Veteran prosecutor Jackie Lacey led in early voting returns Tuesday in her bid to become Los Angeles County's first African American and first female district attorney, building a commanding advantage over her rival, Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Jackson.
Lacey was widely viewed as the favorite in the nonpartisan race after finishing first in the June primary and boasting the support of her boss, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who is retiring after a historic three terms.
The early count for the two-candidate runoff included mail-in ballots turned in before election day and more than 40% of precincts reporting votes cast at the polls.
At her election night party at Union Station, Lacey was welcomed to the stage by R&B; singer Macy Gray, one of a number of celebrities who backed her campaign. Lacey cautioned supporters that the results were still early but said she was optimistic that they would herald a historic win.
But Jackson's campaign strategist, John Thomas, noted that ballots from outlying areas of the county that are traditionally more conservative had yet to be counted and said he was hopeful that those votes would help Jackson close the gap.
The election was the first in nearly 50 years in which an incumbent was not involved in the race to run the most powerful office in the county's criminal justice system -- one responsible for prosecuting roughly 60,000 felony cases a year, including murders, rapes and robberies.
The campaign was hard-fought, with each candidate raising more than $1 million. The election rivals have similar backgrounds, raised by hardworking, blue-collar parents with little formal education, but emphasized their differences during the race.
Lacey, 55, touted herself as the only candidate with the experience to run the office of about 1,000 prosecutors. She joined the district attorney's office in 1986 and was promoted to management in 2000. Cooley selected her as chief deputy -- the No. 2 position in the office -- in March 2011, shortly before announcing his plans to retire.
Along with Cooley's backing, Lacey picked up endorsements from prominent Democratic politicians, including California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. She also won the endorsement of powerful law enforcement unions, such as the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs and the Los Angeles Police Protective League, although the organizations did not spend heavily to support her campaign.
The union that represents line-level prosecutors in the district attorney's office did not officially endorse either candidate, but its members voted overwhelmingly to support Lacey over Jackson.
Jackson, meanwhile, had the support of the county's prominent Republican politicians, including Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich. He also won the backing of associations representing many of the county's smaller police departments.
Jackson, 47, pointed to his credentials as a frontline prosecutor, saying he had the on-the-ground experience needed to run a modern district attorney's office.
A 17-year veteran of the office, Jackson cut his teeth in the hard-core gang unit in Compton before moving to the elite major crimes division, where he works as the assistant head. He successfully prosecuted the murder trial of music producer Phil Spector and the cold-case murder of race car driver Mickey Thompson, who was killed along with his wife by two hooded gunmen in 1988.
The campaign was bitter at times. Jackson attacked Lacey in television ads over conflicting testimony she gave in two union grievance hearings. Lacey's campaign slammed Jackson over a major campaign donor who turned out to be a convicted felon but then had to concede that she too had accepted money from a convicted criminal.
Jackson cast his opponent as a bureaucrat out of touch with the courtroom. Lacey described Jackson as naive and lacking the leadership skills necessary to run the largest local prosecutorial office in the nation.
Both expressed support for the death penalty and expanding prevention programs and alternative sentencing. But they took different positions on a ballot measure that would soften California's three-strikes law and one that would raise taxes in part to provide counties with funding to cope with housing state prison inmates in local lockups. Lacey supports and Jackson opposes both.
The candidates were the two highest vote-getters in the June primary, beating out a crowded field that included Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich.