A political action committee that encouraged former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón to run is expected to channel national dollars into the race. | AP Photo OAKLAND — Former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón’s decision to step aside, move south and challenge Los Angeles DA Jackie Lacey may have an outsized impact on…
A political action committee that encouraged former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón to run is expected to channel national dollars into the race. | AP Photo
OAKLAND — Former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón’s decision to step aside, move south and challenge Los Angeles DA Jackie Lacey may have an outsized impact on the fast-changing U.S. criminal justice landscape.
The race is taking place in a receding tough-on-crime era and pits a leading liberal reformer against an incumbent who has been more aligned with traditional prosecutors.Story Continued Below
The stakes are high, and not just for California. Once relegated to the realm of down-ballot afterthoughts for many voters, district attorney races have increasingly attracted national attention and money. The focus reflects an ascendant reform movement’s understanding that, of all the elected officials who shape crime and punishment, none wield more power than prosecutors. And it parallels rising bipartisan disillusionment with mass incarceration and public anger at police shootings — often captured on video.
“In 2018, we saw a surge in the number of people willing to challenge incumbent district attorneys across California — that was the first time we’d seen that in many of those counties,” said Natasha Minsker, who until recently headed the American Civil Liberties Union’s Sacramento office. “There’s definitely rising awareness about the role of district attorney and the fact that the district attorney is an elected position.”
Voters have propelled a growing number of reform-minded prosecutors into office, including in large cities like St. Louis, Philadelphia and Baltimore. The unfolding March 2020 contest between Gascón and Lacey promises to become a nationally watched — and funded — race, and it poses a prominent test for the movement in a massive and influential jurisdiction that was once among the principal drivers of mass incarceration.
A Gascón victory would be a win in the biggest city yet. At the same time, enthusiasm about the movement’s momentum runs into the reality that exists in some cities with progressive prosecutors: Baltimore has struggled with a surge in violent crime and San Francisco’s property crime rate is among the highest in the country.
A political action committee that encouraged Gascón to run is expected to channel national dollars into the race. And reformers say they expect the contest to attract unprecedented attention.
“Lots of dollars are being thrown towards these races but even beyond dollars, a lot of eyes and resources and a clarity that’s coming from the community that these offices are so critical for the people most directly impacted by police violence, incarceration, homelessness and mental illness,” said Patrisse Cullors, who is California director of the Real Justice PAC and co-founded Black Lives Matter, adding that she believed the race could serve as a “tipping point” nationally.
“Many of us have been thinking about this since Jackie Lacey ran unopposed,” Cullors said. “That was our bad as a community and we said, ‘We’re not going to let this happen again.’”
The contest reflects fraught social dynamics that are unique to LA, a city with a history of scandal-plagued law enforcement agencies and tense race relations that resulted in two of the nation’s deadliest riots.
It also focuses a critique of prosecutorial power on the first African American and first woman to serve as the city’s DA, although Cullors said that Lacey’s record has demonstrated “sometimes it doesn’t matter the identity of the candidates,” with the incumbent acting “in alignment with the policies of the past that are racist, that are classist, that put a punishment model first instead of a model of care.”
But it’s unfolding against a national backdrop that includes national organizations trying to move votes by moving dollars. Last cycle, the George Soros-funded Justice and Public Safety PAC poured more than $3 million against incumbent California prosecutors.
The PAC is part of a constellation of Soros-funded organizations that have poured millions into several other DA races around the country, such as aiding reformer Tiffany Cabán’s closely contested Queens district attorney race this year (Cabán also won Real Justice PAC’s support). The organization has been playing in district attorney races since 2015, and its president Whitney Tymas said the results have “served as a catalyst for others to come into this space and to start looking critically at prosecutors.”
“There are now a lot of people thinking about running who four and a half years ago may not have,” Tymas said.
California voters and elected officials have swung aggressively away from the state’s tough-on-crime past in recent years. A rush of ballot initiatives and state laws has, among other things, repealed the state’s three-strikes sentencing law, legalized marijuana, eased penalties for drug possession, banned cash bail, loosened parole rules and backed off harsher sentences for minors.
Gascón has often been at the forefront with stances that provide a sharp contrast with Lacey. He helped champion the statewide campaign for a ballot initiative that downgraded the penalties for drug possession and some thefts from felonies to misdemeanors; Lacey aligned with other California prosecutors in opposing that measure, which law enforcement groups are seeking to partially roll back with a 2020 ballot initiative.
Those types of differences will animate the campaign. Gascón and allies point out that LA’s rate of incarceration is substantially higher than San Francisco’s, and that while Gascon has refused to pursue capital punishment Lacey has sent dozens of people — almost all minorities — to death row.
The Lacey campaign rejects the notion that she is not progressive, immediately releasing a campaign ad touting her launch of an internal mental health division, and said in a statement that she only seeks the death penalty in “the most heinous and egregious of cases,” whose victims are often people of color.
“San Francisco County has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the state, and also has the highest rate of property crime and homelessness,” Lacey said in a statement. “My job is to keep Los Angeles County safe, not change my prosecutions for political purposes.”
Gascón’s work in San Francisco earned him the admiration of like-minded reformers and the enmity of the city’s police union. The president of San Francisco Police Officers Association responded to Gascón’s LA campaign with a statement that cops were “praying for the residents of Los Angeles hoping that George Gascón does not do to their city what he did to San Francisco during his tenure.”
That type of opposition historically would have been politically fatal for anyone running for DA, whose close work with law enforcement has tended to translate to political alignment. But other progressive prosecutors who have also antagonized cops argue that the political terrain is shifting, and that support from rank-and-file law enforcement is no longer a necessity.
“The voters are not in the same place as the institutions,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, framing the backing of police unions as “a kiss of death” for voters who “don’t want more of the same.”
Krasner said he encouraged Gascón to run. They belong to a small but growing club of prosecutors seeking to move away from more stringent sentencing and embrace tougher police accountability measures. That network has been nurtured by organizations like Fair and Just Prosecution, which convenes trainings and enlisted Gascón as a mentor to other prosecutors.
“This can be a very lonely sort of position if you didn’t have that kind of network,” said State’s Attorney for Baltimore Marilyn Mosby, who made the momentous decision to file charges against police officers for the death of Freddie Gray in custody that were later dropped. Mosby said she is supporting Gascón to rectify the fact that a progressive tilt “is not happening in one of the largest prosecution areas in the country.”
Fair and Just Prosecution’s membership has steadily grown since its launch, from 14 prosecutors in 2017 to an expected 40 or so by 2020, according to executive director Miriam Krinsky. While that still represents a tiny fraction of the thousands of elected prosecutor positions in America, Krinsky — a former federal prosecutor herself — noted that a handful of those officials are responsible for the majority of America’s jail population. Los Angeles is a major one.
“I think this is probably one of the most significant races we’ve seen in the nation,” Krinsky said, adding that “In many instances leadership in LA can either light the fire behind state reform or kill it, so leadership of a prosecutor’s office in Los Angeles is incredibly impactful of the state landscape as a whole.”
The burgeoning national political network supporting progressive prosecutors may buoy Gascón’s chances in 2020. But Krasner argued that while institutional support is important, it reflects an underlying shift in public opinion after controversial police shootings.
“Michael Brown happened. Ferguson happened,” Krasner said. “And the prosecutor who wouldn’t charge got replaced by [St. Louis County Prosecutor] Wesley Bell.”
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