Strange dynamics of the race almost make Gascón look brilliant
Despite dismal approval ratings, Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón has the advantage of facing a big field in his re-election bid and few formidable foes. Some candidates are so unsuitable for the office it almost makes Gascón look brilliant by comparison.
By JIM NEWTON
The Los Angeles crowd was small and perhaps a bit bored, but what they witnessed had consequence, observing the 10 candidates competing for L.A. County district attorney, heading one of the nation’s largest and most influential prosecutorial offices. The candidates were squeezed cheek-by-jowl, jostling to get a word in edgewise in a race increasingly defined by its counterintuitive dynamics.
Incumbent George Gascón had a spot in the middle of the lineup. Once an emblem of the progressive prosecution movement, he’s now shunned by liberals, detested by conservatives, isolated from the city’s power structure and saddled with dismal approval ratings.
And yet, he has the advantage of facing a big field that includes a few formidable foes along with a bunch of non-starters, whose utter unsuitability for the office makes Gascón look brilliant by comparison. Flanking him on this recent night was a field featuring four serious candidates: Jeff Chemerinsky, Nathan Hochman, Eric Siddall and Jonathan Hatami — and then a sharp drop to the second string.
Three on the lower rung — Debra Archuleta, Craig Mitchell and David Milton — are current or former judges, and they are not doing any favors to the reputation of the bench.
On this night, Archuleta and Mitchell came off as shrill and hyperbolic — asked to rank, on a scale of 1 to 10, how safe she felt in L.A. County these days, Archuleta replied “0,” proof that she missed the 1990s. Milton, on the other hand, lobbed vague pronouncements about communism taking over the country. Eyes rolled.
Collectively, the judicial officers served as a reminder that being a judge is not necessarily a qualification for managing a complex law office.
Other contenders work in the DA’s office and seem to regard the contest as a chance to vent at their boss or secure a promotion. They traffic in bromides and cliches — the importance of leadership and empathy, the value of listening to the community, the primacy of public safety – and manage to avoid saying anything of consequence.
They, too, are worth little more than a yawn.
That leaves Gascón, Hatami, Siddall, Hochman and Chemerinsky.
Gascón’s credentials are impeccable, up to a point. He was an LAPD officer who served as both police chief and district attorney in San Francisco, as well as having served a term as L.A.’s top prosecutor. He came to office, as he said during the debate, “on a very clear platform” of reform.
And he’s made some changes, issuing directives on how the office would handle misdemeanors, pulling back on death penalty prosecutions and moving away from certain sentencing enhancements.
However, his efforts to implement reforms have been by decree rather than in consultation with his prosecutors, giving him a reputation as high-handed and aloof. He’s backtracked so much he now seems to downplay his own work as a reformer. And he’s become increasingly isolated in a position that depends upon cooperation with other agencies and officials.
In short, Gascón has lost the confidence of those in power.
Blood in the water attracts sharks. Siddall and Hatami represent the most interesting challengers from inside his office, which is not saying much but does get them attention. Siddall is a veteran prosecutor and popular with the union that represents deputy DAs. He’s clever and quick, but he’s also glib and sometimes mean.
In the debate, he accused one rival of political gamesmanship and another of being a “mini-Gascon,” leaning on the time-tested and tiresome habit of substituting name-calling for ideas. In political terms, he also lacks a clear lane. He’s neither a bonafide conservative nor a reformer, but rather someone stranded in the center, lashing out in both directions.
Hatami has a clearer message. He’s a conservative with an appeal to victims and victims’ rights. That gives him a path, though not necessarily one with broad appeal in an electorate that still likes the idea of criminal justice reform, at least in theory. Hatami has real prosecutorial credentials and has assembled some money and endorsements from the right, but at the debate he seemed most determined to tout his own childhood victimization — a sad story, no doubt, but not one that makes his case for office.
Chemerinsky has a different problem, though a preferable one for a candidate. He seeks to inherit the reform mission that Gascón fumbled and fuse it with his background as an effective federal prosecutor focused on public safety.
He refuses to reject all that Gascón has done while also arguing that he’s better equipped for the task. That’s a thin, difficult line to walk, though Chemerinsky has managed it well so far: The most recent campaign finance reports show that he raised more than $800,000, and he has secured endorsements from leading police reform advocates.
Given that, Chemerinsky is probably the best hope for those who support a reform agenda but have lost confidence in Gascón.
Chemerinsky’s biggest challenge? It’s hard to be nuanced in a setting that favors bombast. That became clear during the debate’s discussion of Proposition 47, a 2014 initiative that reclassified some felonies as misdemeanors and raised the threshold for felony theft. As a result of Prop. 47, which Gascón supported, most thefts of $950 or less are treated as misdemeanors in California rather than felonies.
The DA candidates were asked whether they favored revisiting Prop. 47.
Chemerinsky sensibly responded that the felony threshold set by Prop. 47 was not responsible for rising property crime – more than 30 states, including Texas, have higher thresholds – and crimes such as the much-discussed organized retail thefts are not covered by Prop. 47.
Gascón agreed. That’s when Siddall called Chemerinsky “mini-Gascón.”
And yet, having scored his point, Siddall went on to acknowledge that Prop. 47 did not “stop us from being able to do criminal justice in Los Angeles.” The initiative, he said, had contributed to rising property crime, but not as much as some of its critics argue – nor was it as blameless as Gascón or mini-Gascón would have it. Siddall’s argument? Who knows.
So Gascón is vulnerable, Hatami is more conservative than the electorate and Siddall is tripped up by his ego. Chemerinsky has the clearest lane among them, but he is struggling to be accepted as both a tough prosecutor and a reliable reformer.
That leaves Hochman, whose candidacy should give all sides pause.
Hochman is running as an independent, but he was a Republican when he ran for attorney general of California just two years ago. It’s not popular to be a Republican in Los Angeles County, so Hochman’s switch makes sense in purely Machiavellian terms for this race, but it’s still fishy. He comes across as a waxy opportunist looking for any office he can secure, and willing to bend his principles to win.
Though Hochman likes to tout his “independence” and is working to rally moderates and conservatives to make the runoff against Gascón, there’s nothing Gascón would like more than to face him. Gascón’s woeful popularity makes it hard for him to win against just about anyone – except a freshly converted Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate.
The race is strange enough then that Gascón’s greatest chance to retain his seat depends on the 2022 Republican candidate for California attorney general, now an independent who attacks him at every turn, advancing to November.
The election will determine the direction of a nationally important office at a pivotal political moment. It may or may not serve as a referendum on progressive prosecution strategies, but it almost certainly will deliver a verdict on Gascón himself.
Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and teacher. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist, covering government and politics. He teaches at UCLA and founded Blueprint magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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