LA district attorney recall fails to qualify for ballot

Ashley Landis/AP Photo

Los Angeles will not vote on recalling progressive District Attorney George Gascón, averting a second bruising fight over criminal justice reform in a major California city this year.

Opponents of Gascón fell about 50,000 valid signatures short of what they needed to trigger a vote, the Los Angeles County elections office said on Monday. The outcome spares Gascón of needing to defend his job two years after assuming office, setting him up for a 2024 reelection bid.
Despite falling short, the recall effort reflected a fraught moment for the criminal justice reform movement that catapulted Gascón into office after 2020’s summer of racial reckoning. Democratic officials rallied behind Gascón as he vowed to implement a new vision. But rising anxiety about public safety has since shifted the political landscape, fueling the June recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, Gascón’s successor and ally.

A Gascón ouster could have been far more consequential than Boudin’s fall. The Los Angeles district attorney’s office is the largest in the United States and was central to the crime crackdown that characterized the 1980s and 1990s before shifting dramatically in the other direction. A prosecutor recall there would function as a bellwether for the progressive movement Gascón has helped lead.

Gascón has battled political headwinds — and multiple recall attempts — as he has pushed to reorder crime and punishment in California’s largest county. Rising violent crime and a series of brazen offenses have soured the public mood as law enforcement rallied against Gascón and conservative media portrayed him as the embodiment of liberal lawlessness.

After an initial recall push fell short, this latest attempt collected more than 700,000 raw signatures and around $6 million — much of it from wealthy donors, including prominent Republicans — while law enforcement closed ranks against the district attorney. Sheriff Alex Villanueva endorsed the recall effort, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck renounced Gascón, and Gascón's deputy prosecutors, who had opposed his election, overwhelmingly voted to support the recall.

In a reflection of the broader political moment, other candidates running on law-and-order platforms threw in with Gascón’s opponents. Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso endorsed the recall and contributed $50,000 to help it qualify. Republican Attorney General candidate Nathan Hochman has used Gascón as a foil and was on hand when proponents submitted recall signatures.

Gascón is a leading figure in a network of elected prosecutors working to reduce incarceration and lessen criminal penalties, arguing decades of stringent punishments have failed. He swiftly followed through on his campaign platform by ordering sweeping sentencing changes that included barring prosecutors from charging juveniles as adults and seeking various enhancements that increase criminal penalties.

But only some of that has survived. Deputy prosecutors sued and won a court order invalidating much of those changes. Gascón has modified others after public backlash, including a case in which a woman who was arrested at 26 for having sexually assaulted a child was charged as a juvenile because she allegedly committed the offense when she was 17.

The recall campaign tried to cast Monday's outcome as a victory, saying in a statement that the more than 500,000 valid signatures constituted “a wholesale rejection of Gascón’s dangerous polices.”

“The removal of George Gascón from office has never been a matter of if, but when,” a campaign statement said. “The citizens of Los Angeles cannot afford another two years of Gascón unleashing havoc on their streets — people’s lives are at stake.”

But Gascón's reformist allies lauded the failed recall initiative as evidence that their agenda remained popular. In an email, the district attorney's campaign spokesperson Elise Moore said, "We are obviously glad to move forward from this attempted political power grab."

"The DA's primary focus is and has always been keeping us safe and creating a more equitable justice system for all," Moore said. "Today's announcement does not change that."