Los Angeles’s current City Attorney, Mike Feuer, is terming out. Seven candidates—Hydee Feldstein Soto, Faisal Gill, Kevin James, Teddy Kapur, Richard Kim, Marina Torres, and Sherri Onica Valle Cole—ran in the recent primary to replace him. Of those seven, the top finisher was Faisal (rhymes with “castle”) Gill, a civil rights attorney who received 137,554 votes (24.23%). Hydee Feldstein Soto, a former corporate lawyer specializing in bankruptcies and acquisitions, received 112,978 votes (19.90%). Soto narrowly—136 votes—bettered Marina Torres, a former federal prosecutor who received 112,842 votes (19.87%). Soto and Gill will face each other in November.
Of the two, Gill is the Progressive. We met at Porto’s, a dessert utopia on Glendale’s Brand Boulevard, and spoke for an hour about the devolved state of America’s justice system, how he’d run the City Attorney’s office, and what a Progressive approach to the that office—and the LAPD—would look like. We commiserated over a shared sense that what was once a middle-of-the-road, common-sense approach to criminal justice—an approach not predicated on fear of the Other—is now considered “Progressive,” a position on the left of our rightward-shifted political spectrum.
Born in Pakistan, Gill is a graduate of American University’s Washington College of Law in D.C. Having been an active Republican has dinged his Progressive cred (see his detailed responses below): He worked in the George W. Bush administration as a policy director for the Department of Homeland Security; and he appeared in a public forum on behalf of the “Virginians For Marriage and the Family Foundation” in support of the Virginia Marriage Amendment. That amendment, which passed and was then declared unconstitutional, barred recognition of gay marriage. At that forum, Gill said he believed that marriage should be between a man and a woman and that without the amendment marriage would be rendered meaningless. He has also been dinged more generally for letting his California Bar membership lapse (late payment, reinstated), for saying he would not enforce the city’s ban on homeless encampments (City Charter, 41:18*), and for announcing that if elected he would suspend misdemeanor** filings during his first 100 days.
This latter platform plank recently made news when billionaire carpetbagger Rick Caruso referred to it in a soft-on-crime attack on Karen Bass. (The attack on Bass was based on her having endorsed Gill.) The Bass campaign panicked and, despite Gill’s position having been prominently platformed on his website since March, promptly yanked her endorsement.
When I asked him about Bass’s diss-endorsement, Gill replied, While I was disappointed to hear the news, I respect that Karen had to do what she felt was best for her campaign. Karen Bass is a personal friend, and I am proud to support her mayoral run, but I will always stay true to my vision for criminal justice reform in Los Angeles.
Classy. My reaction was that this represented a Bass-campaign fail, a missed opportunity to fight for Democratic and Progressive values; a missed chance to dispel the image of Democrats as timid wusses who duck for cover at the first sign of conflict. Instead of panicking, reacting defensively, and abandoning a friend and ally, instead of shunning Gill and his sensible approach to local criminal justice—a position with which she agrees—the following would have been a far-better response:
Since the first day of his more-than-$40,000,000.00 tsunami of distortion and misrepresentation, the real-estate-billionaire and faux-Democrat Rick Caruso and his proxies have used Donald-Trump-like half-truths, innuendos, and outright lies to misstate the positions of the actual Democrats in this race. Caruso’s distortion of my friend Faisal Gill’s position on misdemeanor prosecutions is just another example of Caruso’s embrace of Trumpism and Trumpist tactics. With this attack, Caruso’s true colors—which are Right-Wing-Republican red—are fully on display. His repressive, law-and-order agenda is revealed, and his extreme-right-wing sympathies are exposed. Right-Wing Republican Rick Caruso’s Donald-Trump-inspired tactics are obvious, and his desperate decision to use plays from Donald Trump’s playbook won’t fool Angelenos and won’t work in Los Angeles.
