Wed, Jul

The DA Race, Homelessness, and Regressive Progressives

Jonathon Hatami (L) George Gascón (R)


iAUDIT! - My column usually sticks to homelessness programs. I’m branching out a bit with this one, but it is related to homelessness programs and the way they are managed in Los Angeles.  

Californians should take rightful pride in the state’s progressive tradition.  In the early 20th century, led by reformist politicians like governor Hiram Johson, progressives overcame the corrupt stranglehold railroads held on state government, making the political structure more accessible to regular citizens.  The direct initiative process, proposition system, recalls, and nonpartisan elections for local offices are legacies of the original reformist progressive movement. Today’s progressive movement, however, bears little resemblance to its populist roots. The difference between the two movements is playing out in the race for Los Angeles District Attorney. 

I recently attended a meet and greet for Jonathon Hatami, a Deputy District Attorney running to replace George Gascón as D.A.  Mr. Hatami prosecutes serious crimes against children and has grown increasingly frustrated by Gascón’s interference in his cases and insistence on removing charging enhancements for most crimes without consulting his staff attorneys.  

Regardless of one’s view of restorative justice, Gascón’s management style is certainly questionable.  Most good leaders allow their subordinates the discretion appropriate to their positions, provide clear guidance and expectations, and are flexible.  Gascón imposed blanket policies on his attorneys, such as prohibiting felony charges for many young suspects, discouraging attorneys from attending parole hearings on behalf of victims and their families, and refusing to file aggregate charges for multiple crimes.  He avoids meeting face to face with attorneys who question his policies, preferring to pass down orders by email. His penchant for hiring and  promoting only those who agree with his views of criminal justice, and retaliating against those with whom he disagrees, has led to multiple lawsuits

As Mr. Hatami said at the meet and greet, Mr. Gascón is an example of a leader who follows his ideology rather than the mission of his office. Mr. Hatami, on the other hand, espouses flexibility and said he would seek diverse opinions among his staff to ensure consensus on important cases.  A Democrat, Mr. Hatami said his personal politics would take a back seat to his oath to follow the law. He believes in restorative justice for young offenders who show the potential for rehabilitation.  He also believes homeless people plagued by untreated mental illness and substance abuse should not be subjected to the criminal justice system without the opportunity to access recovery services. 

For his balanced views of justice and rehabilitation, Mr. Hatami has earned the ire of the most progressive wing of Los Angeles’ Democratic Party and its powerful ally, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).  Driven by a sense of grievance, identity politics, denial of personal responsibility, and convinced of the inherit unfairness of capitalism, the new progressives have imposed their beliefs on local politics for at least a decade.  Councilmembers Nithya Raman, Eunisses Hernandez, and Hugo Soto-Martinez attained office due in large part to DSA support. George Gascón has also associated himself with the concept of non-carceral and race-based justice embraced by modern progressive politics. 

Local homelessness and housing policies also reflect the new progressive worldview. Many of the reasons why L.A.’s homelessness crisis seems so intractable is due to progressive advocacy and resistance to any options other than Housing First.  The premise of Housing First is that a home is the only remedy to homelessness.  It makes no difference if the person fell into homelessness through personal choice or for economic reasons beyond their control—the same blanket policy concept Gascón uses for criminal justice applies to housing. Advocates cannot tolerate any alternatives to massive housing projects. Led by self-proclaimed progressives like State Senator Scoot Wiener, elected officials up and down the State have passed onerous and unnecessary bills to promote affordable housing, opening the door for developers masquerading as fair housing advocates to reap huge profits in a mad race to build as many units as possible. (For good reason, Senator Wiener benefited from more than $830,000 in donations from developers and finance companies in his last campaign). Despite relying on faulty housing data and questionable population assumptions, and ignoring the economic realities of the housing market, the new progressives have sponsored a slew of state housing bills that apply a one-size-fits all solution from Crecent City to San Diego. 

During his talk about criminal justice, Mr. Hatami used a phrase that caught my attention: “regressive progressives”. Many of the tactics and policies espoused by the new progressives have moved L. A and the state backwards instead of forwards.  In the name of imposing their definition of social and economic justice on everyone else, the new progressives are willing to use draconian rules, protests, and intimidation to support their agenda. 

