Criminal Justice Featured Los Angeles Writing

Progressives Take on District Attorney in L.A. Election

Los Angeles is the latest city where criminal justice reformers are running against traditional law-and-order incumbents.

This article was published by Capital & Main and
co-published by The American Prospect.

A pair of progressive reformers are running to unseat Los Angeles’ tough-on-crime district attorney in a race that some are calling, perhaps hyperbolically, the nation’s second-most important of this presidential-election year. With the country’s largest prosecutorial agency at stake, big money interests are flooding the campaigns of the chief contenders, and grassroots organizers are knocking on doors to get out the vote.

The incumbent, Jackie Lacey, 63, became the first woman and African-American elected as L.A.’s lead prosecutor in 2012, and four years later was re-elected without opposition. But she is being challenged on the left by former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, 66, and former Los Angeles public defender Rachel Rossi, 36, in the March 3 primary election.

A Capital & Main analysis of public records found that Lacey and Gascón’s campaigns have raised more than $2 million apiece. Lacey’s re-election run is being funded almost entirely by law enforcement unions, while Gascón is pulling in major money from Silicon Valley philanthropists. Rossi, however, has received hardly any financial support. On the ground in Los Angeles, community groups are also making their voices heard.

Big Money

Los Angeles is the latest in a nationwide trend of cities whose criminal justice reformers are running against traditional law-and-order incumbents. Top prosecutors have wide discretion to decide which crimes to pursue and how, which has made district attorney races a strategic battleground for change. And the sheer size of Los Angeles, which is the nation’s principal jailer, is drawing money and influence from across the country.

“It was just too big for us to pass up,” said Kwesi Chappin, the senior political director for Color of Change, an online racial justice organization that has been designing campaigns for progressive prosecutors since 2016.

And they’re far from alone.

district attorney

While past incumbent district attorneys could coast through elections with support from law enforcement unions, liberal donors have been trying to tip the scales the other way in California since 2018 by backing reform-minded challengers. Most have lost so far, except for Diana Becton, who became the first African-American woman elected as Contra Costa County’s DA two years ago.

In the upcoming race Lacey’s support from cops and prosecutors is being matched by Bay Area philanthropists’ donations for Gascón, who calls himself the “Godfather of Progressive Prosecutors.”

The nickname has not won over the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which has funneled $1 million to Lacey’s campaign, with at least some of that channeled into attack ads against Gascón. Another video questioning Gascón’s record and presenting Lacey as law enforcement’s pick was funded by four groups, including the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs State PAC, which gave $800,000, and the union representing L.A. firefighters, which donated $50,000. The Peace Officers Research Association of California donated $107,500 just days after warning that Gascón’s election could “ignite the fire started in 2018” and push social justice groups to replace all of the state’s 58 DAs with progressive reformers.

Last year, the Los Angeles Times pointed out that Lacey’s campaign also received donations from people accused of crimes or misconduct, as well as from relatives and associates of the accused, such as Svetlana and Vadim Baranovsky, the parents of a man charged with first-degree murder. Her campaign then returned at least $13,000 in response to the reporting. Capital & Main’s repeated attempts to contact Lacey’s campaign were unsuccessful.

The biggest contributors to pro-Gascón groups have all been female Bay Area philanthropists. $1 million was given by Patricia Ann Quillin, who is married to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. In recent years, Quillin has pumped funds into the campaigns of at least seven progressive DA candidates in California, campaign finance data show.

Elizabeth “Liz” Simons, board chair of the Bay Area-based Heising-Simons Foundation, gave $585,000 to Gascón’s cause. Nicole Shanahan, founder and CEO of the tech company ClearAccessIP, put another $150,000 in the race. Quinn Delaney, board chair of the Akonadi Foundation, which focuses on ending the criminalization of people of color, contributed $100,000. At least some of this money has gone to ads promoting Gascón as the “real justice” candidate, with endorsements coming from high-profile figures in Los Angeles.

The largest contribution from a political action group came from Real Justice, which was established in 2017 to help elect reform-minded prosecutors. The group poured $250,000 into a pro-Gascón independent expenditure committee. Real Justice was initially underwritten by a $650,000 donation from Cari Tuna, the wife of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. She has kept Real Justice flush with cash by giving it at least $1.25 million since its launch. Tuna also poured $110,000 into Gascón’s campaign.

Gascón told Capital & Main that his campaign has no connection to any of these independent contributors. He said the flood of money is coming from “people in the reform movement that are seeing the injustices that are occurring [in Los Angeles] and how that impacts the rest of the state and the country.” He pointed to mass incarceration of black and brown people and the criminalization of substance abuse as examples of how punishment is working against public safety in L.A. While he was San Francisco’s DA, Gascón co-authored Proposition 47, the successful state ballot initiative that lowered the sentencing severity for nonviolent crimes in California.