If the past four years have taught us anything, it’s that a good offense is the only defense. How about, for a change, we—our side—show some backbone? How about, for a change, fight, not flight? But that’s not how the Bass campaign chose to respond.
Why should we care how the LA City Attorney approaches that job? What, exactly, does an LA City Attorney do?
The City Attorney is elected by the people of Los Angeles to represent the City and serves as legal advisor to the Mayor, City Council, and all City boards, departments, officers and entities. As the City’s general counsel, the City Attorney provides advice and opinions on matters of municipal concern, examines contracts and ordinances as to form and legality, and is frequently called upon to interpret the City Charter, federal and state statutes, and other laws that govern Los Angeles. As the City’s chief prosecutor, the City Attorney prosecutes all misdemeanor criminal offenses and infractions occurring in the City of Los Angeles. The City Attorney works closely with local law enforcement agencies to prosecute crimes through the Criminal Branches of the City Attorney’s Office located throughout Los Angeles. The City Attorney’s Office is also a resource for victims and witnesses of crimes, and provides a network of referral services as well as crisis intervention and support. Additionally, the City Attorney administers a number of citywide crime prevention initiatives focused on preserving the quality of life throughout Los Angeles’ neighborhoods.
The City Attorney litigates all civil actions on behalf of the City and represents the City, its boards and officers in all civil trials and legal proceedings, in both state and federal court. The City Attorney advocates for the benefit of the City before the United States Congress and the State Legislature and represents the City in proceedings before the State Public Utilities Commission, the Federal Maritime Board, and other federal and state administrative bodies and committees when the City is an interested party.
Of the City Attorney’s various responsibilities, those that most-directly impact the day-to-day lives of Angelenos are those that interface with LA’s criminal-justice system: general police interactions with citizens, traffic enforcement and tickets, parking enforcement, crime control, and heaviness of police presence in differing areas and communities across the city.
It’s been clear for decades that our country’s fear-based approach to criminal justice has been a catastrophic failure. Like wildfires creating their own weather systems, the combination of law-and-order-infused repression and the free, fear-driven distribution of military-grade weaponry has created a devolving cycle, has engendered an intensifying, self-regenerating chaos. The knee-jerk response has been further repression and fear driving more freely-distributed military-grade weaponry. The result has been repression-generated repression. (Of course, for political and corporate interests that profit from discord and pandemonium, this cycle is the goal.)
So how does a seemingly bland, seemingly-administrative-centric office become instrumental in repairing a vast and complex city’s social fabric? How does it reverse at least some of the consequences of decades of criminal-justice policy whose hidden agenda was repression of its minority-population?
The appearance of “progressive prosecutors” is relatively recent. There’s more to it, certainly, but a major tenet of this movement is the assertion—really, the reassertion—of the idea that a prosecutor’s goal should not be the willy-nilly incarceration of just anyone unlucky enough—or Black enough—to be caught in the justice system’s color-aware trawl; that a prosecutor’s goal should not be putting someone/anyone in jail for a crime; that a prosecutor’s goal should be putting the correct someone/anyone in jail for that crime. “Progressive prosecution” also includes the sense that the punishment should fit the crime, and it recognizes that people’s—particularly poor and/or Black people’s—lives can be ruined simply by getting caught up in the justice system. Ruining innocent lives over misdemeanors is, or ought to be, intolerable, but also it is, or ought to be, intolerable to ruin people’s lives over parking tickets or shoplifting. Punish, yes; ruin, no.
When, in America, did any of the above become “political?” How did we get to a place where our corrosive cynicism has so undermined our sense of cultural cohesion that it is now “progressive”—not to say naïve—to state that the goal of the justice system should be Justice? And that prosecutors, the spark plugs of the criminal-justice engine, should conduct themselves in ways that ease, not worsen, cynicism and social disorder?
That it is better to let the guilty go free than to punish the innocent used to be a basic legal tenet of ours, something about which we boasted. But that began to change around 70 years ago, a period coinciding with the Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and War on Drugs eras (go figure). Ever since then, the idea that we should prioritize innocence over guilt has been under attack from the right, subverted by racism cloaked in dog-whistle, law-and-order bellowing and anti-drug evangelizing.
