For months, criminal justice reform advocates in Southern California hoped a national wave of victories by progressive candidates in district attorney’s races might crest in Los Angeles and knock over Jackie Lacey.
Locked in a tough primary against opponents who were either well-funded or had strong ground games, Lacey seemed to be struggling to the finish line. She bailed on a number of candidate forums and limited public appearances after protesters disrupted a January debate. Then a scary confrontation at her home on the eve of the election ended with her husband pointing a gun at Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
But Lacey made a strong showing in early returns, jumping out to a significant lead over former San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón and former public defender Rachel Rossi. Her share of the vote has since slipped closer to 50%, indicating she could still have to face a November runoff. But political observers said the returns show Lacey’s entrenched law enforcement support and experience could still serve as a bulwark against Gascón or Rossi’s idealistic and policy heavy approaches in November.
“There was a lot of hype around Gascón, but it’s on Twitter and it’s among the activist class,” said Brian VanRiper, a consultant who has worked on a number of L.A. City Council races. “Did it break through to the average voter?”
Mac Zilber, a consultant on Lacey’s campaign, said he was “thrilled that the people of L.A. County have delivered D.A. Lacey such a strong first-place finish, by a margin that virtually nobody expected.”
Gascón has gained ground with each wave of updates from the L.A. County Registrar. By Wednesday night, he held about 27% of the vote. Rossi has hovered around 22% since the first wave of returns.
On Friday, the registrar said there were roughly 678,000 votes left to tally. The new figure included mail-in ballots that had been dropped off on election day at polling centers.
Political consultants said it is likely Gascón will be able to drag the contest into November.
“These things are directional and obviously there’s a trend downward,” said Eric Hacopian, a Los Angeles-based political consultant. “The likelihood of a runoff is far greater than her winning outright.”
In the run-up to the primary, some had questioned if Rossi would siphon progressive voters from Gascón, making it easier for Lacey to avoid a runoff. The two campaigns had sniped at each other periodically in recent months: Gascón filed a legal challenge in late December to stop Rossi from identifying herself as a public defender on the ballot, while Rossi took occasional potshots at Gascón for overstating his reformer resume on debate stages in recent weeks.
Lacey’s mentor, former Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, said the strong performance might carry extra weight for the veteran prosecutor given the clash at her doorstep on Monday.
“I think she will relish a victory, even just by 1 vote, because it is sort of a reaffirmation that there’s a lot of people out there that admire her work, and support her and like her,” Cooley said. “She’s had a very rough week. It was very obvious this had taken its toll on her emotionally and physically.”
The incident remains under investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department. Dermot Givens, a Los Angeles-based consultant who has been involved in past district attorney’s races, said the fiasco may have actually helped Lacey at the polls.
“I think it did boost Jackie’s followers among law enforcement, women and some black people,” Givens said. “Going to somebody’s front door like that is kind of extreme. Probably legally right, but everyone knows how that feels when somebody comes to their front door. And it wasn’t her. It was her husband defending her.”
In each new wave of returns, Gascón has been able to separate himself from Rossi and would likely finish in second place if a runoff is forced. Some supporters believe Gascón and Rossi voters would unite to overwhelm Lacey if the race extends into the fall.
“Gascón, Rossi, and their supporters have always been united against Lacey — and they’ll be joined by a much larger and more favorable electorate in November that also embraces reform,” Dan Newman, a political strategist involved with an outside committee called Run George, Run, said in an email to The Times.
Other observers questioned the effectiveness of committees supporting Gascón, wondering how he could receive millions of dollars from progressive boosters but still end up polling relatively close to Rossi. The public defender attracted zero dollars in outside committee money and received far less than Gascón in direct donations.
“There was nothing compelling about what they were talking about ... about why he’s a reformer,” Hacopian said. “If you look at the money that they spent, the fact that he came in in the 20s, there’s no excuse for that.”
Rossi said she remained hopeful that she could climb into second place and believed her strong showing highlighted an appetite for a true alternative in the district attorney’s office.
“The fact that we’ve received as many votes as we have with so much less funding and so much of a smaller team than the other candidates, I think it’s really reflective of the fact that L.A. County is ready for something new, and tired of the politicians and candidates who are purchased and recycled,” she said.
Many voters likely flocked to Rossi because she was the only candidate without a law enforcement background, experts said. Her appeal among groups that backed Democratic presidential primary victor Bernie Sanders, including the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, may have also contributed to her strong showing.
With Sanders still a contender to be the Democratic nominee, those voters could be out in droves in November. But whether they would shift allegiance to Gascón is far from certain.
“I think it was the Bernie people voting for [Rossi]. The super progressive, ultra left-wing people came out and they voted the full ballot. I don’t think those were Gascón’s votes, and they weren’t Lacey’s votes,” Givens said. “They were hers and Bernie’s votes.”