An L.A. County D.A.’s union leader, veteran judge latest to challenge Gascón’s reelection
Two more challengers joined the crowded field looking to unseat Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón in 2024: a leader of the union that has been his chief antagonist during his first term and a veteran judge frustrated by watching the progressive prosecutor‘s policies play out in his courtroom.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Eric Siddall announced his bid to unseat Gascón early Monday, promising to run on behalf of a “new generation of prosecutors” who can thread the needle between the incumbent’s idealism and the district attorneys who helped make California a prime example of mass incarceration.
“I feel like I represent that generation, and we want to see things change. We want to see things better,” said Siddall, 48, vice president of the Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys. “We’re not these old-school prosecutors who are hellbent on getting the maximum sentence on every single person.”
Shortly after Siddall’s email announcement, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell declared his candidacy outside the downtown Hall of Justice, while flanked by people he’s aided through a running club he founded on Skid Row. In an interview last week, the veteran judge said he was compelled to leave the bench after witnessing “too many instances” in his own courtroom where he said justice was not meted out because of Gascón’s policies.
“The current district attorney disproportionately has enacted policies that favor those who victimize others, and at the end of the day, the victims of crime are left going ‘Where is the justice for me?’” Mitchell said at his event Monday.
Siddall becomes the fourth of Gascón’s own prosecutors to enter an increasingly crowded March 2024 primary field that also now features Mitchell and Nathan Hochman, the Republican nominee for California attorney general in 2022 who is running as an independent.
At least three of Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón’s potential challengers in next year’s election cycle come from within his own office.
Jeff Chemerinsky, an assistant U.S. attorney who oversees federal prosecutions of violent crime cases in L.A., is also “heavily considering” entering the race, according to a person with knowledge of his thinking who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
Elise Moore, who is heading up Gascón’s reelection campaign, declined to comment.
A thorn in Gascón’s side dating to his 2020 campaign, Siddall and the deputy D.A.’s union have been among Gascón’s most prominent foes. They successfully sued to block a portion of Gascón’s reform platform limiting the use of sentencing enhancements against convicted felons charged with new offenses, after a judge agreed with the union’s contention that it violated California’s “three strikes” law.
The union also issued a near unanimous no-confidence vote against Gascón last year.
When Gascón announced seismic policy changes on his first day in office — including barring prosecutors from using sentencing enhancements, trying juveniles as adults or seeking the death penalty — he gave no advance warning to his own staff.
Siddall said that all but ensured most deputy district attorneys would never trust him. And it began a borderline cold war between Gascón and his own staff.
“He seemed completely uninterested in working with us and getting the buy-in of the line prosecutors. I think that was a fatal mistake,” Siddall said.
A former high school teacher in Gardena and L.A.’s Crenshaw district, Mitchell joined the D.A.’s office in the 1990s and said he prosecuted a large number of domestic violence and sex abuse cases. He said teaching in schools where the student bodies were largely Black or Latino helped open his eyes to situations and circumstances facing defendants he might not have otherwise recognized.
He said he hopes that insight will enable him to carve out policies that balance “restorative justice” with accountability for violent offenders.
As they try to recall Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, prosecutors still must carry out the enormous workload of the office. With distrust running high, even mundane tasks get more complicated.
While on the bench, Mitchell founded the Skid Row Running Club at the downtown Midnight Mission after a defendant he prosecuted asked him to speak at the shelter. The group now runs together three days a week, building a community Mitchell said is essential for people who are often isolated and forgotten. The judge said his work on Skid Row and in the classroom has given him a more well-rounded view of defendants than most lawyers walking through L.A. County courthouses have.
“The perpetrators of crime, they are fully fledged people in my mind,” he said. “A lot of my colleagues on the bench they scratch their head, why are you going down to Skid Row? Skid Row has been a great classroom for me.”
Mitchell has to go on leave from the bench to run for office. Siddall stepped down from his union post Sunday to challenge Gascón.
In an interview earlier this month, Siddall painted himself as a centrist Democrat who can find a way to implement reforms without alienating his own prosecutors.
“If you want a progressive office that functions and not a progressive office that is completely dysfunctional and doesn’t actually get any of the job done, then I’m your candidate,” he said. “I will get it done, I know how to get it done, I know how to get the buy-in from the deputy D.A.s.”