So-called “progressive prosecutors” are surfacing as Otherphobia begins to subside and the legal pendulum slowly returns from decades on the law-and-order side of its arc. The splenetic, hysterical, counter-productive excesses that have characterized law-and-order-based repression are fading, in part because the population is, albeit slowly, coming to realize both its failures and its racist agenda. During its heyday, it both fed off and fed the fear of Blackness, stoked the insatiable, greedy appetites of an exponentially-growing carceral state, corrupted our system of and sense of Justice, and damaged us in ways that will never be completely chronicled or quantified.
That we are labeling as “progressive” a movement dedicated to recalibrating our country’s moral compass so it swings back toward fairness and justice is a sad commentary on who we’ve become. As children, we watched as the law-and order (I initially heard it as “lawn-order”) darkness grew, seemingly in lockstep with the light of freedom for Black people, the darkness somehow stubbornly determined to keep pace with the light. Though lacking the political vocabulary to articulate it, we understood that prosecutors were more and more thinking of their jobs as the landscape architects of lawn-order, each vying to be seen as the toughest overseer of hyper-aggressive policing. We didn’t need Bob Dylan to tell us that must-bust-in-early-May orders were coming from the DA; we were living it, watching campaigning prosecutors brag about putting ever-higher numbers of people (you know who we mean, wink wink) away while the commitment to putting the right people away got left behind.
We saw, and still see, that, too often, prosecutors, cops, and jurors didn’t—still don’t—care whether the (Black) people being put away were/are guilty of the crimes for which they were/are arrested, that even if perps weren’t/aren’t guilty of these crimes, it was a sure thing they were or would be guilty of some other crimes. Arrest equals guilt. Do the time now, or do the time later. Punish it forward. Had prosecutors and police been more concerned with finding out who did the crime rather than simply plucking random (Black) individuals off the streets to do the time, we would need fewer Innocence Projects.
The “progressive prosecutor” movement is powered by three main energy sources: Slowly-growing public awareness that lawn-order breeds disorder, the lived experiences of individual prosecutors, and—to the chagrin of education-averse Regressives—some of us who understood what we saw becoming lawyers and law-school professors. As a result of this education trickle-down, modern generations of law students are becoming “progressive prosecutors.”
But reforming the carceral state is not progressive anything; it’s a return to the promises—and premises—of American justice and of our Constitution. And it’s common sense.
(Calling these prosecutors “progressive” is another frustrating example of left-wing self-harm, like the insistence on calling the re-adjustment of police priorities and budgets “defunding the police.” Do people not know what “defund” means? In a democracy, where every adult gets to vote, why, if we genuinely seek change, do we give our opposition stones to throw? Instead of calling it “progressive prosecution,” why not call it “smart prosecution?” Why not call it “constitutional prosecution?” Why not call it “race-neutral prosecution?” Why not call it “equal-justice prosecution?” Why not call it anything other than a trigger-word guaranteed to further rile and frighten already-riled-and-frightened people? Why give a well-funded and -organized opposition ammunition with which to motivate riled-and-frightened voters to vote against us? Why do things to motivate the Deplorable vote?)
Gill was once a Republican. Does it matter? In the case of Rick Caruso, it does, because Caruso is not a Democrat. Caruso cynically changed his party registration in January so he could run as a Democrat in a Democratic city. But Gill changed his party registration to Democrat in 2007. Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations on the thought-crime of having once been a Republican? I certainly hope so, because like Gill I too was once a Republican. Like Gill, I was a Republican because I was told by my Republican father what the Republican party stood for, and those stated values were things I believed in. It wasn’t until, over time, I noticed that what Republicans actually did was nearly always different from what they professed to believe in: fair treatment, equality of opportunity, equality of education. But over time I saw that the people who actually fought to advance what I believed in were Democrats. If someone who believes in American principles wants to ally with people who act to support those principles instead of merely paying them lip service, isn’t switching parties a good thing?
