Criticized as being soft on crime, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón is facing a recall drive just six months after taking office — making him an anomaly among prosecutors whose campaigns were funded by left-wing billionaire George Soros.
A beneficiary of Mr. Soros’ Justice and Public Safety PAC, Mr. Gascón joined a phalanx of Democratic prosecutors aiming to deal with crime by employing social justice tactics such as reducing charges and sentences against accused or convicted criminals, ending gang task forces and easing parole requirements, among others.
The outcomes in Los Angeles have been less than encouraging: Police Chief Michel Moore has reported a 73% increase in shootings during the first four months of this year, compared to the same period last year. And the city is on pace to have about 340 killings by the end of this year, after having recorded its highest death tally in more than a decade — 350 — last year.
“All of the steps he has taken, from ending the gang unit to dropping all enhancements and always looking for the minimum sentences — all of this has made George Gascón persona non grata even in this Democratic city,” said Tim Lineberger, a spokesman for the recall drive.
Though Mr. Gascón is the only “Soros DA” targeted for recall, Los Angeles is not alone in seeing skyrocketing crime during the term of Soros-funded prosecutors, who have proved remarkably resilient once they take office. In Chicago and St. Louis, where shootings are at record highs, the leftist district attorneys have won reelection — even after in St. Louis’ district attorney ran afoul of campaign finance laws.
In May, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner cruised to victory in the Democratic primary after facing organized pressure from law enforcement groups. Only a fraction of the voters that comprised Philadelphia’s record turnout in November voted last month, and Mr. Krasner handily beat his only serious challenger by 30 percentage points.
Supporters of the liberal prosecutors say these elections have vindicated their approach, but some of those seeking Mr. Gascón’s recall say he hid the extent of the left-wing approach he intended to take once in office.
“Gascón blindsided the voters, the deputy district attorneys, law enforcement and crime victims,” said Tania Owen, a former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy. “People now need to know they have a voice and that the people are his boss.”
Ms. Owen said she was outraged when Mr. Gascón took the death penalty and other charges off the table in the case against the paroled felon who shot and killed her husband, Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Owen, execution-style in 2016 when he responded to reports of a burglary.
“The man who murdered my husband had more empathy for my family than George Gascón did,” Ms. Owen told The Washington Times.
Mr. Gascón noted that crime had already started its alarming rise months before he took office and said that had occurred against a backdrop of more and harsher incarceration.
“From beat cop to top prosecutor, I have reduced violent crime in every leadership position I have held,” Mr. Gascón told The Times. “Critics of these important reforms are not advocating for more safety, they are advocating for more punishment.”
Bankrolled by Mr. Soros, Mr. Gascón, 67, ousted the incumbent DA, Jackie Lacey, last year, promising to implement a progressive prosecutorial approach.
His supporters say that Mr. Gascón was crystal clear in saying he would do away with the death penalty when he ran and that the recall drive just six months after he took office is an effort mounted by sore losers.
“These are the same people who opposed him before basically looking for a do-over,” said Max Szabo, a California political consultant who has worked closely with Mr. Gascón.
Mr. Szabo acknowledged that some crime victims’ family members were irate at what they perceive as a “soft on crime” approach, but he described that as a caricature of Mr. Gascón’s approach and said most crime victims families and other voters do not want to return to a more draconian past.
“They know that more incarceration does not mean more safety,” Mr. Szabo said. “As we learn more Mr. Gascón continues to modernize his approach to fighting crime, but everywhere Mr. Gascón has been, he has reduced violent crimes against persons and that’s what he’s going to do here.”
Still, Mr. Gascón has found himself at odds not only with crime victims and their families but also his own deputies, whose union filed a lawsuit against him over his failure to pursue sentencing enhancements that they say are required by state law and that he argues are a matter of prosecutorial discretion.
The Los Angeles County deputy district attorneys’ lawsuit was upheld by a federal court and is under appeal.
There are other signs of cracks in Mr. Gascón’s support: So far, 17 of the 88 incorporated cities within Los Angeles County have voted “no confidence” in the new district attorney, and County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has thrown his support behind the recall.
The most recent annual survey of residents from the University of California-Los Angeles in March showed Mr. Gascón standing nearly dead even in public opinion, with 31% favorable to 32% unfavorable, of which 22% viewed him very unfavorably and only 9% very favorably. Recall organizers need to collect 580,000 petition signatures by Oct. 27 to see their effort through.
Statistics on recall drives favor incumbents. In 2020, there were 279 recall efforts against elected officials in the U.S., according to Ballotpedia. Of those, only 49 recalls actually made it to the ballot, and 59% of those 49 officials were recalled.
That’s the sort of math organizers in Los Angeles hope for against Mr. Gascón, saying L.A. voters will not be hit with recall fatigue because of the parallel campaign underway to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. Mr. Newsom is expected to beat back that effort and cling to power, according to political experts on both sides of the aisle in California.
“It’s easier to get a gubernatorial recall because you need a lower percentage of signatures, but Newsom’s staying because they can’t get anyone to mount a serious challenge to him,” Mr. Lineberger said. “But I think we’re in good shape and we are taking a very scientific approach to this in terms of paid workers and a growing number of volunteers who are out gathering signatures.”
Organizers also are holding rallies in addition to door-to-door canvassing and said hundreds of more signatures have come in at such events recently in Pasadena, Lancaster and South Bay neighborhoods.
In the first week since the recall was approved, paid canvassers have topped 25,000 signatures, and the total does not include signatures gathered by dozens of volunteers, Mr. Lineberger said.