George Gascón is the godfather of progressive prosecuting. Will LA elect him DA?

George Gascón is hoping he can unseat Jackie Lacey at a moment when antisemitic hate crimes are on the rise

When George Gascón was a young boy in Cuba growing up under Fidel Castro’s regime, he witnessed a litany of injustices that influenced his view of authority. On one occasion, he recalled, the police swept into his neighborhood unannounced and arrested a man who lived across the street. “I remember this man being taken out in handcuffs, and he never came back,” Gascón recounted in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “We learned several months later that he was executed.”

“I grew up in a system where the police were everywhere,” Gascón added, an experience that imbued in him a strong and early sense of skepticism toward law enforcement. He carried that distrust with him into his teenage years after his family fled to Los Angeles in the late 1960s. “I did not have a lot of respect for police,” he said bluntly. The feeling was mutual. “I bought a lowrider, and that was probably the biggest mistake of my life,” Gascón told JI, referring to a type of car with a lowered body. “I had weeks that I would get stopped three or four times.”

Still, those who are familiar with Gascón’s trajectory know that he long ago overcame his aversion to law enforcement by joining its ranks. The former Los Angeles cop worked his way through the system to become police chief in Mesa, Ariz., and then San Francisco, where he most recently served as district attorney, earning plaudits for his innovative prosecutorial reforms. Now that he is running for Los Angeles County district attorney, Gascón, 66, is hoping he can bring what he regards as sorely needed change to a city — and a legal system — that once treated him with suspicion.

“I believe that L.A. is this incredible place that is so vibrant in almost every walk of life,” Gascón told JI. “Except for public safety.”

It is not unlikely that he will get the chance to enact his vision, experts say, as widespread protests against police brutality have lent unprecedented urgency to the issue of criminal justice reform. “The broader attitudinal change over public safety issues is cresting at precisely the right moment for a candidate like Gascón,” said Dan Schnur, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications. “Gascón has all sorts of advantages in this political climate.”

The policeman-turned-prosecutor brings to his campaign several policies that, he says, set him apart from the incumbent, Jackie Lacey, who has served as Los Angeles DA since 2012 and is the first woman, as well as the first African American, to hold the office. “I am very familiar with the work of the current DA in L.A. because we were almost always on the opposite side of the fence,” Gascón said, characterizing his opponent as a prosecutor who has been tough on crime at the expense of the city’s most vulnerable.

Gascón and Lacey are competing in a November runoff after Lacey failed to secure 50% of the vote in the March election. In a way, the race serves as a barometer of the national mood, as two candidates with vastly different perspectives compete to represent a city with the largest district attorney’s office, along with the biggest jail system, in the United States. 

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In conversation with JI, Gascón rattled off a number of detailed proposals he hopes to implement, claiming that he will bring “21st-century practices” to a position “that is very much stuck in the 1980s.” Gascón says he will take a more data-oriented approach in an effort to target racial inequities as well as violent crime. He vows that he will eliminate cash bail for nonviolent criminals and those who have committed misdemeanors. He adds that he will end the death penalty in Los Angeles, honoring a recent executive moratorium from California Gov. Gavin Newsom. The ex-cop also promises to bring about increased police accountability by creating an independent investigations bureau whose attorneys will be tasked with investigating police violence.

Gascón’s policies have resonated with progressive voters in Los Angeles who have been disappointed by Lacey’s continued effort to seek death penalty sentences while declining to charge police officers for shootings. 

George Gascón (Courtesy)

“George, I feel, very deeply understands the DA’s office as a powerful tool in implementing rehabilitative justice and not just an endless cycle of punitive justice,” said Alex Kress, a rabbi in Los Angeles who is involved with the group Jews for Gascón, a coalition of local activists who have thrown their support behind the candidate.

Gascón, who employs a campaign fellow who conducts Jewish outreach, appears to have garnered broad support from Jewish community members in Los Angeles, which, with more than 600,000 Jews, is home to the second largest Jewish population in the United States behind New York. 