Ironically, the new progressives’ tactics are the same as the group they probably most despise, MAGA Republicans. Both movements view issues like wealth and freedom as transactional;  that there is a finite amount of opportunity in America, and that for one group to be successful, another has to be suppressed. MAGA defines itself using the language of victimhood, grievance, and oppression.  These are the same terms the SDA and other extreme left movements use, just flipped around.  In both movements, any action is justified to “restore” justice for their oppressed members, who are victims of an ill-defined but undeniable movement to rob them of their rights.  MAGA seeks to restore the political and economic aristocracy of pre-civil rights America.  For that, they are willing to roll back hard-won progress on civil and human rights for minorities, women, and the economically disadvantaged.  The new progressives want to create a homogenous state, where personal economic gain is condemned as an unfair advantage or the result of privilege. Crime becomes an extension of that worldview, in which criminal activity is excused as the inevitable result of societal inequities.  The only way to restore balance is to take from the privileged classes what they have unjustly gained. 

Although I rarely mention my personal worldview or political leanings in my columns, I can share one episode that contrasts modern progressivism with real social justice.  When I was in graduate school, I had an on-campus job in what was originally called Student Affirmative Action, (later renamed University Outreach). My job was to visit high schools with underrepresented student populations (mainly Latino in Orange County), and counsel students who qualified for college but were unaware they could be accepted (these were the days when the CSU system was still affordable to most Californians).  I took the job because I believed then, as I do now, that education is a key path to economic and social equality. Education levels the playing field and gives everyone an equal opportunity.  Where my philosophy separates from the new progressives is in seeing the difference between equal opportunity and equal outcomes.  An education, even from the most elite school, is only as valuable as what the person chooses to do with it. You can give someone equal opportunity, but they retain the freedom and responsibility to use it as they see fit.

New progressives see equal outcomes as the goal, regardless of personal initiative.  Therefore, everyone deserves a home, but no one deserves a home that’s “immoral” because they want their own house instead of an apartment.  Everyone should be paid a living wage, but those who achieve a higher level of monetary success through their own efforts should be condemned as privileged.  Crime, rather than being a conscious decision, must be considered in the context of race, socioeconomic status, and mental development.

As Mr. Hatami said, prosecutors may consider mitigating circumstances when charging a suspect, but it is not their job to play the role of defense attorneys.  A victim of child abuse is still a victim regardless of race or income.  Victims and their families deserve the advocacy of the DA’s office regardless of who the perpetrator is. 

The existence of racism, misogyny, and  economic unfairness in the United States is undeniable. People of color face more obstacles to success than White people.  Government should provide equal opportunity. But too often, progressive policies impede progress by imposing an artificial win/lose structure on opportunity. One of the best ways for the middle and working classes to build generational wealth is by owning a home—a house, not a condominium, because the value is in the land and not the building.  But progressive policies demonize home ownership and put it farther out of reach than ever. New upzoning laws make it highly profitable for developers to buy single family plots and build multifamily units, making starter homes harder to find. Evidence of the schizophrenic nature of the new progressivism is that the City and County hold first time home buyer fairs to help people buy houses their policies are taking off the market. 

Progressives even make renting more expensive.  DSA-backed candidates like Hernandez and Soto-Martinez won election by pandering to renters and demonizing landlords.  The series of onerous “tenant protection” ordinances passed by the City have succeeded in driving mom and pop landlords, many of whom own smaller, older units they rent below market, out of the rental business. They are being supplanted by corporate real estate interests who have the capital to buy out low-income renters and re-rent at market rates.   

Progressives, who view the unhoused as symbols of economic injustice, are more than happy to leave them on the street and unsheltered while they wait for housing that may never be built in sufficient numbers to house everyone. 

People of color are also the victims of crime more often than wealthier White people, so Gascón’s blanket policies negatively affect them as well. Progressives may be hypersensitive to race, but criminals don’t care what color you are—they are equal opportunity victimizers. Another point Mr. Hatami made applies equally to housing, homelessness, and crime: that blanket policies rarely work, because people are individuals.  They become homeless from a broad range of causes; they want homes for varied reasons, and they both commit and are the victims of crime on an intensely individual level. 

I never tell people how to vote.  But I would ask you to consider this concerning the DA’s contest: how well have the blanket policies of Housing First worked for homelessness? Do you expect them to work any differently for criminal justice?

(Tim Campbell is a resident of Westchester who spent a career in the public service and managed a municipal performance audit program.  He focuses on outcomes instead of process.)

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