LOS ANGELES — Standing in front of a packed room in Whittier, longtime line prosecutor Jonathan Hatami promised to “restore civility” to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and stand up for the crime victims he insists George Gascon has forgotten.
Deputy District Attorney Maria Ramirez — who along with Hatami is one of at least 16 L.A. County prosecutors suing Gascon for retaliation or defamation — says she’ll bring her 30 years of experience to the helm of the nation’s largest prosecutor’s office, hoping to provide a calming presence after what she calls the “chaotic” nature of Gascon’s tenure.
And prosecutor John McKinney — fresh off winning a high-profile conviction in the murder of beloved rapper Nipsey Hussle — promised to work to undo what he sees as the chronic dysfunction in the office, caused by the divide between Gascon and his own staff.
After two years spent trashing Gascon in media appearances, courtroom hallways and lawsuits, many of the progressive prosecutor’s in-house opponents are now taking their complaints to the campaign trail. These three deputy district attorneys have already announced their intentions to deny Gascon a second term in office. Eric Siddall, vice president of the union representing rank-and-file prosecutors, has also said he is “considering” entering the fray.
Several sources have indicated that Nathan Hochman, the Republican nominee for California attorney general who was trounced by Rob Bonta last year, is also seriously mulling a run. One source said Hochman is expected to run as an independent and may announce soon.
The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly. Hochman did not respond to a call seeking comment.
The primary election won’t take place for another 11 months, but political observers say anyone hoping to oust the district attorney will need an early start. Gascon is likely to be extremely well-financed again. He raised $5.5 million more than opponent Jackie Lacey in the 2020 cycle, including hefty donations from liberal mega-donors George Soros, Patty Quilin and her husband, Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix.
With a field of challengers likely to be dominated by current and former prosecutors, early entrants might also have a better chance of standing out, said Roy Behr, a Democratic political consultant.
“For the people within the office, they know that it’s better to be one of the first people in than to be the fourth or fifth or sixth prosecutor,” he said. “If you’re not in right now, and you’re in the D.A.’s office, it’s quite a barrier here to try to hurdle: ‘How am I going to distinguish myself from the three other prosecutors that are already in the race?’ You’d have to have a pretty strong story and a pretty strong ego.”
Gascon has been the subject of controversy since the day he took office, earning the scorn of his own prosecutors and law enforcement leaders for ending the use of the death penalty, severely restricting the filing of sentencing enhancements, effectively ending the prosecution of certain misdemeanors and barring prosecutors from trying juveniles as adults. Although he has backtracked on some of those policies, the ire has not receded.
Two attempts to recall Gascon have failed. And he’s largely retained the support of the progressive bloc that vaulted him into office in 2020, especially as he continues to pursue prosecutions of police officers for excessive force and on-duty misconduct.
He also enjoyed the endorsement of a wide array of local, state and national Democratic leaders in 2020, and none have shown signs of turning on him as he seeks reelection.
In a fundraising e-mail Wednesday announcing his reelection bid, Gascon complained about national Republicans using him and other progressive prosecutors as “political punching bags.”
The recall efforts were funded by Republicans, and the phrase “Soros-backed district attorney” is a common insult hurled at progressive prosecutors. Especially as the nation waited for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg to secure an indictment against former President Donald Trump. That news came late Thursday.
But the majority of Gascon’s potential challengers are registered Democrats.
“I see so many individuals trying to separate us based on politics. Public safety has nothing to do with politics,” Hatami said at his launch event, flanked by a bipartisan slate of local and state elected officials. Among them was Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp, who invoked Soros while running down Gascon’s tenure as a “reign of terror.”
The three challengers have said it is too early to offer detailed policy planks. But all have provided hints to how they might act if elected.
Ramirez, who was the director of specialized prosecutions when Gascon took office, said she was demoted for challenging policies she thought were illegal, unethical and overly broad. If elected, she said she’d look to modify some of Gascon’s reforms to ensure they took the individual facts of a case into account.
“I would go away from that approach and go back to a thoughtful way of evaluating the cases,” she said in an interview. “I don’t want to go back to the way things were. I want to move forward in a way that we are honoring both the victims of the crime but we’re also doing the right thing for the accused.”
McKinney pointed to what he sees as Gascon’s failed implementation of a plan to spare people accused of low-level misdemeanors from prosecution. In his first year in office, Gascon filed misdemeanors half as often as Lacey did during her tenure, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis. But Gascon has been unable to provide any data or records showing what, if any, services defendants who were spared from prosecution are receiving.
“Even the good ideas are executed poorly … obviously our diversion policy, you’ve got to have a good healthy diversion policy if you’re going to be a district attorney in L.A. County … but certain crimes are categorically left out and not prosecuted,” McKinney said, arguing that defendants should be offered diversion programs as part of plea deals.
He also promised to end Gascon’s practice of barring prosecutors from appearing at parole hearings. He stopped short of saying prosecutors would be allowed to argue against release at such hearings, but he said he thought Gascon’s policy amounted to a dereliction of duty on behalf of crime victims.
Hatami — who has earned a reputation as a fierce advocate for child abuse victims and has been among Gascon’s most vocal critics — was far more blunt. Surrounded by raucous supporters, he promised to “abolish every one of George Gascon’s blanket policies” on his first day in office and had a straightforward message for the incumbent.
“Pack your bags,” he said.