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Newsletter: Analyzing the L.A. D.A.'s race

Former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and current Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey
Former San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón and incumbent Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey are facing off in November.
(Associated Press)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Wednesday, July 15, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

As November approaches and the race for 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. grows ever more deafening, Angelenos could be forgiven for not spending much time thinking about the next occupant of Suite 1200 on 211 W. Temple St. in downtown Los Angeles.

But the next leader of the Los Angeles district attorney’s office — the largest local prosecutorial office in the U.S. — will also be chosen come November. It’s a down-ballot race that has become a lightning rod in the nationwide debate around police reform, as shifting political winds and national protests over police brutality have transformed the landscape.

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The contest between incumbent Jackie Lacey and former San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón has intensified in recent weeks, and a new data analysis shows Gascón eyeing a path to a potential upset in November. Here’s a look at what’s happening, and what the path forward might look like.

As the first woman and first African American to lead the L.A. district attorney’s office, Lacey was framed as a barrier-shattering candidate when first elected in 2012, and four years later she sailed into a second term unopposed. But the national conversation around criminal justice has shifted dramatically in the years since, and Lacey has been a frequent target of Black Lives Matter protesters, coming under fire for not prosecuting more police officers for misconduct.

Despite her vulnerabilities and the two challengers vying for her seat from the left, Lacey very nearly sailed to an outright victory just four months ago in the March primary.

Early returns showed her with 50% of the vote; the magic number for avoiding a November runoff was 50% of the vote plus one. However, she slipped below that threshold as ballots were counted in the days that followed, eventually emerging with 48.65% of the vote, while Gascón tallied 28%, and former public defender Rachel Rossi took home 23%.

The race, as my colleague James Queally explained in a story a few weeks ago, has long been framed as a test of appetites for criminal justice reform, with Gascón the flag-bearer for the progressive prosecutor movement, and Lacey representing a more traditional approach to crime and punishment. But it’s now being reshaped largely around which candidate is best poised to hold law enforcement accountable.

[Read the story: “Protests over police brutality and criminal justice reform intensify race for L.A. district attorney” in the Los Angeles Times]

Back in March, Brian VanRiper, a consultant who has worked on a number of L.A. City Council races, told James there was “a lot of hype around Gascón, but it’s on Twitter, and it’s among the activist class... Did it break through to the average voter?”

While the gulf between the activist class and the average voter may be nowhere near closing, it certainly looks different than it did in March. As James explains in his most recent story, the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death appear to have dramatically increased the size of the reform movement that Gascón will need to energize his upset bid.

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As the energy of Lacey’s campaign shifted from odds-on favorite to potentially problematic, prominent political figures such as Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Ted Lieu revoked their endorsements. (When asked about his own prior endorsement of Lacey, Mayor Eric Garcetti tapped into his trademark ability to dispense thoughtful-sounding words that evade the potential inconveniences of a concrete position, saying “it may be” time for a change in the district attorney’s office.)

So what happens next? In a story that published this morning, my colleague Priya Krishnakumar analyzed precinct-level data from the primary election to examine voter demographics and the potential paths forward for the candidates.

[Read the story: “Jackie Lacey could lose L.A.'s district attorney race. These maps show where she’s vulnerable” in the Los Angeles Times]

Priya’s analysis of the primary vote shows Lacey dominating the map, finishing in first place in 86% of the 3,072 precincts where votes were counted, with neither challenger coming close to overtaking Lacey on their own. But the analysis also shows a potential path to an upset, if the opposition unites behind Gascón to carry the densely populated, diverse neighborhoods at the county’s center.

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Gascón and Rossi were splitting the opposition vote in many precincts where most voters selected a candidate other than Lacey. But taken together, Rossi and Gascón outperformed Lacey in a swath of the L.A. Basin, from Santa Monica to Eagle Rock and the eastern San Fernando Valley. When the two challengers’ votes are combined, Lacey’s map shrinks significantly, and the majority that opposed her reelection becomes clearer.

Gascón still faces a difficult challenge, particularly among the historically incumbent-friendly voters of Los Angeles County. But, as Priya writes, he could be well-positioned to upset Lacey in November if he can turn momentum around the protests into votes and pick up as much support as possible from Rossi’s base.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

California sets new priorities for who is tested for coronavirus as demand surges: The new guidelines, adopted Tuesday, mark a move away from the Newsom administration’s plans for anyone, including those without symptoms, to be tested for the virus in California. The guidelines instead adopt tiers that prioritize the testing of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 symptoms, other symptomatic people and then higher-risk asymptomatic individuals, according to state health officials. Los Angeles Times

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On Tuesday, Los Angeles County public health officials reported the highest single-day count of COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations since the pandemic hit. The worsening conditions come as California closes many businesses that had been allowed to reopen in May. But Los Angeles said that if the trends don’t change soon, even more restrictive measures will be necessary. Los Angeles Times

