Why would a San Francisco district attorney challenge LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey?


"Downtown Los Angeles." Credit: Anika Malone. 

LA County District Attorney Jackie Lacey is one of the county’s most powerful officials and one of the nation’s best-known prosecutors.  

Now, she may be is facing an unusual political challenger: District Attorney of San Francisco, George Gascón. Gascón says he’s considering making a run for Lacey’s job in 2020. He would run against her from the left on many criminal justice issues. 

Gascón has been attacking mass incarceration, is supporting bail reform and says he wants to hold law enforcement accountable. 

In a recent report, the ACLU analyzed Lacey's years in office and found that all of the 22 people sentenced to death in LA were people of color. Additionally, LA was one of the three counties nationwide that sent the most people to death row.  

KCRW’s Warren Olney talked to KCRW’s Larry Perel about how this challenge would be the most interesting -- and most important -- district attorney races in recent memory. 

Larry Perel: So why could this D.A. election in 2020 be so different.  

Warren Olney: Well first of all, at the top of the list is the fact that a district attorney from San Francisco is coming down to challenge a district attorney in Los Angeles. Nobody has ever heard of any such thing in the past. And, you know, maybe the rivalry between the cities is less than it used to be, but this is history in the making.

In addition to that, Jackie Lacey, of course, is LA’s first black district attorney as well as the first woman. But the issues against her that Gascón is likely to bring are likely to include mass incarceration in county jails, police shootings of black people, particularly, the death penalty and race discrimination and criminal prosecutions.  

LP: So how did the first black district attorney get in trouble on all these issues? 

WO: Well here's the history. She was unopposed for reelection in 2016 but there was an aborted recall the following year in 2017. And the issue was refusal to prosecute cops for killing a black man. Last year she refused to prosecute another cop even after police Chief Charlie Beck said she should. Black Lives Matter and other groups have been protesting her events and the ACLU has been writing scathing critiques all of the death penalty cases have been against people of color.  

LP: So between her death penalty track record and in dealing with police shootings, is it that she's out of touch with the LA electorate and LA values?  

WO: Well that, of course, is the major question and there's real division on that. D.A.s have been defeated before. Ira Reiner, Gil Garcetti, the current mayor's father. They were accused of not being tough enough. Now here comes Lacey. She was handpicked successor of D.A. Steve Cooley back in 2012, a very tough minded guy. Now she's accepted gifts from D.A.s that she's promoted and from outside attorneys as well who might want favors; and the judge said in court that her public integrity unit, which was created by Steve Cooley, was incompetent and should be dismantled. Other black elected officials are seething over her felony prosecution of state senator Rod Wright. That was for falsely claiming he lived in the district nobody could believe that she charged him with a felony. He got convicted and then when Jerry Brown pardoned him Jackie Lacey criticized Brown. So that hasn't worked out very well. 

LP: So what do we know about her possible challenger George Gascón?

WO: Well first of all George Gascón is Latino. Remember how important that was last year in the election for sheriff when Alex Villanueva succeeded in a very surprising way, so that could be very important. But also Gascón started out here, he was with the LAPD, he rose to deputy chief in the 1990s. He then became chief of police in San Francisco in 2009 and two years after that he was appointed district attorney. That was the act of Governor Gavin Newsom when he was termed out as mayor. Gascón was reelected four years later. And of course he's the first Latino ever to hold either job there. That has to stand in his favor.  

LP: I would imagine it would. So what is he known for?

WO: He boasts about the declining crime rate in San Francisco. Crime is going down in a lot of places. But he makes a big deal about that, of course. But here's what matters: He is attacking mass incarceration, he is supporting bail reform, he says he wants to hold law enforcement accountable. Just what the ACLU and other such groups want to hear. LA has the biggest jails in the country. It's the target of the justice reform movement around the country. So that also is what he apparently has been talking about.

LP: Is Jackie Lacey weak on these issues?

WO: You know not across the board. Her own office is really quite divided and it includes some reform minded D.A.s, but there's also an element of very tough minded prosecutors, who tell her not to be a social worker. She's accused of being too responsive to them and not being able to control her deputies, but that's where voters often go when it comes to law enforcement. They want to see people get tougher not get lighter.  

LP: Will Gascón, in your opinion, have support from outside of Los Angeles if he decides to run?

WO: It's a very, very good question. A lot of people expect that he will from that national justice reform movement I talked about -  George Soros and people like that. But he's got his own problems in San Francisco, with some people including the present mayor, who don't think he's been as tough as he claims to be when it comes to holding cops accountable in racially charged cases. He might have a hard time being reelected up there and on the other hand, the local public defender up there says he's going to be very sad to see George Gascón go. So he's got a mixed record. There'll be things for Jackie Lacey to talk about. But it's very hard to believe when he says out loud that he's thinking about coming down here that he's not going to do that without a lot of support. 

LP: So any names or groups that we can talk about that are throwing a lot of weight behind Gascón?

WO: Well names are a little hard to come by because nobody really wants to talk at this point. It's not clear that George Gascón is in fact going to make this unusual challenge. But all over the country there are major efforts undergone by the George Soros Foundation and others to actually challenge local district attorneys in a number of states, including Florida and Maine and Massachusetts possibly even North Carolina and Missouri. Those are unlikely places, but California is a much more likely place given the kind of politics we have in this blue state. Los Angeles in particular -  biggest jail population in the United States, biggest district attorney's office for that matter. And so it would be a very likely target and it would be part of this national campaign. That's one of the things that's so interesting about this challenge by George Gascón. On the other hand, as I said he's got problems. And Jackie Lacey is of course a black woman district attorney. Would all those people still want to challenge her? That's a major question as yet to be answered.



Larry Perel


Warren Olney