San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon announced his resignation Thursday, an almost certain signal that he is preparing to challenge Jackie Lacey to become Los Angeles County’s top prosecutor in a race that could serve as the largest test yet of a nationwide push to elect progressive-minded law enforcement officials.
Lacey is popular with law enforcement but has faced growing criticism from the left over several issues, notably her perceived reluctance to hold law enforcement officials accountable for accusations of misconduct and excessive force.
Gascon made the announcement to a gathering of his staff late Thursday afternoon before submitting a formal letter of resignation to San Francisco Mayor London Breed, officials said. In a letter to his colleagues, Gascon said he plans to move to Los Angeles, where he will “explore a run for District Attorney.”
“Making our communities safer and more equitable remains my life’s work, and I’m simply not ready to slow down and put public service behind me,” Gascon wrote.
Two people with knowledge of Gascon’s thinking said he is “likely” to enter the Los Angeles race sometime after his final day in office in the Bay Area. They requested anonymity to speak about Gascon’s plans candidly.
If Gascon were to run, his candidacy would mark the latest in a series of progressive challenges to alter the way criminal justice is handled in some of the country’s largest jurisdictions.
The 2017 election of Larry Krasner as Philadelphia district attorney and Tiffany Caban’s narrow loss this year against a heavily favored establishment Democrat in Queens in New York City energized the movement, but attempts to push similar change in California have been less successful.
Liberal donor George Soros pumped millions of dollars into the campaigns of insurgent progressives seeking to topple top prosecutors in Alameda, Sacramento and San Diego counties last year. Each challenger was thrashed on election day, losing by margins exceeding 20 percentage points.
The deadline for candidates to enter the Los Angeles race is in early December. Gascon’s last day in office in San Francisco will be Oct. 18, according to the letter, and his chief of staff, Cristine Soto DeBerry, will take over as interim district attorney. First appointed in 2011, Gascon’s second term would have finished at the end of the year.
Gascon’s interest in returning to Los Angeles, where he once served in the highest ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department, has been an open secret for months. In January, he announced that he would not seek a third term in the Bay Area, and in the following months he held several community meetings in the Los Angeles area to discuss criminal justice topics.
A number of social justice advocacy groups critical of Lacey have approached Gascon and asked him to enter the race. Last month, a group of criminal justice reform activists formed an independent expenditure committee supporting Gascon in Los Angeles and purchased a digital billboard on a stretch of the 10 Freeway urging him to run.
“If George Gascon runs, we’ve seen his record in San Francisco, and while he is not perfect, he is clear that he is going to challenge [U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement]. He is clear that he is going to be responsive to the needs of people with mental illness in this county and he is clear that he is going to hold law enforcement accountable,” said Patrisse Cullors, state coordinator for the Real Justice political action committee, which has been courting Gascon.
When asked to comment about Gascon’s move, Lacey responded in a statement: “San Francisco’s District Attorney has every right to quit his office and run for another one, and I welcome him into the race. I would put our office’s record up against any D.A.’s office in the country. From creating a pathway for nonviolent offenders to get treated for mental illness instead of thrown in jail, to expunging thousands of nonviolent marijuana-related arrests, to aggressively prosecuting sex traffickers who exploit women and children, I’m proud our office has led on smart reforms that keep L.A. County residents safe.”
Gascon would enter a race already framed around the concept of providing a progressive alternative to Lacey, a career prosecutor and Los Angeles native who enjoys broad support among local law enforcement groups, including the unions representing rank-and-file Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies and police officers.
Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Ceballos, a hate crimes prosecutor being advised by a political consultant who helped orchestrate Alex Villanueva’s shocking victory in the 2018 sheriff’s race, stepped forward in March to challenge Lacey. Joseph Iniguez, a line prosecutor who previously served as a defense attorney and high school teacher, has also entered the race promising to flank Lacey from the left.
The four would meet in a March 2020 primary. Unless one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, an unlikely prospect in a race between four Democrats in deep-blue Los Angeles County, the top two vote-getters would then face off in November.
Of Lacey’s potential opponents, Gascon has the highest national profile. After rising through the ranks of the LAPD, Gascon served as police chief in Mesa, Ariz., and San Francisco before gaining a reputation as one of the nation’s most progressive prosecutors.
In June, he launched a pilot program aimed at limiting unconscious bias from charging decisions by removing references to race and other identifying factors from cases presented by the San Francisco Police Department, allowing prosecutors to review each case only “through the lens of the behavior that is being alleged,” he said.
With recreational marijuana use now legal in California, Gascon also moved to expunge roughly 9,300 marijuana convictions this year in an attempt to reverse the calamitous effects of cannabis enforcement, which has repeatedly been shown to disproportionately affect minorities.
While Lacey is popular among law enforcement groups and politicians — boasting dozens of endorsements from some of the state’s most prominent elected officials including Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, U.S. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti — she has also sought to solidify her progressive bona fides this year.
Lacey moved to expunge or dismiss tens of thousands of marijuana-related convictions in L.A. County less than two months after Gascon launched his initiative in San Francisco. On Wednesday, she joined LAPD Chief Michel Moore and Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer to void nearly 2 million minor citations that had an outsize effect on the city’s growing homeless population, aiming to end a cycle that effectively criminalized homelessness by saddling people with tickets they had no ability to pay and ensuring they would land in jail.
Still, Lacey will probably have to face questions about her perceived failure to more aggressively prosecute police misconduct cases.
Last year, she declined to prosecute an LAPD officer who shot and killed an unarmed homeless man in Venice despite former Police Chief Charlie Beck’s public recommendation for him to be charged with manslaughter. In 2017, Lacey was skewered after her office arranged a plea deal that spared a city firefighter jail time for choking a man unconscious, prompting one of the LAPD’s top investigators to excoriate the decision in open court.
In recent weeks, she’s also had to weather controversy surrounding wealthy Democratic donor Ed Buck. Lacey declined to prosecute Buck after a man died of a drug overdose in his West Hollywood home in 2017, but federal prosecutors have since charged Buck in connection with providing the drugs that led to the victim’s death.