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Los Angeles County's progressive district attorney leads in early results against 11 challengers

LOS ANGELES (AP) — One of the country's most progressive prosecutors, who faced two recall attempts within four years, is being tested as he seeks reelection against 11 challengers to remain the district attorney of Los Angeles County.

Tuesday's nonpartisan primary pits incumbent George Gascón against opponents who range from line prosecutors in his own office to former federal prosecutors to county judges.

Gascón was leading in early results shortly after the polls closed Tuesday, and Nathan Hochman, a former federal prosecutor as well as a one-time California attorney general candidate who ran as a Republican in 2022, was the closest to him. While experts believe Gascón will survive the primary, they are less optimistic about his chances in November.

To win the primary outright, a candidate must receive a 50%-plus-one vote, an unlikely outcome in the largest-ever field to seek the office. Anything less triggers a runoff race between the top two candidates in November to lead an agency that prosecutes cases in the most populous county in the U.S.

It could take days before it is known which two candidates will advance to a runoff.

In an effort to ensure accurate, comprehensive tallies, counting ballots in California has become a weekslong drama that, in close contests, can transform Election Day into an election month. Mail ballots postmarked by Tuesday can arrive within seven days and are still valid. The heavy reliance on mail ballots — every voter receives one — also results in an extended tally, since each must be opened, validated and processed.

Gascón's first term included a recall attempt within his first 100 days and a second attempt later, which both failed to get on the ballot.

Gascón's challengers are seeking to harness voters' perceptions of public safety, highlighting shocking footage of a series of brazen smash-and-grab robberies at luxury stores. The feeling of being unsafe is so pervasive that even the Los Angeles mayor and police chief said in January that they were working to fix the city’s image.

But while property crime increased nearly 3% within the sheriff’s jurisdiction of Los Angeles County from 2022 to 2023, violent crime decreased almost 1.5% in the same period.

Still, the candidates seeking to unseat Gascón blame him and his progressive policies for the rising property crime and overall safety perceptions. The opponents include local prosecutors Jonathan Hatami and Eric Siddall and former federal prosecutors Jeff Chemerinsky and Nathan Hochman, a one-time attorney general candidate, who all have garnered notable endorsements.

Gascón was elected on a criminal justice reform platform in 2020, in the wake of George Floyd's killing by police.

Gascón immediately imposed his campaign agenda: not seeking the death penalty; not prosecuting juveniles as adults; ending cash bail for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies; and no longer filing enhancements triggering stiffer sentences for certain elements of crimes, repeat offenses or gang membership.

He was forced to roll back some of his biggest reforms early in his tenure, such as initially ordering the elimination of more than 100 enhancements and elevating a hate crime from misdemeanor to a felony. The move infuriated victims’ advocates, and Gascón backpedaled, restoring enhancements in cases involving children, elderly people and people targeted because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability.

This year's challengers still say Gascón is too soft on crime and have pledged to reverse many or nearly all of his most progressive policies, such as his early orders to eliminate filing for sentencing enhancements.

The other candidates are David S. Milton, Debra Archuleta, Maria Ramirez, Dan Kapelovitz, Lloyd “Bobcat” Masson, John McKinney and Craig Mitchell.

Stefanie Dazio, The Associated Press