Embattled D.A. George Gascón hovers over L.A. mayor’s race

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His name won’t be on the ballot in the June primary, but Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón still looms large over the L.A. mayoral race.

In a contest that has largely been dominated by discussion of homelessness and crime, the embattled district attorney has become a foil for two prominent candidates to voice their frustration with the direction of the city.

On Monday, real estate developer Rick Caruso joined City Councilman Joe Buscaino in backing the second attempt to recall the county’s top prosecutor in as many years.

Other prominent candidates, including Rep. Karen Bass and City Atty. Mike Feuer, have at times raised issues with Gascón’s tenure but do not endorse the recall effort against him.

USC law professor Jody David Armour said the Gascón recall campaign was playing a kind of proxy role in the race, with supporters aiming to show that they’re “a traditional, tough-on-crime, law-and-order candidate” by calling for Gascón’s ouster.

Many of Gascón’s critics have been quick to blame his policies for a dramatic increase in homicides and shootings in L.A. County that followed his election. The number of killings in the city jumped by 53% from 2019 to 2021, while homicides in areas patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department increased by 77% in the same time frame, records show.

Criminologists, however, have been quick to note that Gascón’s policies were unlikely to have an immediate effect on violent crime when they are largely focused on reducing the prosecution of low-level misdemeanors. Homicides decreased over the span of Gascon’s eight years in San Francisco, making the link between his policies and street violence murky at best.

Gascón — a former LAPD commander and San Francisco district attorney — unseated incumbent Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey to lead the nation’s largest local prosecutors office in November 2020. His win was heralded as a victory for the growing “progressive prosecutor” movement, and he announced a slate of sweeping policy changes the day he took office.

Activists celebrated those moves, which reflected the restorative justice platform Gascón had run on, but they have come under increasing fire from law enforcement leaders, victims rights groups and even his own prosecutors in recent months.

Gascón veered from his all-or-nothing stance on certain criminal justice reform issues two weeks ago, saying prosecutors can now seek to try juveniles as adults and pursue life sentences against defendants in certain cases. The move came as he faced increased blowback over his handling of the case of Hannah Tubbs, a 26-year-old allowed to plead guilty in Juvenile Court to sexually assaulting a child because Tubbs was a teen at the time of the crime.

An attempt to recall Gascón in 2021 fizzled because of a lack of organization and weak fundraising.

But this attempt has already collected $1.8 million, according to a January financial disclosure report, more money than the same campaign collected in 2021. The group has yet to release an estimate of collected signatures, but needs to rally roughly 560,000 supporters by early July to qualify.

Caruso had hedged on the topic since jumping into the race in February, saying he wanted to see a change from Gascón before weighing in on the recall effort.

He officially endorsed the recall campaign Monday, plowing $50,000 into the effort to unseat a man he has known since the early 2000s when Gascón was a member of the LAPD command staff and Caruso served as the president of the Police Commission.

Caruso’s contribution makes him one of the largest individual donors to the recall effort, and by far the highest-profile registered Democrat, records show. (Caruso, who spent much of his life as a Republican, changed his registration to Democrat in January.)

Although the recall campaign has insisted it has bipartisan support, Republican megadonors Geoff Palmer and Gerald Marcil still account for one-third of all the money raised thus far.

“As I’ve said, many times, I firmly believe that George Gascón needed to stand up, admit that many of his policies have put the city of Los Angeles in peril, crime is rising, change those policies, or he should step down, and if he doesn’t step down, he should be recalled,” Caruso said in a video released Monday. “I’ve said this repeatedly and clearly, he is not doing that.”

Caruso initially supported Gascón’s run for office in 2020, co-hosting a high-profile fundraiser for him where John Legend performed. He shifted later in the race, donating $45,000 to a committee supporting Lacey in October 2020, according to campaign finance disclosures.

Jamarah Hayner, a political strategist leading Gascon’s anti-recall efforts, accused Caruso of latching on to the recall effort to distract from what she considers glaring issues with the billionaire’s own mayoral campaign. (Hayner also served as Bass’ campaign manager until two weeks ago. She declined to say whether her departure had anything to do with concerns that Bass and Gascon’s politics would clash, and only described her exit from Bass’ team as “entirely mutual.”)

Speaking on behalf of Gascón, Hayner seemed unbothered by the increased attention and funding the recall effort has attracted in recent weeks, pointing to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s easy defeat of a recall election last year.

She also argued that many criticisms of Gascon are based on misinformation about his policies or their true effect on crime, and said the anti-recall campaign will focus on educating voters while still taking into account the suffering of crime victims.

Buscaino supported the recall effort before Caruso jumped into the race, saying in January: “I believe in criminal justice reform. I believe in providing additional services and rehabilitation, but what George Gascón is doing is not that.”

Feuer said in a statement that while he and Gascón “don’t agree on a number of issues,” Feuer’s position as the city’s top prosecutor requires a working relationship with the district attorney.

“That cooperation won’t happen — and community safety would suffer — if I got involved in the recall,” Feuer said.

Bass was repeatedly asked about Gascón during an appearance at the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. in late January and specifically why her name and photo appeared on Stand With Gascón, a website devoted to opposing a recall. She said she had no idea it had shown up on the website.

Later, Bass spokeswoman Anna Bahr said the congresswoman had asked that her name and face be removed from the endorsements section of the anti-recall effort’s website. During that meeting, Bass told the group there are some Gascón policies she agrees with and some that she does not. She also voiced her discontent with how recalls were being used.

“Even though some of George Gascon‘s policies need to be changed, I do not support his recall,” Bass said in a statement Monday, saying that while Los Angeles needs police and bail reform, reforms should not be rigidly implemented and elected officials should use discretion.

Councilman Kevin de León took a slightly different view, while still opposing Gascón’s recall.

“The recall process should be reserved only for those accused of high crimes; not abused by the very wealthy to serve their own interests,” he said in a statement. “Nothing should distract us from the real work of bringing our unhoused neighbors indoors, keeping our neighborhoods safe, and creating good-paying jobs.”

While Caruso and Buscaino’s broadsides of Gascón certainly won’t help the embattled district attorney, they also weren’t entirely unexpected from the two candidates who lean furthest to the right in the mayoral field.

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.

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