LA County DA's race: George Gascón, Nathan Hochman jump out to early lead in crowded field

Wednesday, March 6, 2024
LA DA's race: George Gascón, Nathan Hochman jump out to early lead
Incumbent Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón jumped out to an early lead in his bid to retain his seat.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Incumbent Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón has jumped out to an early lead in his bid to retain his seat.

With 51% of the votes tallied as of Wednesday morning, Gascón had about 21.4% of the ballots counted, followed by Nathan Hochman at 17.72%. If the early results hold, it means Gascón and Hochman are headed for the November runoff.

"My message to the community is, if I am granted another term, we're going to continue to work hard, we're going to continue to evolve, and we're going to hopefully get to creating a criminal justice system that is not only fair and equitable but is much more efficient, more effective than we've had in the past," Gascón said late Tuesday afternoon.

Jonathan Hatami, a prosecutor in Gascón's office who has often clashed with his boss, was running third in early balloting at about 13.37%.

There were 11 challengers looking to unseat the incumbent, who has been controversial for what critics describe as a soft approach to prosecuting and sentencing.

Those challengers included prosecutors in his own office, former federal prosecutors and county judges. To win the primary outright, a candidate must receive a 50%-plus-one vote, an unlikely outcome in the largest-ever field to seek the office. Anything less triggers a runoff race between the top two candidates in November.

Who's running for Los Angeles DA?

Among the candidates running for Gascón's job are five members of his office: Hatami, a child abuse prosecutor; Lloyd "Bobcat'' Masson, a cold case prosecutor; John McKinney, supervising district attorney; Maria Ramirez, the head deputy D.A.; and Eric Siddall, a violent crimes prosecutor.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judges Debra Archuleta and Craig J. Mitchell are also on the ballot, along with David S. Milton, who retired as a Superior Court judge in 2014.

The other candidates are Jeff Chemerinsky, an assistant U.S. attorney; Hochman, a former U.S. assistant attorney general who was the Republican candidate for state attorney general in the 2022 general election; and criminal defense attorney Dan Kapelovitz.

Most of the opponents are challenging a number of Gascón's policies, with numerous candidates framing a narrative of out-of-control crime in Los Angeles, driven by lenient policies enabling criminals' release.

Nathan Hochman

Hochman, a former U.S. assistant attorney general, is offering what he describes as a "blueprint for justice.''

"I am shocked and disappointed at how our public safety has seriously worsened over the last three years under current D.A. George Gascón,'' Hochman stated on his campaign website. "I am prepared to fight to restore it. My Blueprint for Justice outlines the changes I will make as your District Attorney to restore safety and justice to our county.''

Hochman said that under Gascón's leadership, veteran prosecutors were stripped of their ability to file appropriate charges against violent, repeat offenders.

As for part of his blueprint, Hochman vows to "restore the purpose of the District Attorney's Office to fairly, effectively, and vigorously prosecute those who break laws in Los Angeles County based on the evidence and the law.''

Hochman said he would also "restore the integrity and independence of the district attorney by not making decisions based on a party affiliation or political ideology but solely on the facts and the law.''

His campaign points out that Hochman is running as an Independent.

"I believe the D.A. needs to be fiercely independent and have encouraged all other candidates to do the same,'' Hochman said.

Jonathan Hatami

Hatami, who was hired as a deputy D.A. in 2006, said he wants to restore public safety and make meaningful reforms in the office.

"As your district attorney, I will prioritize public safety by implementing comprehensive strategies to protect all of our communities from danger, prevent crime, maintain peace, hold violent offenders accountable and establish a path to success for low-level offenders,'' Hatami said on his campaign's website.

Hatami also served in the nation's first Complex Child Abuse unit at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles, according to his campaign.

"I believe in reforms, rehabilitation and second chances,'' Hatami said. "However, we must first and always follow the law. We must balance reforms with public safety and protecting our most vulnerable.''

Hatami vows to "bring transparency back to the people's office, hold wrongdoers accountable, and make real, meaningful reforms.''

Lloyd "Bobcat'' Masson

Masson, another member of the D.A.'s office and a cold case prosecutor, portrays himself as a prosecutor, not a politician. According to his campaign, Masson is the only candidate in the race that has never been affiliated or registered with any political party.

"Let's take back our streets and start investing in our youth so we can end the cycles of trauma,'' Masson said on his campaign's website. "L.A. needs a strong D.A. to tell criminals that playtime is over.''

