It’s been a tough year for Los Angeles County Dist. Atty Jackie Lacey. She didn’t win enough primary votes to avoid a runoff, longtime political allies have rescinded their endorsements and her husband may face prosecution after pulling a gun on Black Lives Matter protesters outside their home.
The county’s top prosecutor almost won a third term in March, but a narrow majority favored one of her two challengers — former San Francisco Dist. Atty George Gascón and Rachel Rossi, a former public defender. Unable to claim a majority of voters, Lacey will face Gascón in a November contest that has suddenly become a lightning rod in the nationwide debate about police reform.
March 3 primary results
Gascón faces a difficult challenge. Incumbents in Los Angeles County are tough to beat — a sitting district attorney has not been unseated since 2000.
An initial look at the primary results from March shows Lacey dominating the map, finishing in first place in 86% of the 3,072 precincts where votes were counted.
Individually, her opponents were only able to win in a small number of precincts, with the largest concentrations in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods north of downtown Los Angeles.
While neither challenger came close to overtaking the incumbent on their own, a Times analysis of the primary vote shows a potential path to an upset if the opposition unites behind Gascón to carry the densely populated, diverse neighborhoods at the county's center. Protests against police brutality this summer were also heavily concentrated in these areas.
Gascón and Rossi split the opposition vote in many precincts where most voters selected a candidate other than Lacey. When the two challengers’ votes are combined, Lacey’s share shrinks significantly, and the majority that opposed her reelection becomes clearer.
If Gascón can capture enough votes that went to Rossi, he may have a chance to build a winning coalition. Rossi has not endorsed Gascón, though she recently told The Times she had discussed the possibility with his campaign staff.
A race and class divide
An analysis of the combined results shows a clear divide in the appeal of the candidates. Across the county, Lacey performed better in areas that were richer and whiter.
The incumbent, who has been a fixture in Los Angeles County politics for over a decade, won a strong majority in precincts where most households make over $100,000 a year.
Rossi and Gascón took home 56% of the vote in precincts where most households make below $60,000, roughly the county’s median income.
Lacey, the first Black woman to be elected Los Angeles County district attorney, won the most votes in many of the county’s majority-white precincts. Rossi, who identifies as Afro-Latina, and Gascón, who is of Cuban descent, won by a larger margin in the city’s majority-Latino precincts.
In neighborhoods where Black people comprise the largest share of the population, Lacey won over her opponents by a razor-thin margin.
Lacey, who grew up in South L.A. and graduated from Dorsey High School, has faced intense criticism from the Black Lives Matter movement. The organization, which wants the next D.A. to more aggressively scrutinize killings by police, endorsed Gascón and has staged numerous protests outside of Lacey’s home.
During one particularly heated protest the day before the March primary, her husband pulled a gun on protesters. The state attorney general is still deciding if charges will be brought against him.
The push for police reform has caused Lacey to lose support from several prominent figures, including that of Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance). Last month, Mayor Garcetti said that “it may be” time for a change in the district attorney’s office, though he stopped short of withdrawing his endorsement.
Gascón has sought to capitalize on this by promising more independent, rigorous investigations around police shootings, which has won him high-profile endorsements from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Obama Cabinet member Julián Castro and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif).
With calls for criminal justice reform multiplying and the possibility of an energized progressive base at the polls in November, Jaime Regalado, emeritus professor of political science at Cal State Los Angeles, said momentum in the race has certainly tilted in Gascon’s favor. Regalado added that while Lacey might have been favored to win the primary because Gascón and Rossi split the progressive vote, she may face a much tougher test in a one-on-one contest.
“I think what we’re going to be seeing is a wholesale shift of that white liberal vote toward the reformer,” he said. “The heightened tension is going to remain up until the election. It could be both good and bad for incumbents versus challengers, but I think in this case it helps the reformer.”
To win in November, he’ll need to turn momentum around the protests into votes, and pick up as much support as possible from Rossi’s base. If he can do that, Gascón could be well-positioned to upset Lacey in November.
Times staff writers James Queally and Sandhya Kambhampati also contributed to this report.