A deputy district attorney since 2007, Siddall has handled some of the county’s most complicated cases in recent years as a member of the units that prosecute serious gang crimes and attacks on police officers. Although he’s never been a manager, Siddall said his decade on his union’s board of directors had led him to understand “the internal workings of this office probably far better than anyone in [Gascón’s] management structure.”
If elected, Siddall would be L.A. county’s first-ever LGBTQ+ district attorney.
Siddall said he is “not critical of the progressive movement,” but it may be difficult for him to square some of his past rhetoric and union activity with an increasingly leftward L.A. electorate.
Siddall has issued statements as union vice president attacking plans to reduce the population of downtown L.A.’s increasingly decrepit Men’s Central Jail and referred to progressives such as Gascón and former San Francisco D.A. Chesa Boudin as having a “defendant-centered approach to criminal justice reform.” He also expressed support for the largely Republican-funded attempts to recall Gascón, as did most of the other candidates challenging Gascón so far.
The brutal 20-minute clip is one of a few dozen graphic videos saved to a thumb drive picked out of the trash by one inmate, and later secreted out of the jail by another.
Asked about some of his past comments, Siddall said attacking Gascón was not an assault on progressives because he believes his boss is a “progressive in name only.” He also warned that if Gascón’s reforms fail, the ultimate result will be to get more conservative prosecutors elected.
Still, Siddall stands as a more measured foil for Gascón than much of the current primary field. If elected, he said he wouldn’t necessarily undo all of Gascón’s policies on issues including the use of sentencing enhancements, but rather make them subject to a “case-by-case analysis.”
He said he would not seek the death penalty in capital cases, and he’s largely avoided directly blaming Gascón’s policies for crime surges as other critics have, an argument experts say doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Mitchell said he was motivated to run as prosecutors brought cases into his courtroom that he believed were not being handled properly due to Gascón’s policies.
He recounted an assault case in which a person who had been stabbed 13 times stood in his court and expressed shock at the light sentence handed to their attacker because of Gascón’s policy blocking the filing of an enhancement for causing great bodily injury that could have added as much as six years to the defendant’s prison term.
Mitchell also pointed to a situation last month in which he said a defendant charged with trafficking “20 kilos of methamphetamine” was given just three days in jail and probation under the terms of a deal worked out with the district attorney’s office.
Mitchell did not provide defendant names or case numbers for either anecdote, and a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office was not immediately available to discuss them.
“The sentencing offers are just not right,” Mitchell said.
Proponents of a push to recall L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón blame him for a dramatic rise in crime. But other factors also have played a role.
Mitchell stopped short of saying he’d repeal any of Gascón’s policies if elected, but he promised to rein in some of Gascón’s so-called blanket special directives and take a more analytical approach to sentencing. He insisted he is an “absolute believer in criminal justice reform,” but disagreed with Gascón’s approach.
“Charges and enhancements at the time of filing should be what is legally permissible,” he said. “Now, as the process works through preliminary hearing, works through the trial court and we get a better understanding of what motivated this individual to engage in this conduct ... after really looking at the individual characteristics of a case, then you figure out what is an appropriate sanction.”
Although Gascón has faced near-relentless criticism during his first term in office, he would still be an extremely well-funded and hard-to-topple incumbent. He’s largely retained the support of the progressive bloc and establishment Democrats who boosted his 2020 campaign. And he has fended off two recall attempts while delivering on his plan to greatly diminish the county’s prosecution of juveniles and low-level misdemeanor offenders.
Still, Gascón remains deeply unpopular with local law enforcement. And his recent spat with L.A. Mayor Karen Bass, who has never publicly supported the district attorney, suggests at least one powerful politician could endorse a challenger.
Early reports show Hochman has raised $665,000, more than the combined campaign coffers of the other three deputy district attorneys in the race: Jonathan Hatami, John McKinney and Maria Ramirez.
Gascón’s current war chest is just below $50,000, records show. But other than sending a few fundraising emails he doesn’t appear to have started his reelection campaign in earnest yet.
In 2020, he pooled more than $12 million when he unseated Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, largely on the backs of independent expenditures driven by liberal mega-donors such as philanthropists George Soros, Patty Quillin and Reed Hastings, the executive chairman at Netflix who is also Quillin’s husband.
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