Advocates for criminal justice reform who have elected a wave of progressive prosecutors nationwide captured the crown jewel Friday as former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon defeated Los Angeles DA Jackie Lacey.
The bitter race to run the nation’s largest prosecutor’s office was seen as a referendum on whether LA voters wanted to reform policies after a summer of activism over police brutality and racial inequality ignited by George Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police.
The election created an unusual dynamic in which Gascon, a former beat cop and police chief, was opposed by law enforcement unions, while Lacey, the first woman and Black person to run the office, was criticized by Black Lives Matter activists.
Gascon had nearly 54% of the 3 million votes counted when an emotional Lacey conceded, saying that even though votes remained to be counted, her consultants concluded she could not make up the difference.
“Our nation is going through a reckoning, and what happened in my election may one day be listed as a consequence of that,” Lacey said about the discussion over racism and criminal justice reform. “It may be said that one day the results of this election is a result of our season of discontent and a demand to see a tsunami of change.”
Gascon, who co-authored statewide criminal justice reforms, promised to remake the office and hold law enforcement accountable for unjustified killings.
Lacey was seeking a third term on a platform more focused on traditional law-and-order issues like public safety, though she also highlighted her own reform credentials.
She nearly won reelection in a three-way primary in March but fell just shy of the majority of votes needed to avoid a runoff. Gascon, the more moderate of two reform challengers, was able to advance to the general election with less than 30% of the vote.
His message gained traction after activists took to the streets following the death of Floyd, a Black man who cried out that he couldn’t breathe as a white Minneapolis officer pinned him to the street in May. Protesters across Los Angeles rallied to defund police and amplified calls to oust Lacey for failing to prosecute officers in police shootings.
Lacey has only brought one manslaughter case against an officer in more than 340 fatal shootings during her two terms, saying she’s repeatedly declined to file charges because the law makes it difficult to prosecute a police officer. She’s filed two dozen excessive force cases against officers.
Critics said she was too cozy with police, whose unions provided the vast majority of the $7 million supporting her campaign.
The political winds had shifted and Lacey got caught in the slipstream of the reform movement, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.
He noted that Lacey and Sen. Kamala Harris, who was once San Francisco district attorney and is now the Democratic vice presidential nominee, had both defied the odds as Black women elected at a time when a prosecutor had to be tough on crime and needed support from police.
“The notion that elected officials went from burnishing their public safety credentials by taking campaign donations from public safety unions and then deciding it would be better not to take that money, that’s a change,” Sonenshein said. “And it’s a rapid change.”
Lacey’s harshest critics were Black Lives Matter demonstrators who have protested outside her office once a week for three years. They held a jubilant celebration Wednesday outside the Hall of Justice, confident they had driven her from office.
Demonstrators said they would hold her successor accountable and keep fighting for racial justice.
Gascon, who immigrated to LA from Cuba as a teen, was a longtime member of the Los Angeles Police Department before becoming chief in Mesa, Arizona, and then San Francisco, where he was later named DA.
Lacey criticized Gascon for not prosecuting police officers in killings in San Francisco. He defended his decisions because all of the victims were armed and the law strongly favored police. Gascon co-authored a bill to make it easier to prosecute officers, which got watered down before passing in the Legislature.
Lacey had criticized Gascon as a failure in San Francisco, where thefts increased under his watch. She said crime would increase in Los Angeles if he’s elected.
Gascon pulled in $12 million, mainly from wealthy donors bent on criminal reform. Billionaire George Soros gave $2.25 million, and philanthropist Patty Quillin, who’s married to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, gave $1.6 million, according to the Los Angeles Times. Hastings gave $500,000.
Lacey, who has spent almost her whole career at the DA’s office, highlighted her reform credentials, such as creating a conviction review unit and seeking treatment rather than punishment for the mentally ill. Gascon said they were ineffective and he would do more.
Her campaign was overshadowed the morning before the primary election when her husband pointed a gun at Black Lives Matter protesters who showed up before dawn on the couple’s doorstep.
David Lacey, who is also Black and was an investigative auditor with the DA’s office until his 2016 retirement, was charged by the state attorney general with three misdemeanor counts of assault with a firearm. His attorney entered not-guilty pleas on his behalf.