Thursday, June 20, 2024

D.A. George Gascón faces 9 challengers in one of the largest primary fields in L.A. history

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When Jackie Lacey sought a second term as Los Angeles’ top prosecutor in 2016, she wound up running unopposed.

The man who ousted her from office, George Gascón, has a much steeper hill to climb to win reelection next year.

During his first term in office, Gascón has frequently been at odds with his own prosecutors and law enforcement, who say his policies aimed at reducing mass incarceration and racially disparate outcomes in the criminal justice system have led to spikes in violence. Data show the violent crime rate is trending down, but some experts have cautioned against making connections between short-term shifts in the crime rate and a prosecutor’s policies.

Gascón’s positions have motivated one of the largest primary fields in the history of the office, with a mix of former federal prosecutors, county judges and deputy district attorneys taking a run at the self-described “godfather of progressive prosecutors” in 2024.

District attorney’s elections have become more competitive across the nation in recent years as reform-minded progressives challenge more traditional prosecutors. Gascón’s 2020 tilt with Lacey saw millions raised in a nationally watched race that drew endorsements from presidential candidates.

Gascón, who announced his own reelection campaign and claimed the endorsement of L.A.’s powerful Federation of Labor last week, still figures to be well-funded and has largely retained the support of the burgeoning L.A. progressive bloc that vaulted him into office in 2020.

But in a sign of the divide in the race, Gascón declined to attend the first debate last week. Hosted by police unions that spent millions against the progressive candidate in 2020, contenders at the forum spent two hours making the case that Gascón is unfit for office and needs to be replaced.

Here are the contenders vying for Gascón’s office next March, listed in the order they announced their candidacy:

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Deputy Dist. Atty. Maria Ramirez

Maria Ramirez at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum.

Maria Ramirez at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum at Pacific Palms Resort.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A veteran prosecutor who has worked in the D.A.’s office for 30 years, Ramirez is far and away Gascón’s most experienced opponent. While she led the office of special prosecutions in 2020, Ramirez said she was demoted for challenging some of Gascón’s policies governing the use of sentencing enhancements and whether juveniles could be tried as adults. She is among a group of about 20 prosecutors suing Gascón for retaliation or defamation. Gascón has denied all wrongdoing.

If elected, Ramirez said she would rein in Gascón’s sweeping policies and empower prosecutors to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Ramirez has also repeatedly touted her management experience as critical to helping the office recruit new employees to address a staffing shortage and dig out of a serious case backlog.

“We do not need another outsider to come and fix our office,” she said at Wednesday’s debate in the City of Industry. “We need a deputy district attorney who has the heart and soul of the D.A.’s office in their veins.”

3

Deputy Dist. Atty. John McKinney

 John McKinney at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum.

John McKinney at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum at Pacific Palms Resort.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A well-respected trial attorney who won a conviction against the man who killed Crenshaw rapper Nipsey Hussle in 2019, McKinney has been among Gascón’s most outspoken critics and initially announced plans to challenge the D.A. during a failed attempt to recall him from office last year.

In a previous interview with The Times, McKinney took aim at Gascón’s edicts to limit misdemeanors and bar prosecutors from accompanying victims at parole hearings. He has also blasted Gascón for failing to execute diversion programs that he promised to offer defendants in low-level criminal cases, and which the office now refuses to prosecute.

The number of misdemeanors filed under Gascón’s administration has plummeted compared with his predecessor, but the district attorney’s office has yet to produce data showing how many of those defendants received diversion.

McKinney has also promised to “repeal and replace” every policy Gascón enacted on his inauguration day and work to repeal Proposition 47 in Sacramento.

4

Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Hatami

 Jonathan Hatami at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum.

Jonathan Hatami at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum at Pacific Palms Resort.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A longtime child abuse prosecutor best known for winning convictions against the parents who tortured and murdered Gabriel Fernandez and Anthony Avalos, Hatami is among Gascón’s most media-savvy opponents, the owner of an account on X, formerly known as Twitter, that functions as a rolling list of grievances with Gascón dating back to the day he took office.

A brash victims’ rights advocate and Army veteran, Hatami has repeatedly attacked Gascón’s decision to bar prosecutors from seeking the death penalty and chastised his boss for not meeting with families dissatisfied with his policies. While Hatami has come out as a strong ally to law enforcement, he also says he wants to be a “D.A. with a heart” and has talked about expanding courts and programs that aid homeless defendants, especially those who are veterans.

While Hatami’s relentless attacks on Gascón have earned him a group of extremely energetic supporters and endorsements from a number of smaller police agencies, his approach has also seen him ally with personalities that could complicate his run as a Democrat in increasingly progressive Los Angeles. During the recall effort, he appeared at events alongside former Sheriff Alex Villanueva and conservative radio host Larry Elder, who was trying to win a statewide recall election against Gov. Gavin Newsom.

5

Nathan Hochman

Nathan Hochman at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum.

