At her first news conference the day after her historic election as L.A.’s top prosecutor, District Attorney-elect Jackie Lacey was asked about becoming the county's first female and first African-American D.A. But before she could answer, her boss suggested a response.
“Tell ‘em it was on the merits,” said L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley as he stood next to Lacey on the 18th floor of the downtown criminal courts building. It was kind of a whisper, but everyone in the D.A.’s conference room could hear him.
“I’m sorry Steve, I think I’ve got this one,” Lacey retorted. Everyone laughed. Lacey and Cooley are friends, and his endorsement was key to her election. She serves as his second-in-command.
It’s probably not the first time Lacey’s wrangled a white man butting into her business. And Cooley did not shut up when Lacey indicated she was prepared to give her own answer about why voters elected her.
“Its not about race or gender," Cooley said. "This was the best candidate.”
“I could not have said it better,” Lacey said, chuckling at her soon-to-be ex-boss. “I have worked hard to get where I am today. I’ve tried a tremendous amount of cases. I never turned down an assignment.”
Asked again by a reporter about her milestone election, Lacey, whose parents came to L.A. in the 1950s to escape the racism of the South, said she hopes her election inspires people.
“I think the significance is that it may inspire other women, and certainly other African Americans and minorities, to seek a career in law enforcement.”
Lacey, 55, defeated Deputy District Attorney Alan Jackson by 10 percentage points. The office is non-partisan, but her status as a Democrat, and his as a Republican, helped Lacey in overwhelmingly Democratic L.A. She also enjoyed the backing of police unions that represent LAPD cops and Sheriffs Deputies, whom she thanked.
It may be that Lacey’s election is less significant now days, with an African-American president and California Attorney General (Kamala Harris). But Lacey immediately becomes one of the state’s most prominent elected black officials. Moreover, she will be a key player in a criminal justice system that disproportionately locks up black men more than any other group. She was asked about that.
“I believe that this office does its very best to be fair and transparent,” Lacey said.
Lacey has promised to expand the use of alternative sentencing courts so people convicted of less serious crimes can avoid incarceration. And she supported Proposition 36, which relaxed the state’s tough Three Strikes law. But she said her biggest challenge is prison realignment.
“We’ve got to implement some fixes,” Lacey said of the program to send non-violent, non-serious criminals to local jails instead of state prison. She said people who commit identity theft, for example, should serve time in prison. She also said L.A. needs to create more jail space as more people serve time locally.
Some critics have said Lacey is a creation of Cooley, who promoted her through the ranks. He opened and closed her first news conference, and Lacey acknowledged him first.
“I want to thank Steve Cooley for being the strongest supporter from the gate,” she said.
But Lacey also said she’s ready for the somewhat imposing Cooley, who’s been D.A. for 12 years, to move out of the office.
“I look forward to flying solo. And I certainly will,” she said. “But smart people know you don’t have all the answers.”
Then Lacey added of Cooley, who already has prepared a transition memo for her: “Something tells me he’ll be a phone call away.”
Lacey assumes office December 3.