The Race to Unseat Gascón: Part Two of Two

The first debate in the race for Los Angeles County District Attorney to include all 12 candidates took place on Feb. 8 at the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills, with the whole field squeezed onstage and arranged in order of money raised.

Nathan Hochman, Jeff Chemerinsky, Jonathan Hatami, Eric Siddall, incumbent George Gascón, John McKinney, Maria Ramirez, Craig Mitchell, Debra Archuleta, David S. Milton, Lloyd “Bobcat” Masson, and Dan Kapelovitz all jockeyed for time to get their messages across in front of a crowd of mostly attorneys, hosted by the Westside Bar Association.

It was acrimonious at times, reflecting the passions driving the debate over public safety. One audience member, wearing a pro-Hatami shirt, asked “Why Mr. Gascón smiles when everybody’s attacking him and everybody’s saying we are not safe in this city anymore. Is he pleased, does it mean he has accomplished what he was brought to do to this city?”

In this second installment of a two-part series, the Courier profiles the challengers seeking to unseat Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón in the primary election on March 5. Candidates Eric Siddall, John McKinney, Jonathan Hatami, Jeff Chemerinsky and Maria Ramirez were profiled in the Courier’s Feb. 9 issue.

Nathan Hochman, a former federal prosecutor, advocates what he calls “the hard middle,” rejecting blanket policies at either end of the pendulum swing. “The reason it’s hard is that it requires individualized analysis of each criminal, the crime committed, and the impact on the victim to determine who are the true threats to our public safety,” he said.

“I’m able to make that calibration,” Hochman added, citing his experience as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney, unique among the candidates.

Hochman grew up in Beverly Hills, attending Hawthorne Elementary School and Beverly Hills High School. He spent seven years in the U.S. attorney’s office for the Central District of California and was later appointed by President George W. Bush to head the Department of Justice’s tax division as an assistant attorney general. In 2022, he ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general as a Republican. In seeking the DA’s office, Hochman has shed that party affiliation and registered as an independent.

He advocates reform of the cash bail system, calling for a risk-based analysis to determine whether a defendant is dangerous or likely to flee. He also wants to change Prop. 47 to allow amounts stolen under $950 to aggregate and amount to felonies. And on day one he would rescind Gascón’s policy of preventing prosecutors from attending parole hearings with victims.

“Because we have an adversarial system, the system only works if the prosecutor is zealously doing his or her job, the defense attorney is doing their job, and the judge and jury are effectively doing their jobs,” he told the Courier. “What happened with George Gascón is that he’s basically switched sides.”

Hochman is endorsed by former L.A. DA Steve Cooley.

Debra Archuleta spent 28 years in the DA’s office before being elected to the bench in 2016. Archuleta is a survivor of domestic violence—at 19, she suffered a blow to the head from a boyfriend so severe it led to brain surgery. “As a result of that, I’ve dedicated my life and my career to prosecuting serious and violent criminals on behalf of victims,” she said.

Archuleta told the Courier that she gained perspective by “taking off prosecutorial blinders and putting on the black robe,” which carries responsibility for upholding the constitutional rights of all parties. For the last 3 ½ years, she has overseen cases in Edelman Children’s Court in Monterey Park.

“The breakdown of our families caused by substance abuse, homelessness, domestic violence, and lack of access to resources played out every single day in my courtroom,” she said. “When we allow unfettered substance abuse and the resulting mental illness that can come from that dynamic, our children are not served.”

Archuleta vows to follow the law on sentencing enhancements and to seek appropriate and reasonable bail. Gascón “has victimized the criminal and criminalized the victim,” she said. “Even a beautiful community like Beverly Hills has suffered …I want to restore order to the chaos. I want people to feel safe, I want them to be able to go out to shop and go to restaurants and wear their jewelry and enjoy their lives.”

Craig Mitchell was a high school teacher in South L.A. for 17 years before he became a deputy DA, then a Superior Court judge. “That’s important, because to be an effective prosecutor and ultimately district attorney, you need to know the community you’re obligated to serve,” he said. “There is no better way to understand the community than to help at the ground level.”

Mitchell tried mainly sexual assault, child abuse and murder cases—in his last three years, more murder cases than any other prosecutor in the office. “I think that’s what put me on the radar for Gov. Schwarzenegger to appoint me to the bench in 2005,” he said. He has never had a conviction reversed on appeal, as either a prosecutor or a judge.

In his felony trial court downtown, Mitchell has seen firsthand the results of what he calls Gascón’s “wholly insufficient” performance. One man who was stabbed 13 times while waiting for the bus asked Mitchell why his attacker was sentenced to so little time. “And I had to explain to him, because the District Attorney did not file a weapons enhancement,” Mitchell said. “He charged assault, rather than attempted murder.”

Granting that each case needs to be reviewed on its own merits, Mitchell said that if he were DA, “every factually supported enhancement would be filed.”

He also believes that courts can play a critical role in moving people from addiction towards long-term sobriety. A native and resident of Pasadena, Mitchell founded the Skid Row Running Club to help support people in recovery. Each year, the group travels to a foreign country for a marathon. “If you remain faithful and regularly run with us and maintain your sobriety, at no cost we will take you around the world,” Mitchell said. “It’s a powerful incentive.”

