Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey took a commanding early lead Tuesday against two criminal justice reformers looking to unseat the two-term career prosecutor who found herself in an ill-timed controversy on Election Day.
Lacey had nearly 54% of the vote in early returns as former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon had about 25% and ex-public defender Rachel Rossi had 21% of 700,000 votes counted.
Lacey’s challengers are trying to ride a wave of reform that has swept a new generation of prosecutors into offices from Boston to Denver to Houston who have advocated for racial justice, focusing resources on dangerous crime, ending cash bail and using treatment instead of prison for the mentally ill and drug users.
Lacey, the first woman and first African-American to hold the job, has been criticized for not prosecuting police for shootings, which have been a source of friction with Black Lives Matter protesters, who say she is too protective of law enforcement.
On the eve of the election, Lacey found herself in the awkward position of apologizing after her husband pointed a handgun at Black Lives Matter members and said “I will shoot you” during a pre-dawn demonstration they held outside her home.
Any fallout from that incident won’t be reflected in the bulk of early votes, which came from mail-in ballots.
The candidate with more than 50% of votes in the nonpartisan contest wins. If no one gets a majority, the top two will face a runoff in November.
The winner will oversee the largest prosecutor’s office in the U.S., with nearly 1,000 lawyers, and a territory that covers the nation’s second-largest city and 10 million residents across the sprawling county.
Money has poured into the campaign with police unions spending more than $1 million on independent expenditure campaigns for Lacey while private donors and celebrities who support reform are fueling Gascon’s challenge. Rossi trailed significantly in fund-raising.
Gascon and Rossi have hammered Lacey for locking up too many people of color and not making enough use of a program she started to keep from locking up people with mental illness.
Lacey has focused mainly on attacking Gascon, who she said disproportionately prosecuted blacks, never brought charges against a police officer in a fatal shooting and failed to carry out reforms in San Francisco that he proposes for Los Angeles. She also said a ballot measure he authored to reduce some felonies to misdemeanors, including some thefts, led San Francisco to have the nation’s highest property crime rate per capita in the U.S.
While Gascon carries the more liberal credentials of a San Francisco politician, both he and Lacey grew up in Los Angeles.
Gascon moved from Cuba as a teen to the gritty LA suburb of Bell. He was a police officer who rose through the ranks to assistant chief in Los Angeles before being named top cop in Mesa, Arizona, and then San Francisco. He was appointed as district attorney to replace Kamala Harris when she became state attorney general and was elected twice.
Lacey grew up in South Los Angeles and has been a career prosecutor who worked her way up to the top of the office.
Lacey said she and her husband, David, were awakened and frightened early Monday by the demonstrators.
Lacey apologized on behalf of herself and her husband following the gun incident. She said she expects people to exercise their First Amendment rights, “but our home is our sanctuary.”
Detectives are investigating a “possible assault with a deadly weapon” at the Lacey residence, Los Angeles police said in a statement.
Gascon’s campaign did not immediately comment on the controversy.
“As district attorney, I will never run from the community,” Rossi said in a statement. “And I never thought I’d have to say it, but I will also never threaten to shoot — or have others threaten to shoot — community members protesting my actions.”