Masson said his top priority is "dropping the hammer'' on all robbery, burglary and theft-related offenses, including follow-home robberies, car thefts, retail theft and catalytic converter thefts.

"I would also end all blanket zero-bail policies and operate in accord with what local communities want,'' Masson added.

The prosecutor stated that sticking to old tough-on-crime tactics won't solve the problem, just as the "current emphasis on no jail time has not worked.''

He added: "We need every tool available to solve L.A.'s crime problem. To this end, we must explore solutions such as new technologies in rehabilitation and justice without sacrificing our victims' voices in criminal cases.''

Masson has spent the past four years as a cold case prosecutor. Previously, he served in the gang unit for more than five years.

John McKinney

McKinney, a deputy district attorney for L.A. County for 25 years, has also criticized Gascón, saying the D.A. has taken the county too far to one side.

"Since George Gascón took office, our justice system has become a dangerous experiment reducing consequences for crimes and eroding accountability,'' McKinney said in a campaign ad. "Crime is up. Confidence in our justice system is down.''

McKinney said he will restore common sense to the D.A.'s office and ensure victims receive justice.

"I will support all communities while pursuing evidence-based reforms that make our system more just for all. On my watch, the punishment will always fit the crime -- no more, no less,'' McKinney said on his campaign's website. "Whenever possible, we will focus on the source of crime, such as the leaders of organized crime rings, cartels, and drug operations.''

Maria Ramirez

Ramirez, head deputy D.A., joined the District Attorney's Office in 1990 and became the first Latina to be promoted to that position, according to her campaign. Ramirez said voters have grown distrustful of Gascón's leadership.

"We, as leaders of the justice system in L.A. County, must begin to fix the deep erosion of public trust,'' Ramirez said on her campaign's website .

"And that begins with recommitting to actually protecting the residents of Los Angeles County by ending the cycle of violence with appropriate and fair measures of justice.''

In order to achieve any meaningful change, Ramirez said the D.A.'s office must collaborate with community leaders to develop effective crime prevention strategies in communities that have been "burdened with inadequate infrastructure, resources and services.''

She added: "George Gascón got reform wrong by blindly implementing blanket policies that did not create sustainable change but rather endangered our communities. Gascón directed the release of a high number of violent offenders without ensuring a safety net for them with jobs and social services.''

Ramirez said prosecutors must keep the community safe by restoring accountability and implementing responsible rehabilitation measures.

Eric Siddall

Siddall, a violent crime prosecutor and deputy D.A., is running on a platform of advocating for responsible reform while prioritizing public safety.

He said he will lead a new generation of prosecutors to work with law enforcement to reduce crime.

"We need to advance a violence reduction strategy focused on holding the most violent criminals accountable, while recognizing the potential for rehabilitation,'' Siddall said on his campaign's website.

"We need to develop an infrastructure to deal with our mentally ill and homeless populations that does not involve cycled-incarceration, but also recognizes that releasing people back onto the street without a plan is a danger to everyone, including the defendant.''

Siddall, who is an openly gay Latino, served for nearly a decade as vice president of the Los Angeles Association of Deputy District Attorneys.

Siddall and the deputy D.A.'s union has been among Gascón's most prominent critics. They successfully sued to block a portion of Gascón's reform platform limiting the use of sentencing enhancements against felons charged with new offenses after a judge agreed with the union's contention that it violated California's "three strikes'' law.

Siddall stepped down from the union post in order to declare his candidacy. He has been a deputy district attorney since 2007. Siddall vows to enact common sense criminal justice reforms, and focus on ones that are evidence-based.

The two current L.A. County Superior Court judges, Archuleta and Mitchell, are eligible to run for office because they took a leave of absence without pay, Rob Oftring, the communications director of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, told City News Service.

Debra Archuleta

Archuleta was a trial lawyer before joining the bench six years ago and has handled more than 100 jury trials, according to her campaign.

"For the last three years, George Gascón has implemented policies that have made communities across Los Angeles County more dangerous,'' Archuleta said on her campaign's website. "That needs to change, and it will only change with a District Attorney who has the experience to do the job and the ability to defeat George Gascón.''

She said violent crime is the No. 1 issue facing L.A. County residents.

"As your next District Attorney, I bring 26 years of experience of prosecuting cases involving violent crime, unlike George Gascón, who has never prosecuted a case in court,'' Archuleta said.

