Los Angeles County district attorney seeks reelection in contest focused on feeling of public safety

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Los Angeles County voters are set to decide next month if embattled District Attorney George Gascón will remain the head of the nation’s largest prosecutor’s office in a race centered on perceptions of public safety.

Gascón, who was elected in 2020 on a criminal justice platform alongside a wave of progressive prosecutors, faces 11 challengers in the March 5 nonpartisan primary. Voting is already underway.

Gascón’s challengers say his policies are to blame for rising crime, including a series of brazen smash-and-grab robberies at luxury stores that have garnered national attention from critics who say California’s Democratic leaders are allowing lawlessness. Property crime increased nearly 3% within the sheriff’s jurisdiction of Los Angeles County from 2022 to 2023.

Violent crime, however, decreased more than 3% in the city of Los Angeles and nearly 1.5% in the county in 2023 compared to the year before. It is still above pre-pandemic levels, and the feeling of being unsafe is so pervasive that even the Los Angeles mayor and police chief said last month they are working to fix the city’s image.

“There isn’t a community, I believe, in LA County that would say things are on the right track from a crime perspective,” said Michael Bustamante, an election expert and public affairs consultant who is not involved in the race.

Gascón was elected after a summer of unrest following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

He immediately imposed his campaign agenda: not seeking the death penalty; not prosecuting juveniles as adults; ending cash bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies; and no longer filing enhancements triggering stiffer sentences for certain elements of crimes, repeat offenses or gang membership.

Gascón quickly faced backlash, including a recall attempt within his first 100 days and a second attempt later, which both failed to get on the ballot.

His challengers include local prosecutors Jonathan Hatami and Eric Siddall and former federal prosecutors Jeff Chemerinsky and Nathan Hochman, a one-time attorney general candidate, who all have garnered notable endorsements.

To win outright, a candidate must receive a 50%-plus-one vote, an unlikely outcome in the largest-ever field to seek the office. Anything less triggers a runoff race between the top two candidates in November to lead an agency made up of almost 1,000 lawyers who prosecute cases in the most populous county in the U.S.

Experts believe Gascón will survive the primary but are less optimistic about his chances in November.

“Nobody has really broken out. And with a large number of each candidate getting a decent amount of support, it could become a random thing who gets into the runoff,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of The John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation, which focuses on social science research in Los Angeles.

The challenger field is largely campaigning on a reversal of nearly all of Gascón’s progressive policies. They’re running with a more tough-on-crime approach but are mindful of going too far for LA County’s Democratic electorate.

Chemerinsky, for example, vowed to undo almost all of Gascón’s practices but said he would keep the ban on the use of the death penalty.

Gascón’s first term has been rocky. His orders to prosecutors to stop seeking longer prison sentences and cease using sentencing enhancements, among other controversial policies, were met with immediate resistance.

The union representing rank-and-file prosecutors sued Gascón, arguing he cannot bar the use of sentencing enhancements for prior felony convictions under the state’s “three strikes” law. The California Supreme Court heard arguments last year and has not issued a ruling.

Gascón faced a slew of no-confidence votes by municipal governments across the county. Other county district attorneys took the unusual step of criticizing his policies as reckless and tried to take cases from his jurisdiction.

He also was forced to roll back some of his biggest reforms, such as initially ordering more than 100 enhancements dropped and elevating a hate crime from misdemeanor to a felony. The move infuriated victims’ advocates and Gascón backpedaled, restoring enhancements in cases involving children, elderly people and people targeted because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability.

“I think that most of the damage to Gascón happened relatively early,” Sonenshein said.

The unions representing rank-and-file Los Angeles Police Department officers and Los Angeles County deputy sheriffs, respectively, have not publicly endorsed anyone in the primary. In 2020, both heavily opposed Gascón, a former police chief and two-term San Francisco district attorney.

The Association of Deputy District Attorneys, representing LA County prosecutors, has endorsed Siddall, its former vice president.

Hochman’s campaign said Thursday he has raised $2 million. Gascón, who got more than $12 million in contributions in 2020 — had nearly $112,000 cash-on-hand in his campaign account as of Feb. 17, according to campaign finance records. Experts said that’s a fraction of what’s needed to run a county-wide campaign.

Reports from Thursday’s filing deadline have not been made public yet.

The other candidates are David S. Milton, Debra Archuleta, Maria Ramirez, Dan Kapelovitz, Lloyd “Bobcat” Masson, John McKinney and Craig J. Mitchell.

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