The race for L.A. County District Attorney has been a quiet affair up to this point.
The leading fundraiser, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, hasn't even officially declared. Meanwhile, the declared candidates — half a dozen prosecutors — are mostly unknown to the general public.
But things are starting to heat up a little. The D.A. candidates held their first debate on Wednesday night, at which they started to flesh out some of the issues that will dominate the campaign.
The only drawback was that Trutanich — who everybody seems to consider the front-runner — wasn't there.
Officially, Trutanich has only announced an “exploratory” effort. But most everybody seems to think he's just laying low as long as possible, because the minute he announces he'll start taking fire from all sides.
John Shallman, Trutanich's campaign manager, said that Trutanich did not participate in the debate because “He wasn't invited.” But one of the debate organizers, Halim Dhanidina, said he reached out to the Trutanich campaign to ask if the city attorney wanted to participate, and never got a call back.
So that left six prosecutors to debate the issues before a packed room of more than 300 people at the Japanese American National Museum. A seventh prosecutor, Marcus Musante, was not invited to participate, and had to content himself with a front-row seat.
Nobody drew any blood, but some clear distinctions emerged in discussions of prison realignment, medical marijuana and the death penalty. Based on those issues, here's a highly provisional ideological ranking of the announced candidates. It's subject to change, but here's how it looks at the moment, in order from most conservative to most liberal.
Jackson seems to be the most alarmed about prison realignment — the state's money-saving gambit to transfer non-violent offenders from overcrowded prisons to county jails. “It's going to be devastating,” Jackson said. “I'm kept awake at night worrying what this release is going to do to crime rates.” He sounds a lot like his boss, Steve Cooley, who has also warned of a crime wave.
On medical marijuana, Jackson said that while he supports the concept, he has a major concern with the proliferation of pot dispensaries. “There are profiteers out there who have turned it into a farce,” he said. “It needs to be highly regulated.”
Lacey, Cooley's top deputy, doesn't have Alan Jackson's fiery delivery. But on most issues, they seem to basically agree with each other (and with Cooley). On realignment, Lacey was slightly less alarmist than Jackson, but still pretty alarmed: “The change was too fast, too soon, and not well thought out,” she said. “That's why it's a disaster.”
As for the death penalty, she and Jackson obviously both support it. Lacey argues that the death penalty appeals process is broken, because it takes too long. But she wouldn't change anything about how the L.A. County D.A.'s office pursues it.
And on medical marijuana, she too supports it in concept, but worries that “a criminal enterprise has taken over some of the dispensaries.”
Now we're outside the Cooley orbit. Meyers would be much more of a break with the current administration. For example, she has vowed to step up environmental prosecutions, which she argues have lapsed on Cooley's watch.
On the death penalty, Meyers supports it, but sees a need for reform at the local level. She said she would limit the types of murders that qualify for death sentences to the worst of the worst. But she also expressed frustration that the D.A.'s capital punishment panel didn't approve one of her own cases for the death penalty.
Bobby Grace seems pretty close to Danette Meyers on the ideological spectrum. Both would represent a shift away from Cooley, but on slightly different terms. Where Meyers would focus on environmental issues, for example, Grace would focus on juvenile justice reform and public corruption.
If Grace seems just a little more “liberal” than Meyers, it's probably more a question of style. Meyers touts her tough-on-crime record, while Grace seems a little more conciliatory. This one's subject to revision.
Now we're getting into lefty territory. At Wednesday's debate, Trujillo came the closest of any of the candidates to opposing the death penalty. “Why keep it on the books if it's not working?” he asked. “I support it, but my resources are limited. My loyalty is to my victims, and I feel like we're lying to our victims.”
Trujillo also spoke against prosecuting motorists for driving without a license, and said that too many low-level offenders are heading to state prison. And as for marijuana, he predicted that someday soon it will be fully legal.
Steve Ipsen is best known for waging epic battles with Cooley's office over union issues.
In the debate, he sounded almost like a public defender, repeatedly warning against prosecuting young people for drug possession. “Don't immediately make some kid a felon,” he said.
His candidacy is geared around a “Reform First” platform, which emphasizes diverting offenders to community service instead of prison.
Musante didn't get to debate, but if he had he'd be the most liberal candidate on the stage. More about his views can be found here.