On today’s podcast we present Part One of my two-part interview with Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. Ms. Lacey is in the middle of a hotly-contested election race against former San Francisco district attorney George Gascón. Back in March, before the Primary election that sent Ms. Lacey and Mr. Gascón to a run off in the General Election, Molly Miller and I interviewed Mr. Gascón (Part One here and Part Two here) and the other Primary contestant, Rachel Rossi (here). (You can find links to all of our coverage of the L.A. District Attorney race here.)

We also extended an invitation to Ms. Lacey, and, after a series of conversations with her campaign, I had the opportunity to interview her via zoom last Tuesday, October 20

In Part One of the interview we discuss her upbringing, the people and events that shaped her values and ambitions, her path to becoming a prosecutor, her experiences in and her perspective on the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, and her view on the movement to reform our criminal legal process.

Kary Antholis:

Jackie Lacey, thank you for being with me today. 

Jackie Lacey:

Thank you. 

Kary Antholis:

Tell me about your growing up, and specifically the people and events that shaped your values and your ideas.

Jackie Lacey:

I think to learn a little about me, you need to know that my mother is from Georgia and my dad is from Texas. And they migrated here separately, and they tell me it was the great migration of Blacks to get away from segregation, to get away from the Jim Crow laws. The story of my mother is that her mother was being abused by her father, and the police were called… my mother called the police. I guess that had been the first time that happened. And when the police came, they said to my grandparents, “This girl means trouble. You need to send her away.” So that, she got out here on a train. They sold the family cow, she got out here on the train. And running through my life, I can remember my mom just talking to my sister and I about domestic violence. She didn’t call it that, but she used to say, “Don’t let any man knock on you. Don’t let any man hit you.” And it occurred to us as so strange because we didn’t live in a home like that. 

But she, because she did grow up in a home like that, she constantly reminded us that, in a marriage and loving relationship, no man has the right to physically abuse you. I can recall her saying that many times. The neighborhood that I grew up in, we were in Jefferson Park at first and then saved enough money to move into the Crenshaw District. Our home was located in a working class neighborhood, most of the people who lived there were African-American. 80% were African-American, 20% were Asian. And my dad, who is my first mentor and leader, he wasn’t educated college-wise, but he was very book smart. And he was constantly reading books on leadership and talking to me about them. In our home in the dining room, we had pictures of civil rights leaders like we had … And this was true in a lot of African-American homes… President John F. Kennedy, a picture of Martin Luther King, and then a picture of Robert F. Kennedy all lined up in our home. 

My dad was a very hard working guy, worked in the Lot Cleaning Division for the City of LA, constantly talked to us about, “You got to work hard. There is racism, but you got to work twice as hard to get ahead and be twice as good to get ahead. There are no shortcuts.” In our home too, our folks were very religious. I mean, we went to a Baptist Church. I got baptized when I was nine and went to Sunday school. We went to church every Sunday, and came back some Sunday nights for what’s called Baptist Youth Fellowship. But my parents constantly instilled in me that it wasn’t about me, it was about God, it was about our purpose in life, and serving others, and treating others with dignity and respect. And those were the values that I grew up in hard work, faith. My dad was also very patriotic, you know, he loved this country. He never traveled outside the United States. And as I travel, I think, “Dad, you missed a lot because there’s so much to see in this world.” But he always said, “What other country could be greater than our country?”

That’s how he thought about it. And that’s even with the racism and other things that I’m sure he had experienced. So growing up because my parents couldn’t afford a college education, they were very, very insistent that I go to college. They wanted me to be able to take care of myself, they wanted me to get a college education. And I thought in entering UC Irvine, I was going to be a teacher. Teachers in the African-American community were very much revered, especially in the South. And a lot of times, that would be the highest educated person. So being a teacher was what I thought I wanted to be, I thought I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. And it wasn’t until I worked at a Montessori School the summer after my freshman year, I realized, “Well, teaching is probably not for me. Being around kids.” And I love children, but I just knew it wasn’t a good fit for me. So, you know, I’m going through UC Irvine just enjoying life, having a good time there, making friends when I decide to take a course called The Introduction of the Study of Law. 

