Los Angeles DA race more likely a referendum on George Gascón than progressive politics

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The race for Los Angeles County District Attorney won’t be decided until next year, but the field is crowded and the outcome will determine the leadership of one of the nation’s largest and most closely watched prosecutorial agencies – one whose practices have helped shape criminal justice priorities not only for Southern California but much of the country.

That makes George Gascón’s re-election campaign significant, and his weaknesses have attracted a big field of opponents. Oddly, that may be the best thing he has going for him.

Gascón came to office by defeating incumbent Jackie Lacey in 2020, a race that was misleadingly cast as a contest between progressive and old-school styles of prosecution. In that telling, Gascón was presented as the new breed of prosecutor and Lacey as a traditionalist. Neither label fit perfectly, but it was enough for Gascón to corral liberal support and edge out Lacey. His victory was heralded by some observers as part of a wave of progressive prosecutors.

But the past two years have not gone well for Gascón, who has disappointed both as a progressive champion and as a manager.

Immediately upon taking office, he announced significant policy changes, including dropping sentencing enhancements, eliminating cash bail and promising to review sentences in cases previously won by his office. He also pledged new scrutiny of police.

The results in all those areas have been mixed, and Gascón’s timing also could have been better. His moves to rethink prosecutorial strategies arrived just as crime, particularly property crime, was increasing in Los Angeles. That put Gascón at odds with even some liberals on public safety priorities.

His management only underscored those troubles.

Take the issue of sentencing enhancements. Soon after taking office, Gascón announced to great fanfare that he was eliminating those enhancements, which tack on extra prison time for crimes committed with a gun or as part of gang activity, for example, and which he argued were racist. That understandably angered line prosecutors who had been using them for years and thought they were doing so to protect the public.

Days later, Gascón backpedaled, restoring his office’s support for enhancements in cases involving hate crimes, crimes against children and the elderly, and some other offenses.

The result: Sentencing enhancements survived, and Gascón antagonized many of his most senior and veteran employees. No one was happy.

Gascón’s difficulties at one point threatened to topple him. He faced a possible recall, and though that drive fell short of the signatures needed to put it on the ballot, the left did not exactly rally to Gascón’s defense. In last year’s mayoral race, Rick Caruso, who had supported Gascón in 2020, turned around and supported his ouster. Karen Bass, who won the race over Caruso handily, opposed the recall but with careful statements to distance herself from Gascón’s policies.

Since taking office, she has continued to signal her unhappiness with Gascón.

Indeed, Gascón’s alienation from the region’s political leadership was recently highlighted by his pointed exclusion from a gathering of public safety leaders to discuss smash-and-grab robberies. Bass hosted that event and used it to announce the formation of a special task force to respond to those crimes. Gascón was not invited.

Today, as Gascón faces re-election, he has a classic political problem: The right never liked him and the left has grown tired of him.

One private poll that I reviewed recently found that 19% of those surveyed wanted Gascón to remain in office, compared to 52% who wanted him replaced. And that disapproval crossed all the major demographics: Republicans unsurprisingly said they would favor his departure, but so did Democrats, where 39% wanted him replaced and just 25% supported his re-election. Even self-described progressives broke narrowly against him, with 35% favoring his ouster and about a third supporting him. The remaining third was undecided.

Those are devastating numbers for an incumbent. Former Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva, a dangerous and eccentric goofball, actually polled better one year out from his failed re-election. As with Villanueva, Gascón’s unpopularity has drawn the attention of critics, and a field of opponents now stands ready to take him on.

Paradoxically, however, that has created a path for Gascón, if not necessarily to re-election, at least to a runoff. With more than a half-dozen announced opponents, it’s conceivable that candidates with low levels of support, 20% or so, could make the runoff.

The March election is not a primary, so if any candidate did get more than 50%, that would be the end of it. But in this case, a runoff seems a virtual certainty given the size and makeup of the field, which includes four members of the DA’s office, a former superior court judge, a former candidate for California attorney general and a former head of the U.S. Attorney’s Violent and Organized Crime unit.

Gascón’s best chance for survival probably rests on one of his more conservative challengers, Jonathan Hatami or Nathan Hochman, making it to the runoff. Hochman, for instance, is a Republican who ran for California attorney general, discovering in the course of that ill-fated campaign that California math makes it nearly impossible for a Republican to break through at the state level.

The district attorney’s office is nonpartisan, but Los Angeles is even bluer than California, and Gascón’s best shot to retain office would be to face a challenger he could credibly cast as a conservative.

More threatening to Gascón, according to some observers, are the race’s two moderate Democrats, Eric Siddall and Jeff Chemerinsky.

Siddall is a leader of the union that represents deputy district attorneys and has dogged Gascón from the beginning; he knows the office and its shortcomings. Chemerinsky is an experienced federal prosecutor with solid Democratic credentials and a family name – he is the son of UC Berkeley law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky – that may help cement his relationship with liberals.

If either Siddall or Chemerinsky made the runoff against Gascón, the contender would have ample room to find votes in the center, leaving Gascón with little space to expand his narrow base.

Does that make the campaign a referendum on progressive prosecutors? Some media cast Gascón’s first race in those terms, but it was off-base then and more off now. Chemerinsky, for instance, supports many of the ideas that define progressive prosecutors across the country without carrying Gascón’s political and managerial baggage.

In this case, the race seems as likely to turn on effectiveness as ideology, and that almost surely favors a challenger. Gascón may be replaced, but Los Angeles is unlikely to revert to a tough-on-crime conservative.

Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and teacher. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist, covering government and politics. He teaches at UCLA and founded Blueprint magazine.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Los Angeles DA race a referendum on George Gascón