Are political insiders selling out California’s criminal justice future?
by Rory Fleming
The eerily-timed resignation of one of California’s top prosecutors reeks of an attempt to tilt the district attorney election that will take place in San Francisco next month. It could also have negative ramifications for the 2020 Los Angeles County DA race.
As such, it exemplifies the all-too-frequent machinations of political insiders who seem to find straight-up prosecutorial elections a little too dicey for their taste.
The prosecutor in question is George Gascón, who became San Francisco’s DA in 2011.
In October 2018, Gascón, an old-guard reformer, shocked criminal justice observers across the nation when he declared he would drop his bid for re-election.* At the time, Gascón was the most progressive candidate in the race—though not by much.
His opponent Suzy Loftus, former president of the San Francisco Police Commission, represented the conservative Democratic flank. Yet Alexander Post, a Bay Area capital defense lawyer, had lamented in September 2018 that the race would “be fought on narrow ideological grounds between a ‘progressive’ who refuses to prosecute police violence, and a challenger who wants to expand mass incarceration.”
With Gascón resolved to serve out his term without seeking re-election, Chesa Boudin, a deputy public defender (and the son of 1970s leftist radicals), entered the race against Loftus in January this year. Boudin set out an ambitious decarceration agenda—one that would far outstrip Gascón’s mild accomplishments.
Of the two candidates, Loftus was the clear favorite of San Francisco Mayor London Breed, a moderate who frames the city’s homelessness crisis as a nuisance to be abated. Gascón was undoubtedly aware of this.
Then on October 3 came the bombshell: Gascón announced that he was resigning, effective October 18, rather than serve out the last couple of months of his term.
He said that this was because he was moving to Los Angeles—and indeed, rumors were swirling that Gascón would run for DA there in 2020. But what might have prompted this timing?
One of the powers of a mayor is to appoint an interim DA if the incumbent quits.
Sure enough, Mayor Breed immediately appointed Loftus as interim DA, with the winner of November’s election due to take office in January 2020. The electoral significance here is that this gives Loftus an artificial incumbency advantage. Incumbency is a massive boon for DAs nationwide, but especially in California.
Polling shows that Loftus and Boudin are currently in a statistical dead heat in their contest. It is possible that Loftus’s sudden incumbency could tip her over the line.
The grotesquely convenient timing of Gascón’s resignation has not been lost on in-the-know San Franciscans. “This is raw political move—nothing more, nothing less,” said former State Senator Mark Leno, a fixture in California politics for decades. The local ACLU branch called Breed’s appointment “undemocratic.”
As the beneficiary of these shenanigans, Loftus represents a clear step back—as well as Mayor Breed’s key to “solving” homelessness by expanding involuntary commitment for people with mental health issues and demanding compliance with “quality-of-life” laws. One local police reform activist, John Crew, told The Nation that Loftus is the “Joe Biden” of the race. Her first move as a DA candidate was to stoke an angry fire over nonviolent property crimes in a city lucky enough to enjoy a low violent crime rate.
As a supposed watchdog for the San Francisco Police Department, Loftus became close friends with former Police Chief Greg Suhr, declining to hold him accountable for letting his deputies send racist texts at work. Loftus told Modern Luxury magazine she would “agree to disagree” with anyone who thought Chief Suhr was an impediment to police reform. Suhr has since endorsed Loftus for DA.
Loftus is also political royalty. She counts endorsements from Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris among her blessings. Loftus was a senior staffer for Harris while Harris was DA and California’s Attorney General, and a major figure in Harris’s former war on sex workers. Harris and Loftus remain close personal friends. There has even been a literal “Suzy Loftus Day” declared in the city and county of San Francisco.
One San Franciscan who won’t feel like celebrating is Heather Marlowe, who sued Loftus and others for the San Francisco PD saying it would test Marlowe’s rape kit, then shelving it untested for years.
Could Real Justice PAC Back Gascón for LA?
But turning our attention to Los Angeles, this story gets weirder still.
One leading criminal justice reform nonprofit executive, who asked to not be named but is close to the parties involved, told Filter that the word among prosecutor election insiders is that it is “highly likely” that Real Justice PAC—the prominent action group that works to get reform prosecutors elected—will endorse George Gascón for Los Angeles DA in 2020.
On one level, it makes sense that criminal justice reformers might back Gascón: Incumbent Los Angeles DA Jackie Lacey is, after all, bad news. She has opposed every criminal justice reform ballot initiative before California voters since 2012’s Proposition 36, which made the state’s notorious “three-strikes” law slightly less cruel.
Gascón is frequently cited as one of the “first wave of reformers,” who broke through before the concept of an anti-mass incarceration prosecutor was fully formed. He made both friends (among reform advocates) and enemies (among police) by supporting decarceration efforts like California Proposition 47, which downgraded drug possession and low-level property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
On the other hand, when Gascón was appointed as San Francisco DA in 2011, a local paper described him as “moderate.” As DA of perhaps most liberal city in America, he was relatively loyal to the California District Attorneys Association political cabal, as demonstrated by his refusal to support marijuana legalization.
And most concerning in theory for someone like Shaun King—the civil rights activist and co-founder of Real Justice PAC—is that Gascón categorically refused to indict cops who kill civilians in his recently vacated position. King is famous for being extremely passionate about police accountability.
It should be noted that Real Justice PAC’s reform credentials are generally very strong. King supports Chesa Boudin for San Francisco DA. Becky Bond, the political brains behind the PAC, was among the architects of Bernie Sanders’ groundbreaking first presidential campaign. The PAC’s other recent endorsements—like that for Audia Jones, a young Black socialist who wants to unseat the disappointing, Gascón-esque “reform” district attorney in Houston—fit with its progressive rhetoric.
We don’t yet know whether Real Justice PAC will indeed endorse Gascón in Los Angeles. If it did, it would be endorsing a man whose record not only opposes King’s police accountability mission, but now features what looks like a cynically-timed resignation designed to inflict Suzy Loftus on San Francisco.
Surely Real Justice PAC—and the people of Los Angeles—can do better?
* The author briefly worked for George Gascón’s re-election campaign for San Francisco district attorney in late 2018.