And they had guest speakers, and you went to court, you went and observed court. I found courts so interesting, but what did it for me was an African-American woman who was a lawyer came and spoke and she said she was a lawyer. She had such passion about the work she did that I knew after listening to her 30 minutes speech, I was heading to law school. I could … For the first time in my life, I realized I could be a lawyer, I could be that woman. I ended up going to law school at USC, I married my husband who I’d met when I was 17 years old. We got married after our … let’s see, after the second year in law school. I mean, in law school. I had my first child in the middle of my last year, Kareem. I took two weeks off after I had him and went right back to school to finish with my class. From USC, I got a job working for a sole practitioner doing civil and I was bored to death, Kary. I thought I had made a mistake. 

It was just paperwork, an office, depositions, lawyers asking the same questions over … You never got to court. I never got to court. And a girlfriend of mine from law school said, “Hey, I work at the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor, why don’t you just apply?” And when I applied, the head prosecutor there … his name was Mike Myers. He said, “Well, if I hire you as a prosecutor, how are you going to explain what you do to your community?” Meaning the Black community. I didn’t even understand what he was talking about. We were … The community I grew up in, we were … I mean, we had some people who were bad actors. But for the most part, people were pretty law abiding. They’d follow the law, and they … I just didn’t get it. I didn’t know what he was saying. So I became a prosecutor. And two weeks into it, my first trial, I discovered this was the work I was born to do. I loved it. I loved the energy of being in court, preparing, talking to witnesses, talking to victims. 

I felt like I was … I kept thinking to myself, “I can’t believe they pay me to do something I love. I can’t.” Please don’t tell anybody, I probably would show up and do this work for free as a volunteer. And we have a lot of volunteers in the DA’s office. The first year I was a prosecutor, I learned what it was like when you’re a victim of a crime. My dad was out mowing his lawn when a couple of guys drove by, and one of them shot him in his front lawn. My mother called me. I wasn’t there, she called me and said, “Meet me at the hospital. Your dad’s been shot.” I was shocked. He’s a guy in his 50s. I got to the hospital and he was alive. He had been shot in the leg, and it broke his leg and that probably was a blessing because he fell to the ground and played dead because he didn’t want them to shoot him again. So they only shot him one time. It changed him, it changed his life. I mean, he was-

Kary Antholis:

What was the motive? Do you know what the motive was?

Jackie Lacey:

Well, they were never caught. But the edge of our property is a busy street and there is a telephone box there and it had some gang graffiti on it. So my dad had spray painted over it to cover it up because he didn’t … He was very meticulous about the way his property looked. So we suspect that by doing that, that’s what happened. It was retaliation for that, but they were never caught so we don’t know.

Kary Antholis:

Going back to your education, your formative years. Besides your parents, who were your mentors? Who were the people that inspired you who were present in your life?

Jackie Lacey:

Well, at my church there was a Youth Director, Vashti Hodge. She really inspired me a lot to go with grace and style. She had a lot of grace and style. I was a very shy kid, I really didn’t like public speaking. But Mrs. Hodge told me one day when I was 15, she said, “I want you to do the church announcements, I think you can do this.” And she put this script in front of me and encouraged me to get out there. And that was my first foray into public speaking. She was just really good at exposing us to like Disneyland, and all these different things that I just really never knew existed, to church camp, to a lot of things. So she was very, very inspirational to me. I can’t really say I have a mentor other than my dad, my dad who’s not alive anymore. But he really took me places, drug me to places where political … He was head of the laymen’s league. The laymen’s league in a church is like the political arm. He would have these speakers come in, judges, politicians. 

And even though I wasn’t interested in politics, he would drag me to it. He says, “No, I want you to listen. This person’s important, I want you to listen to what they have to say. I want you to be involved.” In 1975, I believe that was the first time that 18 year olds could vote, and he took me to register to vote. I registered, he just stood there. He said, “Now you’re going to vote. It’s important to vote. A lot of people who look like us couldn’t vote in the past.” So he really was the most influential. I’m trying to think. There was also a teacher named Mrs. Smith. I wish I could remember her first name. But in ninth grade, she taught me how to proofread my own writing. She said, “Whatever you write, read it out loud and you’ll catch the mistakes.” And I do that to this day. She also introduced me to reading books that I had never heard of, The Scarlet Letter, Catcher in the Rye, things of that nature that I just wasn’t exposed to.

Kary Antholis:

Well, speaking of books, what were some of the books, or movies, or cultural touchstones that inspired you as a younger person?

