Race for LA District Attorney: Key Takeaways From A Contentious — And Disrupted — Debate

From left to right: DA Jackie Lacey, George Gascon and Rachel Rossi. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times © 2020)

There's no question: It was a raucous night. There was shouting and chanting from the audience, so much it disrupted the conversation on stage.

On stage, the tone was also contentious.

The three candidates running for Los Angeles County District Attorney faced off Wednesday night for the first time. Incumbent DA Jackie Lacey went toe-to-toe with her challengers, former San Francisco DA George Gascon and former federal public defender Rachel Rossi.

The debate was co-moderated by KPCC politics reporter Libby Denkmann and Los Angeles Times editorial writer Robert Greene.

Black Lives Matter activists, relatives of people shot by police and others frequently disrupting the proceedings with chants of "Jackie Lacey must go." Some were removed by security.

Lacey supporters — many of them deputy D.A.'s — cheered her on, calling out, "We love you, Jackie."

See for yourself:

Despite the disruptions, the debate carried on through nine key questions we wanted to ask the candidates for the nation's largest prosecutor's office.

The race has garnered national attention, as this is the latest — and largest — battleground in a national push to get reformist DA's elected.

So what were some of the main takeaways?

LACEY SAYS SHE'S A REFORMER, BUT SHE'S MORE CONSERVATIVE THAN HER CHALLENGERS

Despite Lacey's protestations that she is a reformer, she is more conservative than Gascon and Rossi. A few examples:

Gascon and Rossi leaned into the need to tackle systemic racism in the criminal justice system, while Lacey tried to straddle more of a middle ground. Rossi called for tracking and publishing audited data on prosecutions as a way to determine where the DA is "overcharging" people of color. Gascon talked about how he created a tool to mask the race of the defendant in cases his office handled when he was DA in San Francisco. Lacey said it's important to take into account things like racial income disparities, but added, "people make bad decisions," touching off another loud protest from some in the audience.

Lacey defended her pursuit of the death penalty in a small number of cases that she believes involve egregious acts of violence, such as the murder of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez. Gascon and Rossi said they would stop seeking the death penalty altogether.

Lacey argued that Prop. 47 — which reduced some felonies to misdemeanors — led to an uptick in crime, particularly property crime. Gascon and Rossi defended the measure and challenged the idea that Prop. 47 led to more crime. Rossi pointed to a rise in homelessness and drug addiction as factors.

DA Jackie Lacey (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times © 2020)

LACEY TRIED TO PAINT GASCON AND ROSSI AS UNQUALIFIED

Lacey noted that Gascon never worked as a litigator, and characterized his tenure as San Francisco DA as a failure. Lacey said "it would be irresponsible" to have someone who has only worked as a public defender become district attorney. "This is a job for a real lawyer who understands in their heart and soul what a prosecutor is all about," Lacey said.

Rachel Rossi (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times © 2020)

ROSSI TOOK ON GASCON AND LACEY OVER BAIL REFORM

While Rossi and Gascon both said they will end cash bail, Rossi criticized Gascon for not ending it during his nearly nine years as San Francisco DA. She also criticized Lacey for failing to do so in L.A. Gascon countered that he worked in San Francisco "towards the reduction of the use of cash bail," and vowed to "continue to work toward the elimination of cash bail" if elected. Lacey opposes the complete elimination of cash bail, but noted she helped get the currently-suspended state law that does away with most cash bail "over the goal line."

George Gascon (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times © 2020)

GASCON CLAIMED LACEY FALLS WELL SHORT ON MENTAL HEALTH DIVERSION

Gascon said Lacey hasn't invested nearly enough resources into diverting people with mental health issues away from jail.

He said 30% of the DA office's work involves people with mental illness, but until recently her office's Mental Health Division only had one person, "and I'm told now that they have another three that were added, in an office that has over 1,000 lawyers." Lacey angrily denied that the special unit is underperforming. "George Gascon doesn't know what he's talking about," she said.

Paul Glickman contributed to this story.