George Gascón seemed ebullient, as if hanging 10 on a huge wave of reform rising up from the nation’s progressive prosecutors. Even the $1 million contributed by the Los Angeles Police Protective League to a political action committee targeting Gascón with ugly ads did not seem to shake the former San Francisco district attorney seeking to unseat LA County DA Jackie Lacey.
“I love Michelle Obama for many reasons and one of those reasons is saying that ‘when they go low, you go high.’ So, I’m going to stay high, okay?” Gascón tells the Los Angeles Blade in a recent phone interview. But he can’t resist pointing out that the ugly attack ads come people who “are very closely affiliated with the Republican Party” and Donald Trump.
“They like to portray me as an older white man in the rumpled suit, doing some kind of nefarious type overnight carpetbagging,” he says, “trying to make it sound like somehow I was hiding evidence, which is far from the truth. The case that they’re talking about — we fired the prosecutor … I’ve never seen Jackie Lacey fire a prosecutor for misconduct.”
In 1967, Gascón, then 13, and his parents fled on a Freedom Flight from Havana to Miami. Within a week, they were in Southeast Los Angeles.
Gascón dropped out of high school, finding it difficult to learn English. He joined the Army at 18, soon becoming the youngest sergeant in his brigade. He subsequently joined the LAPD, stationed in the Hollywood division but left to pursue his education. He earned a history degree from Cal State Long Beach and a law degree from Western State University College of Law. In 1987, he rejoined the LAPD and worked his way up to Assistant Chief under Bill Bratton.
In 2006, he became chief of the Mesa (Ariz.) Police Department and tangled with infamous ultra-right winger Sheriff Joe Arpaio and anti-immigrant groups. Three years later, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed Gascón to be San Francisco’s police chief and when District Attorney Kamala Harris vacated her seat to serve as California Attorney General in 2011, Newsom appointed him as her replacement. Harris and former LAPD Chief Charlie Beck have endorsed his run for LA DA.
During his nine years as DA in San Francisco, Gascón implemented many modernizing reforms and coauthored Prop 47 in 2014 that reduced personal-use drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. That year he also convened a blue-ribbon panel to address an ongoing police scandal involving racist and homophobic text messages.
Gascón was in the LAPD during the reign of Chief Daryl Gates and the uprising that resulted in the Christopher Commission Report in the early 1990s, which also included reports of homophobia, including the cryptic “NHI” or “No Human Involved” when referring to gays. Then a young officer and sergeant, he met gay Sgt. Mitch Grobeson, who filed several lawsuits alleging anti-gay discrimination in the LAPD.
“The horrendous behavior that he was subjected to — including one having to request help and nobody coming to help from the Rampart Division,” he says. “Which really obviously tells you what a homophobic police department we had back in those days.”
Having a diverse staff helped create trauma-informed care,” he says. “Like dealing with domestic violence, understanding that they are different nuances when you’re dealing with domestic violence involving people that are gay and people that are not gay. And having the capacity to understand the cultural nuances.”
Gascón is proud of having started a major campaign dealing with LGBTQ elders in skilled nursing facilities. “It’s a very lonely process for them, right? Because they were really the pioneers in their community,” he says. But now, getting older and needing services, “they get treated differently and discriminated against. And raising that awareness and dealing with this new issue I found compelling,” which he will “definitely address here.”
Gascón also recognizes “the new wave of hate” with the Trump administration and says the district attorney “has a role” to play. He intends to be “truly proactive” and use every tool available, including community outreach.
Some of his progressive reforms include not prosecuting sex workers and not using condoms as evidence of sex work. “It’s clear to me that when law enforcement uses condoms as evidence of a crime, then people do not use condoms, and then people engage in riskier activities that actually have tremendous negative impact on public health,” he says.
It is important to recognize the distinction between survival sex and sex trafficking. “We need to move away from this sanctimonious, moralistic view of the world and understand that sex work needs to be decriminalized,” Gascón says. “Trafficking and the victimization needs to be treated through the criminal justice lens, but not the sex workers,” who already experience many layers of discrimination.
Gascón also believes that incarcerated transgender women must be attended to properly, “not only the housing needs, but that they’re being protected and they’re treated with the same respect that anybody else that is in custody should be treated.”
Gascón finds the information about the Ed Buck case “horrifying” and he’s not sure the case wasn’t prosecutable early on. Refusing to talk to the family and refusing “to look beyond the first case when you have so many witnesses that were coming forward,” he says. “They’re all black gay men and somehow that makes him less human and less credible. I find that extremely disturbing.”
Gascón says he received the Stonewall Democratic Club endorsement “because I have a history and I’m not a Johnny-come-lately on this issue.”