Rachel Sumekh, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Swipe Out Hunger, believes that Jewish communal leaders have rallied behind Gascón, in part, because his values align with the Jewish faith, particularly with regard to the death penalty. “It is ethically corrupt to decide, even in the most harsh cases,” she said, “that we deserve to kill someone.” 

In addition, Sumekh said, Gascón’s commitment to fighting hate crimes — as he did as San Francisco DA — resonates with Jewish Angelenos during a time in which antisemitic attacks are on the rise. In 2018, the most recent year for which such information is available, Los Angeles County registered a 2.6% increase in hate crimes, according to a report published by the Los Angeles Commission on Human Relations. Though “religious crimes” saw a slight decline, the report said that antisemitic crimes still rose 14%, making up 83% of all “religion-motived crimes.”

In late May, Jewish Angelenos witnessed such crimes first-hand when largely peaceful protests against police brutality devolved as rioters in the city’s historically Jewish Fairfax District looted Jewish-owned businesses and vandalized Jewish schools and synagogues with antisemitic graffiti. In interviews with JI, business owners who were targeted said that they had been let down by the follow-up from city officials.

Jonathan Friedman, whose pharmacy on Beverly Boulevard was ransacked on the evening of May 30, the last night of Shavuot, said he had to plead with the Los Angeles Police Department to come down to his store and file a report the next day. Since then, he hasn’t heard from any city officials about the incident. “Zero, zero, zero,” he sighed.

A task force is currently investigating crimes committed during the demonstrations in May and June, according to the police department, though business owners in the district suggested that they did not expect much to come of the effort. “Nothing happened, nobody cares and nothing will happen,” said a man who picked up the phone earlier this week at Ariel Glatt Kosher Market, which was looted in May. He hung up before identifying himself.

Aryeh Rosenfeld, who owns two businesses that were looted, said he had filed multiple police reports but had not yet received any confirmation that the police or the district attorney’s office were looking into the crimes. “I think that the only way out of this is by getting good politicians who really take to heart what’s going on around them,” he told JI, though he declined to say if he believed a new DA would better address such problems. 

Richard S. Hirschhaut, regional director of the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles, resides in the neighborhood in which looting took place and expressed a similar sense of disappointment. “Having lived through those difficult hours, the response of civic leadership at the time was late and lacking,” he said. “And it should serve as an object lesson going forward.”

Still, Irving Lebovics, a member of Congregation Kehilas Yaakov, an Orthodox Jewish synagogue that was tagged with graffiti during the protests, told JI that he had been encouraged by the city’s response to the rioting and had met with city officials to discuss the vandalism in his capacity as chairman of Agudath Israel of California, which represents the organized Orthodox Jewish community in the state. 

Lebovics added his belief that the Jewish community has been generally well-served by Lacey’s office, including an instance in which she helped provide resources to members of the Jewish community who had been incarcerated. “We have a longstanding relationship with Jackie Lacey,” he said. “She has been an amazing help.”

Lacey condemned the looting and vandalism in a statement to JI. “The images of antisemitic graffiti on synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses are extremely horrifying and have no place in our community,” she said, adding: “I intend to take all of these on a case-by-case basis. That said, I have no tolerance for individuals who loot businesses or intentionally damage property. My office will continue to seek justice for those who have been wrongfully targeted by violence or theft.”

Gascón was equally adamant in disavowing hate crimes of any sort. “There is a clear distinction between peaceful demonstrators and those that hurt others or vandalize property,” Gascón told JI in a statement. “For the latter, there are appropriate interventions that the district attorney can apply to ensure there is accountability. When crimes are motivated by hate, however, there is an added concern, and I have been very clear both as district attorney in San Francisco — and were I to be elected in LA — that hate-motivated crimes will be dealt with swiftly. I have no tolerance for hate-driven crimes in our community.”

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Gascón took a political risk when he resigned from his position as San Francisco DA last October and moved to Los Angeles to be closer to his family. Though he has excited voters in the city, Gascón will have to rely on a broad swath of young, progressive voters turning out on Election Day if he wants to unseat Lacey, according to James Regalado, an emeritus professor of political science at California State University, Los Angeles. “The heavier the turnout, the better the chances for Gascón,” he said. 