Nathan Hochman at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum at Pacific Palms Resort.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A former federal prosecutor, Hochman ran as a Republican in an unsuccessful bid for the state attorney general’s office in 2022. Rebranding himself as an independent in the D.A.’s race, Hochman has emerged as the leading fundraiser through the early portion of the campaign, collecting $665,000 in the first half of 2023. That tally was more than Hatami, McKinney and Ramirez — the only other candidates in the race at the time — had raised combined.

Hochman has the support of a number of former U.S. attorneys, as well as ex-Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley. He has also promised to eliminate most of Gascón’s “blanket” policies and railed against what he calls “rampant” crime, comparing L.A. to “Gotham City.”

“The public is crying out for someone who will put their interests first rather than criminals,” he said Wednesday.

6

Deputy Dist. Atty. Eric Siddall

Eric Siddall at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum.

Eric Siddall at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum at Pacific Palms Resort.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The former vice president of the union representing line prosecutors, Siddall has been an effective thorn in Gascón’s side in recent years. His union spearheaded a lawsuit that won an injunction limiting Gascón’s reform agenda in early 2021, a ruling that has held up on appeal but could be heard by the state Supreme Court.

Positioning himself as a moderate challenger, Siddall claims to represent a “new generation” of prosecutors who want to find better ways to execute criminal justice reform. With his experience as a union leader, Siddall believes he can earn buy-in from a staff Gascón has alienated while also improving recruitment in an office that is at its smallest roster size in decades.

A veteran member of units within the D.A.’s office that prosecute gang members and crimes against peace officers, Siddall has tried to balance touting his crime-fighting bona fides with a promise not to be “old school” and seek a lengthy sentence in every case.

“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 in a prior interview with The Times.

7

Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell

Craig Mitchell at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum.

Craig Mitchell at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum at Pacific Palms Resort.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Mitchell said he was spurred to enter the race after watching Gascón’s policies lead to what he considered incredibly lenient outcomes for defendants accused of drug trafficking and violent crime in his courtroom.

“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 launch event in late August.

A former prosecutor and high school teacher, Mitchell founded the “Skid Row Running Club” where he says he has helped build a community for some of L.A.’s most vulnerable people. The judge, who went on leave from the bench to enter the race, said the running club gives him a firsthand look at the county’s homeless and mental health crises, both of which are widely considered significant drivers of crime.

“A lot of my colleagues on the bench they scratch their head and ask, ‘Why are you going down to Skid Row?’ Skid Row has been a great classroom for me,” he said.

8

Jeff Chemerinsky

Jeff Chemerinsky at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum.

Jeff Chemerinsky at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum at Pacific Palms Resort.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The former head of violent crimes prosecutions for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, Chemerinsky is Gascón’s youngest challenger and perhaps the most progressive opponent he will face.

While he often speaks of his time prosecuting high-level members of MS-13 and other criminal street gangs and has attacked what he considers Gascón’s overly simplistic policies, he was also the lone candidate to utter the phase “criminal justice reform” during Wednesday night’s debate.

“We aren’t going to prosecute our way out of it, and we can’t criminalize poverty,” he said in response to a question about the district attorney’s role in combating homelessness. While he stopped short of echoing Gascón’s position on refusing to prosecute low-level misdemeanors, Chemerinsky said he would take a “triage” approach to the office’s caseload crisis and prioritize prosecutions of violent crimes, if elected.

Chemerinsky has been endorsed by Los Angeles City. Atty. Hydee Feldstein Soto. His father, Erwin, is one of California’s most famous legal minds who also served on Gascón’s transition team in 2020 and helped create some of the policies his son is now criticizing.

9

Superior Court Judge Debra Archuleta

Judge Debra Archuleta at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum.

Judge Debra Archuleta at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum at Pacific Palms Resort.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A veteran L.A. County prosecutor who ascended to the bench in 2016, Archuleta entered the race this month, claiming Gascón’s policies have made the county more dangerous and promising that “violent criminals will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law” if she is elected.

Archuleta called herself the “most electable” candidate on stage at Wednesday’s debate and questioned statistics that show crime is actually down in Los Angeles, echoing a perception issue that has seemed to trump actual data in discussions about public safety in some California cities in recent years.

“Do you feel safer now than you did three years ago?” she asked, noting that she “stepped down from the bench to step up for the people.”

10

David Milton

David S. Milton at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum.

David S. Milton at the Los Angeles district attorney candidates forum at Pacific Palms Resort.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A retired Superior Court judge and U.S. Army veteran, Milton was also an L.A. County prosecutor for about 14 years.

Milton seemingly announced himself a proponent of the death penalty Wednesday, touting on stage that he had sentenced a man to death and won death verdicts as a prosecutor. Gascón blocked prosecutors from seeking the death sentence when he was elected.

Milton has 45 years of legal experience serving as a prosecutor, municipal judge and Superior Court judge. He also said he authored bills to address drive-by shootings and stalking sponsored by then-Republican state Sen. Ed Royce in the 1990s. Both were rejected by the state Legislature.

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