San Francisco’s mayor and city attorney waded Thursday into the competitive Los Angeles County district attorney’s race, publicly backing incumbent Jackie Lacey over their city’s former district attorney, George Gascón.
Lacey has received a litany of endorsements from state and regional politicians as she seeks a third term running the nation’s largest local prosecutor’s office. But the support of Mayor London Breed and Dennis Herrera, San Francisco’s longtime city attorney, is also a tacit rebuke of Gascón, a former San Francisco police chief who gained a national reputation for championing criminal justice reforms.
As San Francisco’s top prosecutor, Gascón co-authored Prop. 47, the ballot initiative that lowered punishments for nonviolent crime, tried to curb racial bias by prosecutors evaluating cases, expunged low-level marijuana convictions and pushed to end cash bail.
Yet after Breed was elected mayor in 2018, she blamed Gascón and his posture of reform for the rash of car break-ins and other street problems that have dogged San Francisco, even as the city experienced a sharp drop in violent crime. While naming an interim prosecutor to take over after Gascón stepped down to run in L.A., Breed maintained there was growing frustration for “the endless cycle of people getting arrested for dealing drugs, or breaking into cars, only to be released back out on the streets.”
Gascón’s campaign has noted he prosecuted about 85% of auto theft cases presented to his office; the problem was that amid an epidemic of vehicle break-ins, police made arrests in less than 1.6% of reported incidents. City records show that of the nearly 750 drug dealing cases presented by police last year to Gascón’s office, prosecutors filed charges against more than 80% of defendants.
Breed and Herrera struck similar reasons for backing Lacey. Breed said Lacey “effectively navigated the delicate balance between keeping our communities safe and enacting meaningful reform.” Herrera, who has been in office since 2001, said Lacey “knows how to balance reforming the system while ensuring that violent criminals are off the street and neighborhoods are kept safe.”
In response, Gascón’s campaign argued that Breed’s endorsement of his opponent stemmed from personal animus. In 2014, Breed requested that Gascón examine the case of her brother, who is serving 44 years in prison for manslaughter, to see if his time behind bars could be reduced, the San Francisco Chronicle reported earlier this month. Gascón’s office reviewed the file but identified no irregularities that warranted reopening the case, the newspaper reported.
“Mayor Breed asked D.A. Gascón to get her brother out of a 44-year prison sentence, and when he declined the relationship went downhill,” said Jamarah Hayner, a spokeswoman for Gascón’s campaign. “With D.A. Lacey consistently declining to take on corruption or the powerful, this endorsement could not be more fitting.”
Breed told the Chronicle that she did not have a recollection of phoning Gascón about her brother’s case. She added, “I am absolutely certain that through the long course of my brother’s legal case, I have never asked for any special treatment from the district attorney’s office or anyone else, nor have I received any.”
Earlier Thursday, Gascón stood outside the Hall of Justice in downtown alongside L.A. County Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Iniguez, who announced he was backing Gascón and ending his bid to be the first openly gay D.A.
Iniguez, who has worked in Lacey’s office for about four years, entered the race in April signaling frustration that his boss was not at the forefront of criminal justice reform despite the significant clout that comes with running one of the most high-profile prosecutorial agencies in the U.S.
Lacey already enjoys the backing of the unions representing LAPD officers and rank-and-file sheriff’s deputies, and she’s amassed a roster of high-profile supporters, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Mayor Eric Garcetti, members of Congress and every L.A. County supervisor except Mark Ridley-Thomas. Members of the public can even submit endorsements through a portal on Lacey’s website.
Gascón, meanwhile, announced his candidacy in October with a boost from former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. Gascón is a former LAPD assistant chief and was raised in Southern California.
“Taking on the status quo and reforming our most important institutions requires leadership, strength and a commitment to doing the right thing, even when it comes at great personal cost,” Beck said. “Those are qualities that define George.”
Whether those endorsements matter in determining the election’s outcome is unclear. Miriam Aroni Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor and executive director of the reform group Fair and Just Prosecution, said voters are increasingly sophisticated and demonstrating “independent judgment” when evaluating district attorney races and opting to reject the decades-long trend of tough-on-crime tactics.
“We have communities that are tired of how we have done things for decades and have seen the impact of an elected district attorney on the justice system front door,” Krinsky said.
Aside from Gascón, Lacey has two others vying to oust her from office: Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Ceballos and former public defender Rachel Rossi, both of whom have rolled out agendas promising reforms that aim to reduce incarceration and eliminate racial inequities.
A primary election in March 2020 will result in a runoff with the two top-performing candidates. However, if one of the candidates receives more than 50% of the votes in the primary, he or she wins the race outright.
Among the major issues confronting Lacey is her office’s ongoing use of the death penalty. An ACLU report issued this year identified 22 people who were sentenced to death while Lacey has been in office, and all of those defendants were people of color.
Candidates opposing Lacey have said capital punishment cases are costly to prosecute and risk executing innocent people. Lacey has said in response that her office sought the death penalty in less than 3% of eligible cases last year, following an extensive review, and that California voters have twice failed to abolish capital punishment.
More than 100 faith leaders were expected to deliver a letter Thursday afternoon to Lacey, urging her to immediately suspend seeking executions. Among the signers to the letter were Father Greg Boyle, the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries; Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills; and Bishop John Harvey Taylor of the Episcopal Diocese of L.A.
“Our criminal justice system must recognize the dignity of every person,” they said in the letter, “and not close off hope and the possibility for redemption.”