The candidate can also count on a sizable war chest. Gascón, buoyed by a hefty donation from the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, has pulled in $6.6 million, though Lacey isn’t far behind with $5.8 million, a substantial portion of which came from law enforcement unions, money that Gascón has disavowed.

While activists have sought to cast Lacey as an obstacle to reform, she rejected the notion in an interview with JI. “I have always supported getting rid of racial bias in the criminal justice system,” said Lacey, whose tenure has drawn harsh criticism from Black Lives Matter protesters. “The L.A. DA’s office has always been one of those offices that looks for what I would call ‘the sweet spot of justice,’” Lacey added. “There are crimes where we have to ask for the maximum penalty because we think the crime itself and the defendant’s background deserves it. But we’ve also had a culture of saying, ‘Hold up, not everyone belongs in prison for the rest of their life for stealing a small amount of goods.’”

Lacey, who is 63, grew up in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles, which she describes as formative. “At my house, we had bars on the windows, and the doors were always locked up at night,” she said. “I thought everybody in L.A. was living like that.” It wasn’t until she went to college in a more affluent suburb of Los Angeles that Lacey realized there were racial disparities among different neighborhoods in the city. “That really influenced me,” she said.

Despite her experience, Lacey believes that the recent protests advocating for police reform — many of which have been directed at her — are misguided. “The irony of the protests is that protests are good, but you really have to get in and work with police and the prosecutor’s office to make these changes, you really do,” she said. “And you can protest, bring attention to it, but real meaningful change only happens when you sit down and become a legislator or a policymaker.”

Lacey claims Gascón is a progressive in name only, who has simply taken advantage of the current moment, pointing out that he failed to earn endorsements from San Francisco’s mayor and city attorney, both of whom backed Lacey. “There has to be a good reason why,” she mused. 

Paul Koretz, a Los Angeles city councilman who supports Lacey, also thinks Gascón has inflated his progressive bona fides, claiming that Gascón has in the past exhibited overly lenient behavior in disciplining cops. Koretz, who represents the Fairfax District among others, expressed admiration for Lacey’s policies, characterizing her approach to mental health in the criminal justice system as “enlightened” while also pointing out that she recently dismissed 66,000 marijuana-related convictions.

But in recent months, enthusiasm has shifted in Gascón’s favor as a number of public officials in California have withdrawn their support for Lacey, most recently Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who on Monday announced that he would back her challenger. Gascón has also earned endorsements from The Los Angeles Times as well as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), who occupied the DA role in San Francisco before him. 

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey (Neon Tommy/Flickr)

“George Gascón will help our county shift the burden from the criminal justice system and jails toward diversion, intervention and re-entry programs that save money and save lives,” Garcetti said in a statement announcing his about-face. “He is a leader who I have known and trusted for nearly 20 years who can meet this moment.”

Garcetti’s sentiment captures the feelings of a number of lawmakers across the country: Gascón is viewed, in activist circles, as the godfather of what is known as the progressive prosecutor movement, represented by a wave of district attorneys in major cities like Boston and Philadelphia who have made it their goal to abandon a tough-on-crime approach to law enforcement and pursue criminal justice reforms. 

“George Gascón has been a leader in the progressive prosecutor movement before it was a movement,” Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s district attorney and another recipient of Soros’s largesse, told JI. “He safely reduced incarceration, fought for second chances for those who had grown and changed, and implemented policies that were smart — which does not always mean tough. He will do the same for Los Angeles.”

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Still, Gascón, a former college dropout who served in the Army before he became a police officer, admits that it took him some time to arrive at those policies. “When I became a cop, I really became a cop with a strong belief that I could make a difference in police communities similar to the ones that I grew up in,” he said. 

In reflecting on that period, though, he says he is now aware that some of the work he did was part of a system that contributed to higher rates of incarceration, particularly among Black people. “The more I became educated on the process,” he said, “the more convinced I became that incarceration was not necessarily making things safer.”

“It took, obviously, a level of maturity and time for me to get there,” he told JI. “I’m not going to tell you that when I was a young officer in a patrol car that I was thinking about mass incarceration. That wasn’t the case. But it was an evolution for me as I grew through the ranks and grew in maturity.”