"Violent criminals will be prosecuted and punished, especially those who use guns and other deadly weapons. I will end the 'catch and release' policies of the current District Attorney.''

Archuleta added that she will crack down on organized retail theft, also known as "smash-and-grab'' robberies.

"I will prosecute these criminals to the fullest extent of the law, departing from Gascón's catch-and-release policies that enable these offenders to repeat their crimes without consequences,'' Archuleta said.

Craig Mitchell

Mitchell was appointed to the L.A. County Superior Court in 2005. He has presided over numerous high-profile cases and has become known for his commitment to rehabilitation and restorative justice, according to his campaign. Prior to serving as a judge, Mitchell was an L.A. deputy D.A. for more than a decade.

"Los Angeles is in crisis,'' Mitchell said on his campaign's website. "This crisis cannot be solved with a one-size-fits-all system of justice. I will put our citizens first.''

Mitchell said public safety will be his top priority.

"Public safety is simply not Gascón's main priority -- rather, it is to minimize the consequences criminals face for their conduct,'' he added.

"By adopting policies that are soft on crime and by filling upper management positions in his administration with attorneys from the Public Defender's office, Gascón has effectively adopted the role of a second Public Defender. We need a District Attorney -- not a Public Defender -- to ensure the safety of the people.''

David Milton

Milton, a retired L.A. County Superior Court Judge who served on the bench from 1995 until 2014, is also running on a platform to reverse Gascón's policies and institute new public protection policies.

"For more than three years, we've seen violence against innocent victims escalate and law and order protection collapse in Los Angeles County,'' Milton said on his campaign's website.

Milton said the root problem "is our current district attorney. He only investigates or brings charges after embarrassing media coverage and enormous public pressure.''

He added that the "role of the district attorney is to protect the public without waiting for the media to force him to do his job.''

One of his top priorities is prosecuting suspects behind "smash-and-grab'' robberies.

"If elected, I will hire more deputy district attorneys to handle the case load, properly charge 'Smash & Grab' theft as robberies so the criminals go to prison and properly charge crimes by illegal alien criminals so they can be deported, as they should be.''

Jeff Chemerinsky

Chemerinsky, an assistant U.S. attorney who oversees federal prosecutions of violent crime cases in L.A., said voters have lost confidence in Gascón as both a prosecutor and reformer of the criminal justice system.

On his campaign website, Chemerinsky said he wants to be a "voice for the working families of our community by prioritizing the prosecution of crimes that have an outsized impact on working people, such as environmental crime and wage theft.''

Chemerinsky, who was appointed assistant U.S. Attorney in 2014, said his top priority is public safety.

"(I will) prioritize the prosecution of gun crimes and firearm trafficking to keep our neighborhoods safe,'' Chemerinsky said.

He added that he would use the role of D.A. to promote strong and sensible gun policies.

Chemerinsky vows to prosecute "smash-and-grab'' robberies to protect the public, workers and businesses. He stated that he'll "ensure zero tolerance for public corruption,'' and enhance the office's civil rights prosecutions.

Chemerinsky served as chief of the Violent and Organized Crime section of the U.S. Attorney's Office in L.A. until he stepped down in September to become a candidate.

Dan Kapelovitz

Kapelovitz, a criminal defense attorney, is the sole candidate aligning with Gascón's more liberal stance. He said would continue battling mass incarceration and would propose stricter rules on when cases can be filed and bail can be requested.

"We need well-funded programs -- not more prisons,'' Kapelovitz said on his campaign's website. I'm the only candidate who fights for indigent defendants every day. I'm also the only candidate appointed by the Court to protect the constitutional rights of crime victims who are often further victimized by the system.''

He said he would ensure equal treatment for everyone, and reject "racist policies'' that fuel mass incarceration.

"People should not lose their homes and jobs because they cannot afford bail. We will not seek bail without clear and convincing evidence that the accused is dangerous,'' he said.

Most of the challengers have said they will reverse the sweeping policy changes Gascón enacted on his first day in office. Gascón, despite all the criticism, was able to fend off two recall attempts. During a debate last month with nine of the 11 challengers, Gascón defended his directives.

"We have seen crime coming down not only in our community, but we're seeing crime going down nationwide, at the same time that we have continued with the reform efforts,'' Gascón said. "We're showing that not only we cannot go back to the way that we did business, but actually the fact is our reforms are good for public safety.''

The Associated Press and City News Service, Inc. contributed to this report.