles County, with the nation’s largest jail system and largest local prosecutor office, is considered a crown jewel in a nationwide push to elect progressive prosecutors. 

“My success will have a huge impact and my failure will have a huge impact as well,” Gascón told The Appeal: Political Report. “If I win and we can show that it 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.” 

Law enforcement groups have contributed at least $5,000,000 to defeat Gascón, whose campaign has received backing from wealthy progressive donors, including philanthropist Patty Quillin. (Quillin is the director of Meadow Fund, a donor-advised fund of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. The foundation has given to The Justice Collaborative, which sponsors The Appeal, through Tides Advocacy.)

“It is probably the most important local election in the United States of America,” said former Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, a stalwart Lacey supporter. He said he believes Gascón would prosecute police officers “just to fulfill his campaign promise” and usher in a “new era” of higher crime. 

In an apparent awareness of shifting winds, Lacey has sought to boost her progressive credentials since March. She often touts her office’s establishment in January 2019 of a dedicated unit to divert defendants with mental illness away from prosecution. Lacey also announced the county had no plans to prosecute protesters for curfew violations, and she filed charges in June against an LAPD officer filmed beating a man in Boyle Heights. 

But when responding to calls for sweeping changes to Los Angeles’s criminal legal system, Lacey says she favors more police training and has accused Black Lives Matter of seeking disruption, not conversation, in her repeated refusals to meet with activists. 

“There are changes happening, there is training happening,” Lacey said during an event in August. “But I think this is an issue we all have to work together for, police officers are human beings as are the people that they stop.” Lacey’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Lacey’s supporters have been more direct in adopting Trump-like anti-reform rhetoric when framing the summer of protests and the stakes of the DA race.

“Who’s asking for what changes? Is it Black Lives Matter, is it Antifa?” said Cooley, who promoted Lacey during his DA tenure from 2000 to 2012. “They are anarchists, they are looters, they are arsonists, and they are rioters.” 

In a Fox News interview, Jamie McBride, the face of the Los Angeles police union, said Los Angeles is in “scary times” after a man shot two sheriff’s deputies in September, in what authorities described as “ambush.”

“We want to make sure this person is apprehended before the end of the year, as soon as possible, because I know and we know that Jackie Lacey is going to prosecute that individual to the fullest,” McBride said. “If George Gascón is elected, he is just going to give a strong talking to and that’s about it.” 

Maintaining the smaller jail population ushered in by coronavirus-related releases is also a heated election issue. Los Angeles County’s chronically overcrowded 17,000-person jail system was below capacity for the first time in 15 years after the jail’s population dropped to under 12,000 people at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the jail population has swelled back to over 14,000. Some of this rise is because the department of corrections has suspended transfers of convicted people from jail to prison. But Nikhil Ramnaney, president of the LA County Public Defender Union, said deputy district attorneys are pushing for bail and against alternatives that would keep defendants out of pretrial detention. “The preference is incarceration,” he said.

Lacey has pitched herself as a moderate reformer. In 2015, she spearheaded a program to divert people with mental illness away from prosecution. Lacey says she prioritizes victim rights while being open to alternatives to incarceration, but advocates have faulted the scope of her initiatives.

When it comes to diverting people with mental illness from jail and charging, Ramnaney said the culture of prosecutors remains bent toward unnecessary incarceration and the burden remains on public defenders to navigate the complex system of diversion programs. “It constantly feels like I have to re-educate DAs about community based resources, literally every single day,” said Ramnaney. 

Gascón centers his bid on reducing the criminalization of these lower-level behaviors tied to mental health, homelessness, or substance use. “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 Political Report in January. “They incarcerate at four times the level that we did in San Francisco but they don’t have anything to show for it in terms of public safety.”

And Gascón promised to look for ways to “reinvest” criminal justice funds into “education, public parks, or other activities that are more likely to create safer and healthier communities over a longer period of time.”

Measure J, an initiative on the November ballot in Los Angeles County, captures the candidates’ different approaches to diverting people from the criminal legal system. The measure, crafted in the wake of the summer protests, would allocate 10 percent of LA County’s unrestricted general funds—around $300 million—toward alternatives to incarceration and community investment. It would bar that money from being funnelled toward law enforcement. 

Gascón has endorsed Measure J; Lacey has called it a rash response to an issue that requires more study and “courageous budgeting.”

Neither candidate has specifically endorsed slashing police budgets in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, despite local calls to slash funding for law enforcement. 

Gascón said he expects a surge of progressive voters looking to oust Trump to benefit his bid this time around. But the county of Los Angeles is vast, with over 10 million people. And while it is known as a Democratic stronghold, it has a history of leaning more conservative on criminal justice issues. Lacey’s predecessor was a Republican. 

In March, Lacey performed best in the majority-white suburbs of Los Angeles and in precincts that are plurality Black, while the progressive bloc of Gascón and Rossi captured rapidly gentrifying areas, and liberal cities like West Hollywood and Santa Monica, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis. Gascón and Rossi also combined for 55 percent of the vote in majority Latinx precincts.

