California was in the midst of “recall fever” earlier this year as a loose array of conservative groups launched surprisingly strong campaigns targeting the governor and dozens of other state and local officials.
Then they came for George Gascón.
But behind the scenes, one woman ultimately controlled the campaign to recall the combative 67-year-old, who in March defeated Jackie Lacey, the incumbent DA and the first African American and woman to hold the top law enforcement post in the city’s history, on a bold progressive platform to end mass incarceration, reduce sentences for criminals, and prosecute cops for misconduct.
Gascón’s bête noire turns out to be not a seasoned political operative but an amateur pseudoactivist and law-enforcement booster named Heather Carbone. Though she took steps to hide her name from the official Gascón recall committee’s public paperwork, eight sources with ties to the operation confirmed that she was the person who called the shots. There is no indication that she was actually paid for her work.
Carbone declined to comment for this story except to say that she “helped on the recall campaign and ran the Facebook group.” She insists that “other people” ran the campaign though that was contradicted by nearly everyone interviewed.
How did a political neophyte come to manage one of the highest-profile recall campaigns in the state?
First, it’s instructive to revisit the remarkable circumstances that led to Gascón’s election and his subsequent repudiation by critics and even his most ardent supporters.
Lacey began the race for the DA’s office with the enthusiastic endorsement of California’s Democratic establishment. But as the race dragged on and anti-cop protests across the city intensified following George Floyd’s murder, Lacey’s close ties to law enforcement became a liability. After finishing a distant second in the March open primary, Gascón went on to handily defeat her in the general election.
Immediately upon taking office last December, Gascón announced a slew of initiatives that upended decades of established policy; he did away with cash bail (the cancellation of which voters had just rejected by statewide referendum) and sentencing enhancements that can add years or even decades for gang affiliation, use of a firearm, or hate motivation. Minors would no longer be tried as adults, prosecutors could no longer seek the death penalty. The backlash was fierce—from crime victims, from law enforcement, from judges. Even Gascón’s supporters were rattled by the swift and sweeping nature of his reforms. LGBTQ leaders were so incensed about his abolition of hate-crime enhancements that they held a press conference to decry the move. Less than two weeks after announcing the policies, Gascón sheepishly walked back some of them, agreeing to allow sentencing enhancements for some hate crimes. Less than 100 days into his first term, a survey taken by UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs found that just 31 percent of voters approved of his job performance; 32 percent disapproved. His numbers were even worse than those of Alex Villanueva, the controversial L.A. County sheriff who has been mired in a series of scandals since his own surprise victory.
“[Gascón] brought a huge wrecking ball to the entire criminal justice system—virtually all aspects of it,” says former DA Steve Cooley, Lacey’s predecessor, who, with former city councilman Dennis Zine, became the public face of the Gascón recall effort. The campaign was able to raise more than $1 million (with six-figure checks from pro-Trump developer Geoff Palmer, hotel heir Anthony Pritzker, and oil heir Robert Day), thanks in part to the endorsement of Tania Owen, the widow of a slain sheriff’s department sergeant, and Desiree Andrade, whose son was brutally murdered by gang members. Both said Gascón’s reforms would reduce the sentences of their loved ones’ killers.
Then came Heather Carbone.
Until recently, Carbone operated a Facebook page, Defend the LAPD. The Recall Gascón campaign was started there. After filing the paperwork in March, organizers had 160 days to obtain at least 579,062 valid signatures from registered L.A. County voters. Collecting such a large cache is no easy task. To succeed, organizers needed to raise between five million and eight million dollars to fund a small army of signature gatherers. But the campaign waited until the 160-day clock had already started before raising money and hiring professional consultants. This time-consuming gaffe garnered media coverage but little in the way of actual signatures.
But according to several volunteers, things took an ugly turn early in the campaign when a rift formed between Carbone and organizers who were put off by what they considered her controlling and divisive manner.
“Her communication style was abrasive,” says Karen Roseberry, a former educator and volunteer. “She was unwilling to compromise or be open to other points of view.” Fed up with Carbone’s theatrics, Roseberry quit Recall George Gascón in April and started Recall Gascón Now, a more modestly financed rival that gathered signatures for the same petition. The similar names led to confusion among volunteers and lots of angry bickering on social media.
On Facebook, Carbone warned supporters not to volunteer for the breakaway group and railed against its leaders. Referring to Roseberry, Carbone wrote, “She is a volunteer who got upset we didn’t hire her. She’s not well is the best way to say it. She has stolen from us and the campaign attorney sent her a cease and desist.” When asked why there were two groups engaged in the same effort, Carbone responded that the other campaign was “falsely using our campaign endorsements and they have been emailing and texting people who did not give them permission to do so. They are trying to get money.”
“An inordinate amount of effort and attention was put on trying to sabotage the efforts of any other group working toward the recall,” says Roseberry. “If it was not part of Heather’s group, the legitimacy was questioned.” Adds Marc Debbaudt, the former president of the L.A. Association of District Attorneys, “The goal was to collect the signatures, and it doesn’t matter how you get them.”
But the campaign had bigger problems. After an impressive start, fundraising stalled. Police unions had spent millions to prevent Gascón’s election in the first place and balked at spending more to recall him, partly because their internal polling showed removing Gascón would be a tough sell. But they were also put off by the campaign’s infighting. A cryptically worded press release from the sheriff’s deputies union, ALADS, said the union was aware of “at least four different groups involved in the effort to recall Gascón. Are they working in harmony toward a common goal? No comment.” Adds a prosecutor involved with the first campaign, “Heather had all kinds of fights with the unions. It didn’t help that the LAPPL [the LAPD’s union] issued a cease and desist letter to her.” On September 16, with only 200,000 signatures gathered, the campaign announced they were forming a new PAC and yet another campaign, Recall District Attorney George Gascón, and letting the clock run out on the old petition. The new group’s organizers include all the same names from the first group—Andrade, Owen, Cooley, Zine, and former deputy DA Sam Dordulian—minus one: Carbone.
“I think Heather wasn’t a really experienced person, and I think the people behind it now are little more experienced,” says Jon Hatami, a prosecutor not working for the recall campaign who has been vocal in his disdain for Gascón.
“I would not comment on any sort of personnel matters,” says Cooley. “A lot of people contributed to a lot of good things in the first effort. It got started late because it was strictly a grassroots, volunteer, Facebook kind of thing. It took a while to get the professionals. That will not happen with this effort.”
Those professionals include Tim Lineberger, the campaign spokesman, and Jeff Corless, the new campaign strategist. Both were hired while Carbone was still in charge, and both worked on Larry Elder’s campaign to recall Governor Newsom. They are staying on with the campaign and were recently joined by a new campaign manager, Gregory Foster.
Asked about the recall reboot, Gascón’s campaign manager, Jamarah Hayner, was quick to point out that “578,000 [signatures] is a really difficult number to hit. Unless you were somehow able to redistrict Orange County into L.A., you’re going to have a hard time.”
Gascón himself seems nonplussed by the drama. He thinks the campaign against him was sparked by the Newsom recall and further fueled by the persistent belief among local Trump supporters that Biden had stolen the presidential election.
“It’s that never-ending unwillingness to accept a democratic process,” Gascón says of his opponents. “They could not gather enough signatures by a long shot. They blame it on, well, ‘We need to regroup and reset.’ OK, I’m sure you can. Have at it, and we’ll fight you if you can get the signatures.”
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