When asked if Silicon Valley funding could mean Big Tech influence in L.A.’s approach to criminal justice, should he be elected, Gascón denied any outside influence. He plans to focus on technology and science by partnering with researchers, foundations and private industry. But he said that he’ll be careful about who he collaborates with and will ensure transparency. During his tenure as San Francisco’s DA, he accepted foundation grants and partnered with tech nonprofits and university researchers to develop and implement new technologies for expunging criminal records and removing racial bias from charging decisions. Privacy and legal experts have raised concerns in recent years over the use of tech tools in policing and prosecutions, from facial recognition software to algorithms that they claim reinforce inequities.

Rachel Rossi’s campaign, unlike those of her opponents, has not raised much money, although she receives support from such local groups as the Black L.A. Young Democrats and the Latino Coalition of Los Angeles. “I’m the people-powered campaign,” she told Capital & Main. Rossi said that even without deep campaign coffers, her appearances in debates, forums, media interviews and online outreach have allowed her to present her platform to voters.

“We’re at a time in L.A. where money is not going to be the deciding factor in this race,” Rossi said. She added that while the funding in the election “has painted the criminal justice reform conversation as progressive versus not progressive, or soft-on-crime versus tough-on-crime,” she wants to shift toward a “more unifying message.” She thinks Los Angeles can be “smart on crime” by bringing law enforcement and progressive reformers together to hash out solutions. While working for U.S. Senator Richard Durbin, Rossi helped build consensus between police and policymakers, easing bi-partisan negotiations over the First Step Act, a federal criminal justice reform bill signed into law in 2018 that constituted the most significant reform in two decades.

“Already a Victory”

Color of Change’s Chappin said that beyond the challenges presented by L.A.’s sprawling criminal justice system and high incarceration rates, what really made it a “no-brainer” for his group to get involved in the race was an existing opposition to Lacey among many Angelenos.

Since 2018, Black Lives Matter protesters have gathered outside of Lacey’s office every Wednesday. The group has documented more than 500 people killed by on-duty cops since Lacey became district attorney. Her office has prosecuted one officer, the first to face trial for an officer-involved shooting in the last 20 years.

“She has been a complete apologist for police officers. They’re in bed together,” said Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter LA. The group doesn’t back candidates in elections, but hopes to see Lacey removed from office.

“This is already a victory,” Abdullah said, noting that having multiple challengers in the race increases the likelihood of a runoff. Unless a candidate wins outright on March 3 by receiving more than half of the vote, the top-two contenders will go head to head in the November general election.

Because the vote for district attorney is on the same ballot as this year’s presidential contest, Chappin called it a special opportunity to inform Angeleno voters about the significance of the lead prosecutor spot. His group is backing Gascón, though they “really love the energy” that Rossi is bringing to the race. Its members’ main goal is to beat Lacey.

Lacey has earned endorsements from many of California’s most prominent elected officials, such as U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff. But the Los Angeles County Democratic Party went with Gascón.

Gascón, who is also a former high-ranking Los Angeles Police Department officer, has built a broad support network in Los Angeles during this race. But he was not immune to criticism during his tenure as San Francisco’s district attorney.

Activists argued he didn’t take enough action to charge cops in deadly shootings, while police groups resisted his push to investigate misconduct. (Gascón set up an independent unit within his San Francisco office to focus on police shootings — which he promises to replicate in Los Angeles if elected. He has pointed to existing use-of-force laws as the reason that his office prosecuted few cops). Violent crime rates dropped during Gascón’s tenure, but property crimes rose slightly — which Mayor London Breed blamed on his office. Breed and longtime City Attorney Dennis Herrera both snubbed Gascón by endorsing Lacey in the L.A. race.

Max Arias is one of the community leaders that has formed a grassroots coalition to phonebank, knock on doors and distribute flyers for Gascón. Arias is the executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 99, which represents Los Angeles’ public school employees. The union’s members were discontent with what they regard as the current district attorney’s punitive approach to law enforcement but, Arias said, “instead of having an anti-Lacey campaign, we decided to support George Gascón.” Arias said they’ve reached an estimated 10,000 voters.

Religious groups, which don’t typically engage in campaign organizing, have also gotten involved with endorsing and canvassing for Gascón and Rossi.

There are no polls to indicate how voters are leaning. What is certain is that the Los Angeles communities engaging in the race won’t let up once the votes are cast. No matter who is elected, organizers say, they’ll work to hold them accountable to their campaign promises.

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