There are some indications that increased awareness of criminal justice issues could hamper support for Lacey. The conservative-leaning editorial board of the Los Angeles Daily News, endorsed Gascón in February, along with the Los Angeles Times, which endorsed Gascón a second time in September. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles City Council voted 12-2 to cut the LAPD budget by $150 million in July, a move that would have been unthinkable before May.    Lacey is now struggling to balance presenting herself as a moderate reformer while police unions tout her as the law-and-order candidate, said Jim Newton, a UCLA lecturer for public policy. 

“It’s both a blessing and curse,” Newton said of the LAPD union’s endorsement, which brought a flood of money and engaged campaigners. “I think it has probably become more of a handicap in recent weeks than she probably expected.” 

Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney who has worked on reforming the LAPD for decades, was skeptical that fearmongering about rising crime would give Lacey a substantial boost. “That doesn’t seem to be resonating because crime is still at historic lows,” she said. “I don’t think this is about law and order right now in LA County. I think it’s about progress in changing policing and prosecutorial cultures … so I don’t see it playing out in this county in the way it has the potential to play out in the more racially isolated and less racially and ethnically pluralistic Midwest.”

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For many of her critics, Lacey’s perceived unwillingness to prosecute police officers for fatal shootings defined her second term. “If we get her out we’ll be dancing in the streets for weeks,” said Melinah Abdullah, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, which has been campaigning against Lacey. 

Four years ago, she ran for re-election unopposed, becoming the first Los Angeles district attorney in decades to win without a challenger. Shortly before the election, LAPD officer Clifford Proctor killed an unarmed and unhoused Black man named Brendon Glenn. Lacey ultimately declined to prosecute the officer in 2018—a decision that went against the recommendation of the police chief. 

Black Lives Matter activists began protesting outside Lacey’s office every week, hoping she would be forced to reckon with police violence.  “This has been one of the biggest lifts we’ve undertaken,” said Abdullah.

Last year, protesters started appearing at Lacey’s house and shouting her down at public events. And a day before the March primary, Lacey’s husband pointed a gun at protesters outside his home and threatened to shoot. He now faces misdemeanor charges. 

During the summer, the protests in front of Lacey’s office swelled from dozens to thousands.“In the beginning, yes, it was just us, a handful,” said Trisha Michael who has been protesting with Black Lives Matter since her twin sister, Kisha Michael, was killed in Inglewood, one the 88 incorportated cities within the district attorney’s jurisdiction. Michael said community members were looking to the police chief and others for police accountability, but now those calling for change have realized that Lacey is “the big fish to fry.” 

And even as Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation in the summer, two more men—Dijon Kizzee and Andres Guardado—were shot dead by law enforcement in Los Angeles County, sparking renewed protests. 

In late September, Lacey recused herself from deciding whether to prosecute an LAPD officer in the deadly shooting of Daniel Hernandez. The officer involved in that shooting is Toni McBride, the daughter of the LAPD union head who helped facilitate a million dollar donation toward Lacey’s re-election, creating a likely conflict of interest, according to the California attorney general. Her decision to hand authority over to the attorney general is out of character, with one observer saying political pressure forced her hand. Days after her recusal, Gascón pledged to reopen investigations in four fatal police shootings, including the killing of Glenn, saying that public trust in Lacey’s decision-making has been “shattered” by law enforcement money.

Gascón has also been criticized for not prosecuting police for fatal shootings, and similarly drew the ire of protesters in the Bay Area. As San Francisco DA, he declined to press charges in all of the 49 police shootings that occurred under his watch. In one case, Gascón declined to charge the officers who shot Mario Woods over 20 times, a killing that inspired quarterback Colin Kaepernick to take a knee during the national anthem before NFL games. Gascón even filed for a restraining order against a protester who accosted him outside his home. 

Lacey and her supporters have sought to paint Gascón as a political chameleon whose rhetoric on reform contradicts his record as a former police officer and San Francisco DA. “The same law Mr. Gascón is following in San Francisco is the same law I follow in LA County,” Lacey said at a town hall in August. “Why am I being judged differently?” Gascón has also said that, while he was DA, he was restricted by the law at the time dictating what was an acceptable use of force, which he said made it difficult to press charges.

Gascón has stressed in response that, unlike Lacey, he advocated in the legislature for changing state law to make police prosecutions easier. He backed the original version of AB-392, which tightened the standard for police use of force; the legislature ended up adopting a weaker version of the bill last year. Gascón told the Political Report in January he would keep asking the legislature for stronger standards. 

Attorney Arnoldo Casillas who represented the family of Amilcar Perez-Lopez, a San Francisco man shot five times in the back while allegedly holding a knife said he is cautiously optimistic that Gascón would usher in stricter oversight of police shootings despite not prosecuting the officers who shot Perez-Lopez. “Right now Gascón is not beholden to them,” Casillas, who now represents the family of Daniel Hernandez in a civil lawsuit, said of pressure from local law enforcement. “I think there is a window of opportunity to set a new standard.” 

Abdullah, the Black Lives Matter organizer, says their protests will continue irrespective of the November result. “We did tell [Gascón] that when you’re elected, you know, we’re going to have to protest you, too,’” said Abdullah. 

“We’re not going to let them just sit there,” she added. “They’re going to be pressured by the people as well.” 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of police shootings that occured in San Francisco during Gascón’s tenure as district attorney.