Jackie Lacey:

I’m trying to remember. God, it’s so long ago. You known, The Autobiography of Malcolm X was good, that was required reading when I was 18. I found that story and his evolution so interesting. He started out as very radical, but then evolved when he really got to know about Islam. I found that book very compelling, very interesting. Most of the time, though, I was reading fiction until I came across … And this is as an adult, way into my adulthood that I came across this author by the name of John Maxwell who wrote a lot about leadership. He was a pastor and then he became a leadership trainer. And so, I think I’ve read almost every book that guy has written, as well as books by this guy, Patrick Lencioni, who talks about leadership and what good leaders look like.

Kary Antholis:

And what are some of the principles that Maxwell writes about that you find compelling or that you’ve internalized and used in your leadership at the District Attorney’s Office?

Jackie Lacey:

Well, I’ve learned that leadership is simply influence. It’s not dictating, it’s not telling people, it’s inspiring people to be, to give you the best work they possibly can. And first people have to know that you care about them, that you’re interested in them, that you’re listening to them. So I try really, really hard to be what I call an aerobic listener. If you’re talking to me for the first time, I can pretty much remember. If I’m interviewing you for a job … I interview every DA who comes to this office. I can pretty much, if I see your face again, I can remember what we talked about. So to be an aerobic listener. To, of course, lead by example. The first person you have to know how to lead is yourself, get your own house in order. And then learning how to inspire people, that it takes time to lead people, that there’s no shortcuts. People to feel you’re invested in them. They have to see your dream and your vision, so you have to communicate that to people. So those are the things.

I develop my own leadership principles, that as a leader that, don’t write it, say it or do it unless you don’t want to see it in the LA Times. Sometimes you got to know when to deal with a problem right away. But then other times, if you wait a bit, the problem will naturally resolve itself. People self-destruct, you don’t have to do it for them. Things of that nature that I’ve learned.

Kary Antholis:

Who were your mentors as a trial attorney in the prosecutor’s office?

Jackie Lacey:

Well, I had several, but the one I remember the most he just died last year. His name was John Asari. John was one of the first supervisors in the office. He was a small man, and he probably was not taller than 5 ft 1. But John, everybody revered that guy, everybody came to that guy for advice. He had a way of teaching you by using stories or examples. So for me, John taught me that to be ethical, to be prepared, to be professional. When you’re dealing with a defense, there was no need to be nasty. He taught me that victims matter, that make sure you interview your witnesses before trial, because you never know what they’re going to say. He was a giant in our office, and I was just so fortunate to be assigned to him. He also taught me not to accept everything at face value, to question things. I had a case, I was ready to go to trial and John made me sit down and interview that witness. I’m glad he did, because the witness wasn’t telling the truth about what happened. But he was a great mentor to me.

Steve Cooley, who was the DA, he had to be the most influential mentor because what Steve did was he gave me opportunities. I was not skilled at self-promotion, I was kind of a, “Give me whatever, and I’ll do it.” But Steve, when he started supervising me mid career, he’d say, “You haven’t had a high profile case, let me give you this. You haven’t had this type of case, let me give you that. Let me give you more responsibility.” And that allowed me to really develop in the office much more than anybody else, just an opportunity to try some different things. 

Kary Antholis:

What in your view is the role of a prosecutor in our criminal legal process? And specifically in the LA District Attorney’s Office?

Jackie Lacey:

I see you as the … I see the prosecutors the guardian of justice. The prosecutor … and people don’t realize this, actually looks out for the people, the victims and the defendants. And with the people of the State of California, we have decided certain things are a crime. And while we respect victims, we have decided that domestic violence is a crime, driving under the influence is a crime, murders. We have decided all these rules, we voted on all these laws. And as a DA, it’s your job to enforce it. Because the society has decided that if there are consequences for a crime, A, we will be safer. But more importantly, if there are consequences, that’s how you achieve justice. As a prosecutor, you also look out for crime victims’ rights. You make sure that they get notice of a hearing, that they are able to speak in court if they choose to do so, that they have a voice in the proceedings. They don’t tell you what to do. You can never let a victim tell you what you as a prosecutor should do, because some victims will come and tell you how everybody ought to get the death penalty, “If they stole from me, off with their head.” Well, that’s not your role. And then with the defendant, you need to make sure … You have an obligation to give over anything that helps their case, any exculpatory evidence. And by doing that, you ensure that they have a fair trial, that you’re not steamrolling over them, that you’re not convicting the wrong person, that you’re not painting them to be worse than they are. So you’re helping their case. So really, all of those roles together, we are the guardians of justice in its unique guardianship. You can’t neglect one over another there, they’re all important. 