Here are some questions for Gill and his detailed answers:
You have switched your party affiliation. What did you initially see in the Republican Party?
I was raised in a conservative, religious community. My father was a taxi driver and, as a small businessman who struggled to make ends meet and support his family, he often voiced his discontent with taxes and government regulations. Part of why I became a Republican was because, at the time, I incorrectly believed that the GOP had the best interests of people like me and my family at heart. I was also influenced by my advocacy experiences on behalf of the Muslim community. I’ve always been very active in the Muslim community, especially around discrimination and other civil-rights issues. In the late 90s, one of our central focuses was overturning the practice of using “secret evidence” against Muslims. This was exactly what it sounds like: The government was detaining and indefinitely holding Muslims based on evidence that they refused to reveal. In the run up to the 2000 presidential election, we approached both the Bush and Gore campaigns and asked them to publicly condemn this practice. The Gore campaign refused. The Bush campaign said yes and followed through. This meant something to me, and it was a big influence on my decision to become a Republican and join the Bush administration. This decision was also motivated by my own belief, and the belief of the larger Muslim community at the time, that it was important to have Muslim voices and representation in the government in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the wave of Islamophobia they inspired.
Ultimately, however, I became the victim of the same forces of racial and religious bias that prompted me to join public service in the first place, in the form of a vicious and cruel campaign of lies and personal attacks against me and my family, accusing me of being a “terrorist” simply because of my faith.
The perpetrators of these attacks? Prominent members of the Republican Party and the movements supporting it. The War on Terror had become a war on the “Other”—on Muslims, on those with brown skin, and on anyone who defended or stood up for the rights of those communities. Later on, the Edward Snowden leaks publicly revealed that the NSA had surveilled me for no other reason than the fact that I was a politically active Muslim.
After I left the Bush administration, I ran for office as a Republican in Virginia. Throughout my campaign, I faced discrimination and hate. So did my family. My sons would go out into the community and knock on doors for me. They would be talking to Republican voters, and those voters would be nodding their heads and agreeing with my platform—until they saw my picture. Then they’d suddenly say they couldn’t support me. Experiencing this kind of blatant discrimination—and seeing my sons experience the same—led me to change not only my political party, but also my values. Slowly, and often painfully, I began to question many of the beliefs I had held and the positions I had taken. Becoming the target of hate based on my faith and the color of my skin brought me to two important realizations: (1) that certain positions of the party I was a member of had similarly targeted other groups of people, and (2) that I could not support a political party that actively demeaned and undermined the civil and human rights of, among others, entire swaths of the population, including immigrants, communities of color, women, and the LGBTQ+ community.
You have switched your position on marriage equality. Why were you initially against it?
As I mentioned, I was raised in a conservative, religious household in a working class suburb of D.C in the 1980s. Both my family and much of the Muslim community held similarly conservative positions on social issues. Opposition to same-sex marriage was the default position where I grew up, and I unthinkingly—and wrongly—accepted those positions as my own.
What is your position on bail reform?***
I’m opposed to cash bail. Cash bail is a perfect example of the way that the justice system works for people with money and leaves everyone else behind. Cash bail criminalizes poverty. Whether or not a defendant has the resources to post bail doesn’t make them any more or less dangerous. This system unfairly penalizes communities of color and working people. If I’m elected City Attorney, one of my first actions will be to instruct my line prosecutors not to ask for cash bail.
Does bail reform worsen public exposure to crime?
Bail reform doesn’t affect public safety. Critics of reform will seize on isolated cases of individuals who were released without bail and committed additional crimes before their court dates and use these cases to argue that bail reform makes us less safe. But that argument doesn’t make sense, because anyone who can afford to pay 10% of their bail will be released. Bail isn’t even intended as a public safety measure. It’s meant to ensure that defendants show up for their trials.