The 1992 riots in Los Angeles precipitated by Rodney King’s brutal beating at the hands of L.A. police officers were eye-opening for Gascón, who says that the unrest caused him to question his role in the community. 

As Gascón advanced into the higher ranks of the police department, he began to implement reforms during the Rampart police scandal in the late 1990s, working, for instance, to post the Bill of Rights in every police classroom and encouraging discussions on the importance of a democratic society centered around constitutional rights. “For years, I was probably one of the few cops in the LAPD that was an ACLU card-carrying member,” said Gascón, who got his law degree in the mid-’90s.

Gascón brought his approach to Mesa, where he found himself butting heads with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has been accused of a number of civil rights violations and was pardoned in 2017 by President Donald Trump. In 2007, during his time in Arizona, Gascón traveled to Israel on a trip sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, where he met with law enforcement officials and colonels to discuss public safety initiatives. “It was a tremendously valuable trip,” Gascón recalled. “Visiting the Old City neighborhood [of Jerusalem] and seeing the intersection of all the major religions was invaluable as we work to build trust and ensure justice is applied equally in an increasingly diverse society here at home.”

After Mesa, Gascón ventured to San Francisco, where he was the city’s police chief for one year until he switched over to the DA role, thanks to an appointment from Newsom. It was there that he put his views to the test. “By the time that I became the district attorney in San Francisco, I really had been evolving very rapidly,” Gascón said. “I went on to show that you could actually continue increasing the safety of our community while decreasing incarceration — and that really became my single focus.”

Throughout his eight years leading San Francisco’s DA office, Gascón made efforts to enact sweeping reforms, expunging thousands of marijuana convictions and co-authoring Proposition 47, a ballot measure passed in 2014 that reduced nonviolent offenses such as drug possession to misdemeanors. While critics say that the measure has led to an increase in crime, Gascón argues that assessment is inaccurate, though violent crime did go up during his time in office, according to an LA Times investigation.

George Gascón appears at an event while chief of police in San Francisco. (Courtesy)

During that time, Gascón also formed a strong working relationship with the ADL, according to Seth Brysk, the organization’s San Francisco-based regional director. “George Gascón is a longtime friend of the Jewish community and ally of ADL over his many years of service in a variety of roles in law enforcement in Los Angeles, Mesa and San Francisco,” he told JI, pointing out that Gascón was the first public official to visit the ADL office in San Francisco after it was evacuated due to a bomb threat three years ago. In recognition of his “longstanding work to confront bias and hate,” Brysk said, Gascón was presented the ADL’s Civil Rights Award in 2017.

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When Gascón announced that he was returning to Los Angeles, he said, he began getting calls about a possible DA run. Heidi Segal, an active member of the Los Angeles Jewish community who served as co-chair of Gascón’s policy committee, was an early supporter who met with Gascón before he officially entered the race. Segal, whose background is in criminal justice reform, immediately found that his views aligned with hers. “He understands the criminal justice system from a number of lenses,” she told JI. 

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, a professor at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, also met with Gascón prior to his official campaign announcement and was impressed. “I think it’s a moment for serious movement on public safety and that people are open to radical ideas,” Cohen told JI.

If elected, Gascón plans to import to his home city many of the lessons he has learned throughout his time in law enforcement. Eliza Orlins, a DA candidate in New York who views herself as part of the progressive prosecutor movement, believes that voters in Los Angeles will be receptive to Gascón’s vision. “This is a moment,” said Orlins, who recently participated in a virtual candidate forum alongside Gascón. “People are ready for reform. People are ready for DAs like George.”

But Schnur, the Annenberg professor, contends that while reformers tend to get more attention, there is still a significant portion of the electorate, even in a deep blue city like Los Angeles, that supports more traditional approaches to law enforcement. “If this campaign were taking place four years ago, Gascón wouldn’t have a chance in the world,” Schnur told JI matter-of-factly. “If it were taking place last year, he’d have a very steep uphill fight.”

“But there’s something to be said for timing,” Schnur added. “The question that will be answered on Election Day is whether Gascón is pushing a little too fast for Angelenos or whether he’s pushing exactly fast enough.”

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