In a race that could serve as a litmus test of Southern California’s appetite for criminal justice reform, Los Angeles County’s Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey held a sizable lead over her two progressive challengers, though it was unclear if she would avoid a November runoff in the contest to lead the nation’s largest county prosecutor’s office.
With just under 1 million ballots tallied as of 6 a.m., Lacey had garnered about 50.7% of the vote, according to the L.A. County Registrar. The two-term incumbent jumped out to a significant lead after early returns that largely consisted of mail-in ballots, but saw her lead slip as results from polling centers came in.
Her challengers — former San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón and public defender Rachel Rossi — had been tied in distant second place. But as more votes trickled in, Gascon’s vote tally climbed to 27% while Rossi remained in the low-20s.
The next update was expected Wednesday afternoon.
The top two vote-getters will continue on to November unless one candidate finishes with more than 50% of the vote and wins outright.
The race has been defined by a stark ideological divide between Lacey and her two challengers. While all three are registered Democrats, Lacey’s broad support among law enforcement and track record of not prosecuting officers in controversial use-of-force cases has drawn her scorn from progressive groups and criminal justice reform activists.
Those tensions boiled over Monday morning, when Lacey’s husband pointed a gun at Black Lives Matter protesters who had gathered outside the couple’s Granada Hills home.
Gascón and Rossi are both emblematic of a nationwide reform movement that has vaulted restorative justice minded candidates into office in such cities as Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
A former assistant chief in the Los Angeles Police Department, Gascón became a progressive policymaker after being appointed as San Francisco’s district attorney in 2011. He coauthored Proposition 47 and enacted a number of policies aimed at reducing California’s prison population, including cutting back dramatically on prosecution of low-level and nonviolent offenders. But surges in property crime there have led critics to label him as soft on crime.
Speaking to supporters at Union Station on Tuesday night, Gascón acknowledged the early results and said he had expected mail-in ballots to favor Lacey, but predicted his standing would improve as results from election day voting came in. However, with long lines and delays marking a problematic roll out of L.A. County’s new voting system, it was unclear when full results might be available.
Rossi has painted herself as the only true alternative in the race, portraying her lack of law enforcement experience as a positive that would allow her to understand the courtroom from both sides of the aisle. As legal counsel to Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) in Washington, she helped frame the First Step Act, which reduced some mandatory minimum sentences at the federal level.
Opponents have also made an issue of her relative inexperience. Whereas Gascón and Lacey have served a combined six decades as a police officer or prosecutor, Rossi, 36, has never run an agency and served as a public defender for only about eight years.
During an event in Echo Park on Tuesday night, Rossi thanked her supporters for believing in “the crazy idea of a public defender running for prosecutor.”
“It’s exciting to see we’re very closely tied right now,” she said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how the numbers continue to come in.”
In a statement, Lacey acknowledged it would be a long time until the final tally was known but praised voters who trusted her to guide the county’s justice system.
“I am deeply grateful to the hundreds of thousands of voters who cast their ballots to advance policies that protect victims, prioritize mental health treatment and keep L.A. County safe,” she said.
The race has attracted millions of dollars in funding from outside committees and been marked by pointed attacks. Many of Gascón’s former fellow LAPD officers have turned their back on him, with the union representing rank-and-file officers spending $1 million to oppose his candidacy and release advertisements describing him as a con man.
Lacey, meanwhile, has been dogged by protesters at several events. At a news conference Monday, she claimed her office had received numerous threats during the race, including a death threat that was referred to an outside police agency. After demonstrators disrupted portions of a January debate, she refused to appear at any other candidate forums before the primary.
Following the gun incident involving her husband, she canceled a public watch party for supporters Tuesday night, Mac Zilber, a consultant on her campaign, said.
Rossi spent election day meeting with constituents around downtown L.A. and Boyle Heights, while Gascón held a campaign event at the Grand Central Market. Lacey stayed out of the public eye, but Zilber said she spent much of the day on the phone with supporters.
The image of Lacey’s husband pointing a gun at unarmed protesters seemed to weigh heavily on the minds of voters Tuesday. While walking to a polling station in Mid-City, 30-year-old Julia Markas said footage of the confrontation led her to research the other candidates.
“It really did make me investigate where did she stand on things, who are the other people running against her, because it was a really shocking video,” Markas said.