Los Angeles Dist. Atty.-elect Jackie Lacey, right, is congratulated by… (Christina House / For the…)
Jackie Lacey's election as district attorney is a historic moment for Los Angeles, making her the first woman and first African American selected to head the largest local prosecutorial office in the nation. But her stewardship is unlikely to represent a dramatic departure from that of her boss, current Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who supported her campaign.
Lacey, 55, has pledged to continue Cooley's initiatives, such as the office's focus on public corruption prosecutions. She echoed his support of reforming California's three-strikes law through Proposition 36 — the initiative's approach largely mirrored the existing policy in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.
Cooley said he saw Lacey's win over veteran prosecutor Alan Jackson, in part, as "a referendum" on the performance of the district attorney's office in his three terms, during which Lacey played key roles in several management positions. She eventually became his second in command as chief deputy district attorney.
"She hit home runs every place she's been and is probably the most qualified person to be district attorney in recent history," Cooley said.
During the campaign, Lacey, a Democrat, touted her Republican boss' endorsement of her. Cooley appeared at her fundraisers, lent his voice to robocalls and introduced her to his supporters.
"It certainly helped that she had Cooley's endorsement, because that gave her the credibility necessary to woo independents and perhaps some Republicans," said Dan Simon, a professor of law and psychology at USC. Even though the district attorney's office is nonpartisan, Simon said Lacey might have had an advantage over her Republican opponent in any case because it was a presidential election year in a heavily Democratic county.
Indeed, her victory was decisive: She won 55% of the vote to Jackson's 45%.
Rather than seeking to chart a different course for the office when she takes over Dec. 3, Lacey said she plans to expand on programs she helped launch under Cooley.
In particular, she promised to commit more resources to alternative sentencing programs to offset some of the challenges of realignment — the shifting of responsibility for some nonviolent criminals from state prisons to counties. Such programs, she said, would ease jail overcrowding and save the county money.
"Right now, L.A. County has had the lowest crime rate in 60 years, but realignment presents a serious challenge for me as the next district attorney," she said. She called it a "huge threat to our public safety."
The county's jails currently house 5,754 inmates who would have gone to state prison before realignment took effect in Oct. 2011, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said. That's nearly 30% of the county's inmate population.
Lacey said she would support legislation to reclassify some offenders — including identity thieves and high-level drug dealers — who are currently categorized as nonserious and nonviolent so they would be eligible for state prison time.
She has said she will also focus resources on combating identity theft and environmental crimes.
Supporters and friends have called the election of a black woman a historic achievement. Lacey's win in many ways parallels the victory of Kamala Harris — another black, female Democrat — over Cooley in the 2010 race for California attorney general.
Lacey and Cooley maintained, however, that she won because she was the most qualified of the two candidates.
"I think the significance [of my election] is that it may inspire other women and certainly African Americans and other minorities to seek a career in law enforcement," Lacey said.
Although Jackson had attacked Lacey as a bureaucrat out of touch with the needs of a modern courtroom, in a concession statement released early Wednesday he pledged to work with her.
"While she and I have serious disagreements, we share a commitment to making Los Angeles County a safer place to live," he said.
Lacey, for her part, told reporters, "Mr. Jackson is a fine trial lawyer and I intend to work with him. It will be up to him what he does with his future in terms of staying with the office."