In the run-up to election day, a lot of people in Los Angeles assumed that District Attorney Jackie Lacey was in for a rough ride. The L.A. County Democratic Party had endorsed George Gascón, who in his job as DA of San Francisco, exhibited a criminal-justice-reform streak that aligned with progressive values. The Los Angeles Times had also backed Gascón.
Meanwhile, criminal justice reform activists representing Black Lives Matter had launched a well-organized movement to see Lacey unseated, attending debates and picketing public appearances. Then, a day before the election, Lacey’s husband David pulled out a gun and threatened to shoot protesters who had gathered on the couple’s porch; the protesters recorded the incident and it exploded on Twitter.
With Bernie Sanders fervor swelling across the state, the election of prosecutors who favor restorative justice efforts in cities throughout the country, and the local precedent set by Sheriff Jim McDonnell’s 2018 loss to Alex Villanueva, who people then believed was a more progressive option, the time seemed ripe for a more woke approach to L.A. criminal justice.
But when voters hit the polls, they opted for the status quo and the person they know. To paraphrase Mark Twain, social media reports of the death of Lacey’s career were greatly exaggerated.
According to the most recent figures released by L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk (which were last updated on March 6 at around 4 p.m.), Lacey has precisely 50 percent of the vote; she needs just more than that to win outright and escape a November runoff. Gascón sits in a distant second, with 27.44 percent, and a third candidate, former public defender Rachel Rossi, has 22.56 percent. All three are Democrats.
In physical terms, Lacey has nearly 616,000 votes, giving her a 275,000-plus advantage over Gascón’s tally of about 338,000.
Provisional and other ballots are still coming in, and it could be weeks until the election is certified—according to the Registrar-Recorder, nearly 1.45 million votes have been tallied and another 600,000 remain to be counted. When all is said and done, Lacey might slip under 50 percent and be forced into a runoff with the second-place finisher. But even if she has to go head to head with Gascón in eight months, she’ll be able to claim that she rolled the San Francisco transplant who once served as a higher-up in the LAPD.
So how were expectations so high for Gascón, and what made Lacey perform better than many expected?
Numerous factors contributed to Lacey’s strong showing. Here are five of them.
Republicans exist in L.A.
While members of the GOP can seem as rare as unicorns in a stark-blue city, the county is a different animal, and there are more conservative neighborhoods the farther you get from downtown, Hollywood, and Venice. Remember, this was an election not for a city of 4 million inhabitants, but a county with approximately 10 million residents.
According to figures from the Registrar-Recorder, although approximately 877,000 of the ballots counted so far were from registered Democrats, more than 280,000—or just over 19 percent—were cast by Republicans. And many conservative voters would hug a porcupine before they’d embrace the decriminalization efforts championed by Gascón.
“All she had to really do was maybe wave at the Republicans, and they are never going to consider Gascón, so that gave her a foundational support she didn’t have to fight for,” said John Thomas, a GOP political strategist who did polling on the contest before the election, and who was not working with a candidate in the race.
Lacey has been District Attorney for eight years, and launched her re-election campaign in 2018. Gascón didn’t announce his candidacy until late October. Even though he generated a lot of attention, he had only a little over four months to connect with voters across the entirety of Los Angeles County. That late start, along with a cluttered ballot, made it possible that many people simple didn’t know Gascón and did not remember his career in Los Angeles a decade ago. Thomas said that, indeed, polls conducted a few weeks before the election found Gascón to have limited name ID.
Plus, Rossi was seeking to woo similar progressive voters, and may have siphoned some support from Gascón.
Related to name ID, there’s power in incumbency. Even if Lacey generally operates in a low-key manner, uninformed voters frequently opt for the person who has the job and whose name they recognize. And it’s a big job—the L.A. County DA oversees the country’s largest prosecutors office, with nearly 1,000 lawyers.
Plus, Lacey has established strong relationships with a lot of powerful figures, and many of them lined up for her. Lacey boasted the endorsement of Senator Dianne Feinstein, Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Attorney Mike Feuer, and a battalion of elected officials up and down the state. She also milked the fact that San Francisco Mayor London Breed supported her and not Gascón.
Union support—and the money that brings
Gascón claimed some nifty endorsements, but Lacey boasted something perhaps more valuable—backing from the unions that represent local sheriff’s deputies and police officers.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League and the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs are seasoned organizations that know how to throw their weight around come election time. Both have political action committees that went big for Lacey. A Los Angeles Times article in late February noted that law enforcement unions had poured more than $2 million into committees backing the incumbent. That buys a lot of mailers and TV time.
Gascón also saw big spending on his behalf from outside supporters, but according to Thomas, the law enforcement unions were more effective.
“Gascón hasn’t done a good job at branding Lacey on his terms,” Thomas said. “He’s let Lacey and the police unions take control of this race.”
Late pot push
Lacey, who is African-American, found herself buffeted on the campaign trail by Black Lives Matter protesters, and Gascón strived to establish himself as the person who would do more to ensure fair policing and prosecution in minority neighborhoods. But Lacey didn’t cede territory, and just weeks before the election, she announced that her office had secured the dismissal of 66,000 L.A. County marijuana convictions, many of which involved people from minority communities. Her opponents dismissed the move as a campaign tactic, but it may have resonated with some voters.
If Lacey ends up with a majority by even one vote, then the race is over and she gets a final four-year term. But if she finishes with 49.99 percent, then the whole shebang repeats, almost certainly with a runoff against Gascón.
Many would argue that, with Lacey already so close to a majority, that race would be effectively over, and that the LAPPL and ALADS would work even harder—and spend even more money—not just to keep her in office, but to keep Gascón out. She’d start with a big advantage.
Yet nothing is certain in politics, and eight months provides a lot of time for Gascón to build his brand and cut into Lacey’s lead. Plus, a November election headlined by Sanders or Joe Biden taking on Trump would boost Democratic turnout. Thomas notes that, if a big Dem donor writes a massive check in support of Gascón, that too could make a difference.
But all that is months down the line, and right now, one thing is clear: Lacey, despite what many anticipated, managed to crush the competition on election day.