Jackie Lacey doesn’t shy away from discussing her tough upbringing in South L.A., and how those nerve-racking days helped shape the way she treats her role as L.A. County’s top prosecutor.
In a recent interview, Lacey recounted fearful walks to school past an apartment complex once known as The Jungle, concerned that she or her friends might be set upon by a gang member in high-crime 1970s Los Angeles. Shortly after Lacey became a deputy district attorney, her father was shot in the Crenshaw District, supposedly after he’d painted over some gang graffiti. He survived, but suffered a broken leg, and the crime was never solved.
“That changed our family. My dad didn’t cut the grass anymore. We were always cautious whenever we went to visit them,” she said. “If you’ve ever been the victim of any violent crime like that, it does have an impact on you. You start to be fearful in places you shouldn’t be fearful.”
Lacey’s strong local ties and broad support among black voters helped her become the county’s first female and first African American top prosecutor in 2012.
Now some observers are wondering if Lacey has lost her home-field advantage as two challengers have stormed into the area hoping to pick up support by touting progressive criminal justice reform policies to the left of those backed by the more moderate district attorney.
Former San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascon and public defender Rachel Rossi have launched significant outreach efforts in South L.A., hoping to change the minds of voters that might have once gone to Lacey.
Imagine Justice, an independent committee supporting Gascon, has promised to put $1 million toward a get out the vote effort in South L.A. Rossi has held a number of listening tour events in the area and personally appealed to political groups thatmight have otherwise supported Lacey, showing up in person to campaign and compete for endorsements while the incumbent sent surrogates.
“The black and Latino vote [in South L.A.] is, I think, the most important vote in the county,” said Paula Ramirez, Rossi’s campaign manager. “They are the people most affected by the criminal justice system.”
Lacey maintains that she has a “broad base” of support in South L.A. and again touted that she is the candidate most likely to stand up for people of color, who are disproportionately affected by violent crime.
“I’ve dedicated my career to standing up for crime victims just like my father, and this fight is very personal to me as somebody who grew up in a community where inequality and crime were an everyday fact of life,” she said.
In Leimert Park, there are those who still beam at the mention of Lacey’s name. Seated inside the California Jazz & Blues Museum she founded on Degnan Boulevard, jazz vocalist Barbara Morrison recounted a time when Lacey entered the building with Mayor Eric Garcetti for a community event. While she hasn’t decided whom she’s voting for next week, Morrison said she is likely to check a box for Lacey because of the district attorney’s strong ties to the neighborhood.
“From what I know of her, she seems to be a fair person. I do know when I need to get something done, she’s a go-to person,” Morrison said. “She’s a positive force in this community.”
Morrison’s take is one that Lacey’s critics, who include some of L.A. County’s most prominent black activists and organizations, would strongly disagree with. Lacey’s refusal to bring charges in a number of controversial law enforcement use-of-force incidents has prompted weekly protests from Black Lives Matter demonstrators, who have also questioned her lack of appearances in South L.A. while in office.
Jasmyne Cannick, who led the chorus of voices criticizing Lacey’s handling of allegations that Democratic donor Ed Buck caused the overdose deaths of two black men, has served as communications director for Rossi’s campaign since late last year. Community Coalition, a longtime South L.A.-based nonprofit, is also part of the outside committee trying to turn out voters for Gascon in the community.
While Gascon and Rossi have held a number of public events and shared debate stages in South L.A. and other areas in the run-up to Tuesday’s primary, Lacey has largely vanished from public view outside the occasional news conference at her office. After protesters disrupted portions of a late January debate, she refused to attend future candidate forums.
Dermot Givens, a Los Angeles-based political consultant and attorney, noted that Lacey’s lack of outreach could be problematic, especially with Gascon and Rossi blitzing neighborhoods that might once have solidly supported her. Some political consultants have compared Lacey’s campaign to that of former L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who was upset by Alex Villanueva in 2018 after the incumbent failed to put away his opponents during the primary.
“She may have been born in South L.A. 50 years ago … but she ain’t done nothing for us after eight years in office, so why in the hell should I vote for her now? That’s the reality they’re facing,” Givens said.
Lacey has amassed a blue wall of law enforcement endorsements and financing, drawing $1.8 million in outside committee money from the unions representing rank-and-file L.A. police officers and sheriff’s deputies. Givens said that kind of backing could also be a turnoff to South L.A. voters.
The unions have bought television ads deriding Gascon’s record in San Francisco, and a director with the Los Angeles Police Protective League has said social media advertising and direct mailers could be used in the future. Lacey endorsements in the black community include the Los Angeles Sentinel, an African American-owned weekly; state Assemblyman Chris Holden; and Los Angeles City Councilman Herb Wesson.
But for Lacey’s challengers, winning over South L.A. voters may be as much about getting them into a polling place as it is about earning their support. A number of people approached by a Times reporter in Leimert Park, West Adams and Baldwin Village seemed fuzzy on the details of the race just days before the primary, unaware either that Lacey was up for re-election or who was running against her.
Linda Gomez, a volunteer with Imagine Justice who’s been knocking on doors and working phones for Gascon in South L.A., said voter education has been a key part of the outreach.
“We’re actually going to their doors and having those long conversations about not just Gascon, but the importance of what the D.A. position is,” she said.
Inside the South L.A. Cafe off Western Avenue, 30-year-old Nate Slaughter said he hadn’t been keeping tabs on the district attorney’s race but raised his eyebrows after hearing about the records of Lacey and Gascon when it came to prosecuting police officers.
“That is upsetting. I’m gonna do my research,” he said, before asking if anyone else was running.