L.A. STORIES

President Trump called the decision by Los Angeles schools to not reopen campuses next month a “mistake” during a CBS News interview on Tuesday. The president has been pressing schools and universities to reopen, despite growing concerns from health officials that it is not safe to do so. Los Angeles Times

The Dodgers will sell seats outfitted with cutouts of fans’ faces to line the empty stadium during games. The cutouts will be made of a weatherproof material, with fans allowed to take theirs home after the season. Los Angeles Times

Dodger Stadium on opening day in 2016
A packed house sings the national anthem at Dodger Stadium on opening day in 2016. You can print this photo out and show it to your kids when they ask about the olden days. They may not believe you, but just hum a few bars of “Take Me out to the Ball Game” through your mask and keep trying.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

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IMMIGRATION AND THE BORDER

The Trump administration has abruptly reversed course and will now allow international students to remain in the U.S. while taking classes online during the pandemic. The previously announced policy, which would have required international students to leave the U.S. if their colleges or universities were offering only online classes, had been challenged in multiple lawsuits. Los Angeles Times

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

As millions lose health insurance, the Trump administration offers little help. Pandemic job losses have jeopardized health coverage for many Americans, but the administration is doing little if anything to connect them with other insurance coverage. Los Angeles Times

More than 100,000 mail-in ballots were rejected by California election officials during the March presidential primary, according to data that highlight a glaring gap in the state’s effort to ensure every vote is counted. The most common problem, by far, in California was missing the deadline for the ballot to be mailed and to arrive. To be counted in the election, ballots must be postmarked on or before election day and received within three days afterward. Associated Press

Joe Biden still has his eye on Rep. Karen Bass as a vice presidential candidate. We’ve known that the L.A. congresswoman has been on Biden’s VP vetting list since last month, but now, “much to Bass’ — and pretty much everyone else’s — surprise, Biden’s team is taking her seriously as a potential vice presidential running mate.” This deep dive looks at the former community organizer’s career and the campaign’s considerations. The Atlantic

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been admitted to the hospital for treatment of a possible infection and will stay there for a few days after a medical procedure, according to a statement from the U.S. Supreme Court. Los Angeles Times

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CRIME AND COURTS

California has barred law enforcement agencies around the state from using gang records provided by the L.A. Police Department, as the scandal over false and inaccurate gang identifications by Los Angeles police officers widens. Los Angeles Times

Jeffrey Epstein’s former girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges she recruited girls and women for the financier to sexually abuse more than two decades ago. Associated Press

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Crews make progress on a burning ship at a San Diego naval base: On the third day of flames, there was less smoke coming from the USS Bonhomme Richard, but two major fires remain inside. San Diego Union-Tribune

Masks offer much more protection against coronavirus than many think. There’s a common refrain that masks don’t protect you; they protect other people from your germs — especially important to keep unknowingly infected people from spreading the coronavirus. But now, there’s mounting evidence that masks protect the wearer, too. Los Angeles Times

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Reality is dead; long live cake. Over the past week, social media has been flooded with videos of knives slicing into ordinary objects — a bottle of hand lotion, a chicken thigh, a bar of soap, rolls of toilet paper and human heads — only to reveal that they are actually made of cake. New York Times

Calling all poets in the heart of the mother lode: Amador County is seeking its next poet laureate. The role is a two-year, voluntary position, and the chosen poet must reside in the Gold Country county. Amador Ledger-Dispatch

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A feral peacock has divided an Oakland neighborhood. “Most neighbors are fans of the peacock on Occidental Street, saying the sight of him brings joy to the monotony of life during quarantine. But for a few, his presence is hell on earth — and they’ve taken to Nextdoor to voice their complaints.” SF Gate

A tiny piece of joyful news: Seven years after his beloved dog ran off, a Tulare veteran has been reunited with his Siberian husky. A local dairy farmer found the dog prowling around his land about a month ago and slowly earned the stray’s trust through care and feeding. A trip to the vet revealed the microchip connecting him to his owner, but the question of how Champ spent his time during the previous seven years remains unclear. Visalia Times-Delta

A poem to start your Wednesday: “A Stranger” by Saeed Jones. The New Yorker

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: partly sunny, 80. San Diego: partly sunny, 76. San Francisco: partly sunny, 67. San Jose: sunny, 84. Fresno: sunny, 98. Sacramento: sunny, 94. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Juliana Boyle:

I was 16. It was the summer of 1977, and I lived in Albuquerque. My cousin Marge, the lovely, Alfa Romeo-driving model and chef who lived in Palo Alto, invited me for a visit. We ate at the Good Earth, where I fell in love with their tea. We went to the Renaissance Faire, and she bought me a beautiful crown wreath. We went to the beach. I met her neighbor Wallace Stegner. We drove along Highway 1 with the top down. It was magical — a cherished memory. And I now happily call California home.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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