Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey and progressive challenger George Gascón, the top two candidates in a March 2 primary, will progress to the general election for the county’s next top prosecutor.
Lacey received 48.65% of the vote; Gascón, a former district attorney in San Francisco, received 28.22% of the vote; and former public defender Rachel Rossi received 23.13%. In California’s open primary, the two highest vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation — unless a candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, in which case they win the race outright.
For weeks, the race was too close to call as Lacey hovered around 50% of the vote. LA County officials didn’t certify final election results until Friday, more than three weeks after the election.
All three candidates who ran in the primary are Democrats — but unlike Lacey, Gascón and Rossi ran as reformers with platforms aimed at ending mass incarceration and holding law enforcement officers accountable for excessive use of force. Because Rossi’s supporters are likely to back Gascón in November’s general election, he stands a good chance of ousting Lacey.
Lacey, who ran for reelection unchallenged in 2012, is now facing an organized effort by criminal justice reform advocates and activists to replace her. During her eight years as district attorney, Lacey has opposed almost every criminal justice reform measure that’s come up — even as California has been at the forefront of criminal justice reform nationwide. More than 500 people have died at the hands of law enforcement since Lacey took office, but her office has prosecuted only one case. Black Lives Matter Los Angeles has been requesting a community meeting with Lacey for more than two years, but Lacey has declined to meet with a large group of activists, accusing them of aiming to “humiliate” and “intimidate” her.
The day before the election, a group of activists staged an early morning protest outside of Lacey’s home. When Melina Abdullah, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, rang the doorbell to reiterate the group’s request for a meeting, Lacey’s husband pointed a gun at Abdullah and threatened to shoot her. In a news conference later that day, Lacey criticized protesters for repeatedly confronting her and said she was “sorry if anybody was harmed.” The Los Angeles Police Department is working with the California Attorney General’s Office to investigate the incident.
It’s unclear how much the dramatic confrontation affected the outcome of the March 2 primary. Many Los Angeles County residents voted early, and plenty are unsympathetic to Black Lives Matter activists. But the event — and Lacey’s half-hearted apology — will undoubtedly emphasize a key argument by Gascón’s campaign: that Lacey is an impediment to much-needed criminal justice reform in LA.
Gascón and his family fled Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba, and he immigrated to Los Angeles when he was a teenager. After college, he got a job as a patrol officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. He rose through the ranks and became LAPD assistant police chief before being tapped for top jobs with the Mesa Police Department and San Francisco Police Department. As a cop in Los Angeles, Gascón found himself arresting multiple generations of Black men from the same family, a realization that he says shaped his views on mass incarceration.
Gascón was appointed to replace outgoing San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris in 2011. As district attorney, he reduced prison and jail populations, helped draft a proposition that reduced punishments for some nonviolent crimes, took steps to reduce racial bias in prosecutorial decisions, automatically expunged marijuana convictions after California legalized weed, and pushed for diversion programs for young adults and people struggling with mental illness.
During his time in San Francisco, Gascón also faced protests for his office’s failure to prosecute police officers who killed civilians — but unlike Lacey, Gascón is an outspoken critic of laws that make it hard to hold law enforcement accountable for police killings, and he has pushed for reform.
Electing a progressive prosecutor in Los Angeles would represent a dramatic change in America’s second-largest city. Los Angeles County is currently responsible for nearly one-third of California’s incarcerated population. Black residents in the county are incarcerated at 13 times the rate of white residents. Los Angeles County jails house more inmates than any other jail system in the country — including 5,000 inmates who are struggling with mental illness.
Gascón has endorsements from the Los Angeles County Democrats and Los Angeles Times editorial board. The Times’ editorial board described the district attorney race as possibly “the most important item before voters in 2020,” citing the size and influence of the agency.
Black Lives Matter doesn’t endorse candidates, but Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the movement who is from Los Angeles, endorsed both Gascón and Rossi ahead of the primary. Abdullah told HuffPost in January that she preferred Rossi but appreciated Gascón’s outreach to Black Lives Matter.
The unusually high-profile district attorney race has attracted a flood of cash from outside groups. Almost all of the nearly $2.2 million in contributions to groups boosting Lacey came from law enforcement unions, the Los Angeles Times reported. Most of the $2.1 million spent to support Gascón came from two wealthy benefactors in Northern California who frequently fund progressive fights.