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Prosecutor Bobby Grace makes his play for L.A. district attorney

May 08, 2012|By Robert Greene
  • Prosecutor Bobby Grace is a candidate for Los Angeles County district attorney.
Prosecutor Bobby Grace is a candidate for Los Angeles County district attorney. (Los Angeles Times )

Bobby Grace was beginning to sort through football scholarships from small colleges and was plotting his path from San Bernardino to the pros when his father sat him down for a difficult but honest talk.

“Look,” Grace recently recalled his father saying, “you’re 5-foot-7, 145 pounds. You’re never going to the NFL. Education is going to be your key.”

The message was hard for Grace to process at first, but he eventually saw that his father was right. He reconfigured his life plan and went to UCLA, where he focused not just on education but on activism and campus politics. He became a social justice organizer and a coalition builder, and those qualities never left him. Through law school and during his more than two decades as a criminal prosecutor, friends and colleagues said Grace was destined for something big.

Now he’s making his play. He is one of six candidates to become Los Angeles County district attorney in the June 5 election.

He sees it as a natural evolution from his days as a high school football star, to a student activist against apartheid, a campaigner for Tom Bradley and prosecutor of predators like Chester Turner and dozens of other felons who terrorized Los Angeles County neighborhoods.  

“I always thought of myself as fighting for the underdog,” Grace said. “What I liked about the D.A.’s office was that it represented real-life victims of crimes who in my mind became the underdogs that I always had been fighting for.”

The Times' editorial board has met with the candidates -- not including John Breault III, who did not respond to several requests -- and discussed with them at length the issues and their platforms, attitudes and experience. This blog post and others like it are part of our attempt to share with our readers some of the candidates’ backgrounds, some of the issues and some of our thinking in advance of making an endorsement. We expect to conclude our deliberations and select a candidate to endorse this week, and to publish our decision in the coming days.

So where does Grace, 51, fall among the candidates? In some respects, he is typical. Except for Breault, they are all baby boomers, having grown up in Southern California through cycles of heady optimism and meltdown. Like Jackie Lacey and Danette Meyers, he is an African American in his early 50s. Hardly the first Los Angeles County black deputy district attorney to rise through the ranks, Grace nevertheless is in part a product of societal changes dating back more than half a century that today, for the first time, make it simultaneously noteworthy and unremarkable that there are three serious black contenders for the county’s top prosecutor post.

Like Alan Jackson, he grew up with a military heritage; his father served during World War II and in Korea and Vietnam.

He recalled being shaped during his UCLA years, when he joined with other students as part of, in late 1970s parlance, the Third World Coalition. “We took over student government,” Grace said. But acquaintances who were there at the time note that he also bonded, often over sports, with the fraternity students. Just a few years down the line the two factions were to battle politically and sometimes physically, but Grace brokered a distinctly nonconfrontational confrontation. As a student government leader, he protested UCLA football’s move from the Coliseum because of the impact on the South Los Angeles economy. He led the divestiture of student enterprises from apartheid South Africa. He worked to get more Latino students admitted to the university.

He attended Loyola Law School, he said, because he wanted to stay in Los Angeles and because, as a Roman Catholic, he found the Jesuit school to be the right fit. A summer internship with the D.A.’s office turned into a paid law clerk position, and soon, as a student, he was handling felony preliminary hearings and misdemeanor jury trials.

“I started doing that and just fell in love with it,” Grace said. He has been a Los Angeles County prosecutor ever since.

Grace has a very particular style.  In arguments to a jury, and in conversation, Jackson and Meyers are  somewhat reminiscent of a John Philip Sousa march: confident, steady, persistent. Brass and drums, with an occasional flourish from the flute section. Grace is more like a Beethoven sonata: a stirring opening, followed by passages so quiet, so soft, so contemplative, that the listener must strain to hear. But that’s the point. He draws his audience in and, before they realize it, they are captured -- hanging on each word and hungry for more.

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