The Hungarian-born Democratic megadonor and billionaire George Soros has capitalized on a long-held cliche: All politics is local.
Despite the Democratic Party’s disappointing performance in down-ballot races on Election Day, some of its most left-wing activists enjoyed victories in local prosecutor races. Cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and St. Louis are experimenting with radical changes to the criminal justice system that many on the left say are a model for the rest of the country.
The funding of district attorney races from left-wing bankrollers like Soros over the last few years represents a strategic shift, building a farm team of sorts for the Democratic Party while enacting policy changes to cities without having to wait for legislative approval. Prosecutors often enjoy broad discretion over how a city will enforce its laws, meaning they are on the front line of its residents’ quality of life. In the words of Soros, prosecutors represent “the linchpin of the judicial system.”
Kim Gardner, the first Black circuit attorney for St. Louis, won a second term in November after a crowded primary and a long-shot Republican challenger. First backed by political action committees funded by Soros, Gardner faced primary opponents this summer who labeled her soft on crime and overseeing the highest spike of murders in decades. Her tenure as circuit attorney has been defined by a dramatic overhaul of police measures, including the deferment of prison sentences for misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. By summer, her office saw thousands of fewer prosecutions than her predecessor.
Gardner faced criticism over her handling of the summer race riots in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. During nearly a month of social unrest, which led to the death of one civilian and the shooting of four St. Louis police officers, Gardner opted to release 34 of 36 individuals arrested on charges ranging from assault and theft to property damage.
Buoyed by another six-figure donation from the Soros-funded Missouri Justice and Public Safety Political Action Committee, Gardner prevailed, with just over 74% of the vote in the general election in November.
Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon made headlines this month after announcing sweeping reforms on his first day in office, which included moves to end cash bail and the end of prosecuting misdemeanors such as prostitution, resisting arrest and driving without a license.
Gascon challenged incumbent Jackie Lacey for the position, raising nearly $12.5 million in the race. Over $2 million of his war chest came from Soros, while Lacey saw her biggest donations from pro-police groups like the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs. Gascon won his race against Lacey on Nov. 6, with just over 53% of the vote.
“I recognize for many, this is a new path … whether you are a protester, a police officer, or a prosecutor, I ask you to walk with me. I ask you to join me on this journey,” Gascon said where he announced the city’s new policies. “We can break the multigenerational cycles of violence, trauma, and arrest and recidivism that has led America to incarcerate more people than any other nation.”
Los Angeles has seen a dramatic rise in shootings over the last year, with murders increasing by 20% in 2020.
When he took office in 2018, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner fired 31 prosecutors from his office, including a third of lawyers assigned to homicide cases. Krasner’s victory in a Democratic primary with six opponents was boosted by a $1.45 million check to a supportive PAC by Soros three weeks before the election.
During his tenure, crime in Philadelphia mirrors much of that in other major cities. After a particular bloody day in November, murders in the city reached the third-highest total since 1980. Some violent and property crime has dipped, but shootings are up 60% from 2019.
Predictably, conservative prosecutors and police groups around the country have blamed Krasner’s orders to lower prosecutions dramatically and shorten probation and parole periods as at least partially responsible for the uptick in murders.
Over the summer, Krasner’s office opted to drop attempted murder charges against a man who shot a Philadelphia deli owner in a botched robbery. Instead, the shooter received less than four years in jail for the incident, which left the victim confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Prosecutors from the Department of Justice have monitored Krasner’s policies and decided to bring federal charges against the individual involved in the shooting, resulting in a 14-year sentence.
“This is … infuriating. There is nothing more important than the safety of children. But where is the sense of outrage, where is the anger, where is the sense of urgency among city leaders?” U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania William McSwain said about the case. “This slaughter in our streets has largely been met with indifference, a sense of inevitability, even a shrug of the shoulders. Or, as the district attorney frequently puts it: “Poverty equals bullets.”
One of Soros’ earliest victories in getting prosecutors elected was in Cook County, the second-largest prosecutor’s office in the country and home to Chicago. Elected in 2016, Kim Foxx serves as state’s attorney for the region.
Considered one of the most liberal prosecutors in the country, Soros has pumped nearly $2.5 million into a PAC his organization created to keep her in office since 2016. Her tenure has done little to change the reality that Chicago remains one of the most violent cities in the country. Under Foxx, incarcerations in Cook County have dropped nearly 20%, driven in part by the end of felony prosecutions for a number of crimes and deferred prison sentences. Bail for most crimes has been all but eliminated.
Cook County is on track to break recent records for violent crime, with over 900 murders recorded there since Dec. 1. The murder rate in 2020 remains higher than in 2016, which was Chicago’s most violent year in decades.
Despite rising crime, Foxx enjoyed a comfortable reelection in November.
Despite its reputation for being relatively sleepy compared to its East Coast counterparts, Boston is undergoing a violent crime streak.
Elected in 2018, Rachael Rollins enjoyed backing from Soros and other wealthy donors like Cari Tuna. Running on a platform of decriminalizing an array of offenses, her time as Suffolk County district attorney has led to mixed results.
This summer saw shootings in Boston rise 29%, with gun crime rising 60% in the city by November. Pro-police groups blame Rollins’s policies of declining to prosecute those resisting arrest and disorderly conduct charges as allowing criminals to roam the street.
But despite the rising tensions between law enforcement and Rollins, Soros’ bet that local prosecutors serving as a training ground for future Democratic leaders may be paying off. This month, reports broke that President-elect Joe Biden is considering her for the role of U.S. attorney for Massachusetts.
Joseph Simonson is a political reporter for the Washington Examiner, where he covers the 2020 presidential election.