Dan Kapelovitz is the ultimate outsider in the race for DA: a criminal defense attorney. Fittingly, he offers a novel perspective on Gascón’s tenure.

“His deputy DAs refused to implement most of his directives and just do whatever they want,” Kapelovitz said. “People who blame him for the uptick in crime don’t know what they’re talking about.” Gascón also backpedaled on some of his directives for political reasons, such as not trying minors as adults, and has fought to keep gang enhancements in place in resentencing cases.

Kapelovitz represents indigent defendants as a court-appointed attorney in 80 to 90 % of his cases. He also represents victims as witness counsel. One of these clients was arrested for failure to appear and kept on $100,000 bail, the figure for serious felony defendants—despite the fact that one of Gascón’s directives was not to seek body attachments. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to run for office to show what’s going on,”’ Kapelovitz said.

A native of Denver, Kapelovitz came to LA in 1995. He went to law school at UCLA and previously worked in journalism, including as features editor of Hustler at Larry Flynt Publications in Beverly Hills. He lives right nearby in West Hollywood Adjacent.

The DA race is not his first electoral foray: Kapelovitz ran in the 2021 gubernatorial recall as the only anti-recall candidate. “I was interested in politics, I wanted to see how it worked and to offer an alternative,” he said. He also opposed the attempts to recall Gascón as “a waste of time and money, and total failures.” Those resources could have been spent on preventing crime, he said.

In 2022, he was the Green Party candidate for state attorney general, making this campaign a rematch against Nathan Hochman. Kapelovitz’s goal was to get the 2% of the vote necessary to keep the Greens on the ballot, which he achieved.

Kapelovitz is endorsed by the Green Party of Los Angeles County, The Peace and Freedom County of Los Angeles County, and the LGBT Sentinel.

Lloyd “Bobcat” Masson is a deputy DA in San Bernardino County, currently assigned to the cold case unit, but he’s from Mid-City and lives in eastern LA County. “I love this city and county, I think it’s unique and I have a heart for the people,” he said. In the race for DA, “I don’t see anybody just saying, ‘I represent LA’ …. They all seem so focused on Gascón.”

The most important part of his work right now “is giving hope back to families that gave up a long time ago,” he said. “It’s similar to what I want to do with LA. Because all of LA residents are in despair. I want to give them hope that we can turn this around, we really can.”

Masson decided to run because, in his view, no candidate was addressing the key issue of property crime, amid the fixation on the incumbent and crime in general. Not only is property crime on the rise, “it might even be slightly underrepresented too, if you realistically look at it,” he said. He includes vehicle theft and would focus on that as well.

Masson started out prosecuting misdemeanors for the LA City Attorney, and in San Bernardino he has also worked with the victims of violence, family violence and hardcore gangs unit. His experience in that county has taught him how to make do with fewer resources, “and that’s what’s happening in LA now, everybody’s overburdened with work.” His first priority as DA would be to heal the office, “because it’s amazing how much, almost trauma Gascón inflicted on the institution,” he said. “You can hear it in the other candidates’ voices when they talk about it.”

David S. Milton has 45 years as an attorney—he became an LA County deputy DA in 1978, and later a judge, first of the LA Municipal and then Superior Courts—which is why he says he’s the most experienced candidate in the race: “I’ve done the whole gamut, civil, criminal, all of it.”

He’s also the only Republican. In his estimation, some of the other challengers are to the left of Gascón. “They’re plants, in my view,” he said. “They believe that if Gascón loses, one of them could carry on the same policies that he’s enacted.”

That would not be Milton’s approach. “My top priorities will be reversing all those policies implemented by Gascón,” he said. “They’re just absolutely horrific.” He’s especially focused on hate crime enhancements, given his memories of growing up in a racially tense environment in 1960s Indianapolis—he was born in Pasadena—and his formative experiences in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Milton attended church three to four times a week with his family, which he credits with giving him his values, and he feels a strong affinity for the Jewish community.

“I was raised in a kind of Jewish community,” Milton said. “I spent time going to seders and synagogues.” The Hamas attacks of Oct. 7 deeply impacted him. For any crime motivated by race, religion, or gender, Milton vows to file hate crime enhancements.

He also opposes attempts to avoid having to start deportation efforts against undocumented immigrants who commit felony offenses by finding ways to file misdemeanors instead. “Why would you want somebody who’s entered the country illegally to avoid the consequences of deportation?” he asked.

Gascón intentionally avoids filing smash-and-grab charges as well, Milton added, a category of crime that “is out of control.” These are robberies, in his view, involving force or fear and the violence of smashing glass. “They are not petty theft. That’s another thing that is quite offensive to me. I will stop that on day one,” he added.

The DA has “usurped the legislature” by halting the filing of even obligatory enhancements, mandated by statute. “He’s done a disservice to the county. There’s no question he did the same thing in San Francisco,” Milton said. “I know how that office should work. I know it’s not working now.”

Milton is endorsed by the California Republican Assembly and Golden State Republican Women.

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