While her opponents may want to be Los Angeles County district attorney as a career move or the advance guard of a progressive movement, former public defender Rachel Rossi is seeking the seat on March 3 as a social justice calling. What if the DA sees crime through the eyes of a public defender representing the most marginalized of victims and accused?
Rossi was a sophomore or junior at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, one of three small private Christian schools she attended where her father was teaching. She did an internship at a public defender’s office — not even knowing what a public defender was and never intending to be a lawyer.
“My job was to just go into the jails and interview people before they got to their lawyer, to make sure that they had what they needed,” Rossi tells the Los Angeles Blade. “And just going into the jails and only seeing black and brown people, I was just like, ‘I don’t know what this is, but I’ve got to fight this.’ And then I went to law school to be a public defender.”
Rossi, 36, graduated from Pepperdine Law School in 2009 but there was a hiring freeze forcing her to wait two years to join the public defender’s office.
“I never saw myself being a lawyer. And then, for sure, I never saw myself being a prosecutor. I always saw myself as a fighter for the people,” says Rossi. “And then when I saw this movement of public defenders running for prosecutors, it really excited me because it made me think, ‘Wow, you really can have justice if a prosecutor looks completely different.’ So here I am.”
Attending very conservative Christian schools informed her soul, which in turn informed her job and her politics.
“I honestly think that a lot of it was driven by my understanding of faith, because to me it’s about representing marginalized people and standing up for marginalized communities,” she says. “Having that experience has given me some ability to be a bridge builder. I think if I had gone to UCLA or something, I would be very, very much the super progressive leftist and it would reflect that in my career and my background and everything I’ve done.”
But while Rossi personally identifies as “extremely progressive,” she has found that her conservative Christian background can serve the larger cause, especially when discussing issues with ideologues in Congress.
In 2018, Rossi was on detail from the Federal Public Defender’s Office to provide counsel on criminal justice policy to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on the Senate Judiciary Committee. She served as lead staffer on the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform bill that subsequently enabled thousands of prisoners being released.
“When I was on the Hill, I had a conversation with this Republican staffer who was just like, ‘Yeah, I can’t trust you.’ And then when I talked about going to a Christian school, it opened the door and we had a conversation, and we were able to come to negotiations on criminal justice reform,” Rossi says.
Rossi’s original epiphany as an intern to serve “the least of these” has led her to fight those society has forgotten, ignored, or trampled, including transgender clients in desperate need.
“I had a client who was arrested and their case was pending and she was transitioning medically at the time that she was arrested,” says Rossi. “There were particular medications that she needed and there was a specific bra that she needed — there were a lot of medical necessities. I went to the prosecutor, they just were like, ‘What does this have to do with the case?’ So, I went to the judge and I filed a motion and asked the court to order the jail to provide all of these necessities for my client. Even the judge looking at that motion, thinking it was frivolous and almost laughing at it, and not really understanding the pain that my client was in and the importance of treating her with dignity — it was just disgusting to see.”
That experience, among many more, informs Rossi’s platform as she seeks to become the LA district attorney.
“I want to increase the representation of LGBTQIA attorneys and staff in the DA’s office; to prosecute hate crimes — black and LGBTQIA communities are the top two groups most frequently targeted in LA; to advocate for prison and jail reforms that ensure the safety of those incarcerated from the LGBTQIA community; and to address the over-representation of LGBTQIA and gender non-conforming persons in the criminal justice system, both as the accused and as victims.”
Rossi also wants “to educate not only DAs, who I think do not have an understanding of what the transgender community is facing, particularly behind bars, but also judges,” Rossi says. “I think that’s incredibly important.”
Effecting change involves community outreach. “I think it starts with what has been one of the largest problems with our current DA. It starts with actually forging those relationships and having a voice in communities outside of the DA’s office,” Rossi says. “I think that is an incredible priority.”
Rossi says she represents a new focus. “Having stood on the other side of the courtroom and stood with clients and stood with sometimes victims too, there is a better understanding of what the system is doing to people every day on the ground when you have a background like I do,” Rossi says. “I’m running because I don’t want more of the same. I want to change the status quo. And because of my experience, I’m the candidate with the best ability to do so.”