Kary Antholis:

What is your perspective on the way that the US Attorney General, William Barr, has performed his job as America’s chief prosecutor?

Jackie Lacey:

This is from a far away level because I haven’t really studied his policies or any decisions that they’ve made. But it seems like he’s more political than he should be as a prosecutor. A prosecutor shouldn’t be a political arm of anyone. They wield so much power that when you have people making decisions on who to charge and who not to charge in order to help somebody’s political status, you are abandoning the job. I haven’t read everything or know very much about him, but it just seems like he is embracing that political, a little bit too much of the political power and I’d love to see him more stay in the lane of being a prosecutor. Maybe though, that goes with the job. Each … I’m thinking about all the Attorney General’s before him, Eric Holder, and … Oh god, Jeff Sessions, Janet Reno, one might argue they’re all political appointees, right? Or-

Kary Antholis:

Loretta Lynch, of course.

Jackie Lacey:

Loretta Lynch. She and I have a picture with Loretta Lynch. But really I like, I think, the role of a prosecutor, you ought to be about justice no matter who. Because one day, someone might come in and say, “Hey, your boss, the guy who appointed you committed a crime. What are you going to do?” Well, you should be willing to prosecute anybody who committed a crime if the evidence is there, regardless of whether they’re your boss, or regardless of if there’s any conflict.

Kary Antholis:

What do you make of the movement to reform our criminal legal process? And specifically, the movement to elect progressive prosecutors?

Jackie Lacey:

Well, our justice system needs to be reformed. I think we all agree with that. There needed to be changes. Particularly the drug laws, they were very draconian. But, and I do think that you need a prosecutor who is in tune or even ahead of the trends that are coming. But a lot of times what I see with regard to some of the progressive prosecutors that I’ve seen put in place, it’s almost like they’re trying to get even for some injustice that was done to defendants before they got there, more of an axe to grind. Most of the time, we have to work with police. And yet I see some progressive prosecutors who are at war with their police department. I see some progressive prosecutors who never ever say the word “victim,” never talk about victims’ rights, never talk about helping victims. And I think that’s a mistake too. I think you can be progressive, but there’s got to be balance. You’ve got to have reason. And sometimes I see progressives as more of a spokesperson for the incarcerated, but they have nothing for the people they serve. They have nothing to say to help the people they serve, they have nothing for victims. I think eventually what you will see is the public is fickle. Your electorate, they like you today, but they may not like you tomorrow. And if crime rates go up, they won’t like you if they see that you aren’t doing justice. They will toss you out on your head. So I’m disappointed and I’m disappointed in the funding sources that I see coming their way because it seems like it just takes democracy away from the people.

Kary Antholis:

Who are some of the other big city American prosecutors that you admire? People who are currently holding their jobs around the country?

Jackie Lacey:

Wow. There are a number of prosecutors I admire, like I admire … And for different reasons. Like I admire Cy Vance in Manhattan, because Cy figured out a way to fund his office using the process that is very, very creative. And because of that, he was able to keep that office in a technologically advanced state. There’s a prosecutor who is not very well known. Her name is Darcel, I believe she’s the DA in the Bronx. She’s one of those people, she’s just a very frank truth teller. She’s an African-American woman, formerly a judge. And she is just very straightforward. I admire a lot of the initiatives that she’s brought to the Bronx, because she too has balance. She balances the reform versus the safety of her community. My friend, Joyce Dudley, who’s the DA of Santa Barbara, which is a much smaller County. I admire her because you can bring any problem to her and she can reduce it down to its essence and always come up with the best, the best advice. There’s a number of good people out there. We borrow from each other, steal from each other, emulate each other. That’s actually a form of flattery.

Kary Antholis:

When you mentioned, Cy Vance, you mentioned he figured out a way to fund his office. Can you just give me a little bit of detail on that?

Jackie Lacey:

Yeah, he did something where he went after some corrupt banking individuals. People who were in the banking industry. And he got some judgments that were very, very creative against white collar criminals, and ended up actually being able to fund a lot of the resources that his office has, and I think he’s done a good job.

Kary Antholis:

That concludes Part One of my interview with Los Angeles County District attorney Jackie Lacey.

You can find Part 2 of my interview with Jackie Lacey here.