Decisions about pre-trial detention should be based on whether or not a defendant poses a clear threat to public safety – not how much money that person has. When it comes to misdemeanors, pre-trial detention is rarely necessary. There can be isolated cases where we decide it’s necessary—for example, in domestic violence cases where the victim is at risk—but the majority of misdemeanors are minor, nonviolent crimes, like public intoxication, drug possession, loitering, or similar charges.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the defendants we’re talking about haven’t been convicted of a crime. Being accused of a crime doesn’t mean that you’re guilty of that crime. That’s supposed to be the basis of our justice system: “innocent until proven guilty.” That’s the problem with cash bail. If you don’t have the money to post bail, you end up sitting in jail for the crime of poverty – not the crime you’ve been accused of. We can’t let this system continue.
What is an alternative to cash bail?
Releasing people on their own recognizance is an effective alternative to cash bail. Cash bail criminalizes poverty, and defendants’ ability to post bail doesn’t make them any more or less dangerous.
What did you feel when it was revealed you were surveilled by the NSA?
I felt betrayed and hurt, of course – but not surprised. By the time of the Edward Snowden disclosures, 12 years had passed since 9/11. Throughout those years, I had been deeply involved in the Muslim community. I’d seen firsthand the hatred, fear, and systemic discrimination that 9/11 had unleashed. Muslims had become guilty until proven innocent, not the other way around. Whenever a Muslim committed a crime—based on a twisted and corrupted version of Islam, completely disconnected from my faith—every other Muslim was expected to apologize on their behalf and prove their patriotism.
For years, I had defended Muslims in court and fought back against the repeated deprivations of their civil rights. I knew that I could be putting myself in the government crosshairs by doing this, and I chose to continue speaking out and standing up for my community, because it was the right thing to do. The Edward Snowden disclosures publicly revealed a truth that we had all known: that the government was systematically targeting and surveilling people simply because they were prominent and politically outspoken Muslims.
Please clarify your position on suspending misdemeanor prosecutions during your first 100 days.
If I’m elected, I plan to institute a 100-day pause in the prosecutions of new misdemeanor charges—unless they are particularly egregious or time-sensitive—while I review the office’s policies related to misdemeanors to determine how we can expand, improve, and implement diversion programs that connect individuals with the help they need. I have been outspoken about my plans to reform and reduce prosecutions of misdemeanors—an approach I firmly believe will make our community safer. But, I want to be careful and thoughtful in how I implement these reforms. During these 100 days, I want to sit down with stakeholders— including my prosecutors, public defenders, victim groups, and other experts—and take a collaborative approach to constructing and implementing a plan to move forward with these reforms.
I think it’s important to note that I’m not granting anyone a free pass. This pause won’t affect whether or not the crimes that take place during this period are prosecuted after the 100-day period is up. The statute of limitations for filing charges for misdemeanors is at a minimum a year, and often much longer. The purpose of implementing a 100-day pause is to thoroughly review the office’s policies—which I think that anyone taking over an office as large and important as the City Attorney’s office should do. I want to analyze the office’s prosecutorial policies, as well as its existing diversion programs, and evaluate what’s working and what isn’t based on data and facts. Then, I can make a decision—guided by the data—about whether there are charges that my office will decline to prosecute going forward, or not.
When it comes to serious or time-sensitive crimes – including crimes that pose a clear threat to public safety or the safety of the victim, such as domestic violence cases – my office will continue to file charges during the 100 day period.
You have said you would not enforce the city’s ban on homeless encampments (LA City Charter 41:18). Why not?
Los Angeles's attempts at criminalizing homelessness have been struck down in court numerous times. For example, Jones vs. City of LA held that the City cannot criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless. Another example is Garcia v. City of LA, which held that houseless individuals have a property interest in their belongings, meaning that law enforcement cannot seize their property without a warrant.
I agree with the courts that 41.18 is unconstitutional and would not enforce it. As City Attorney, I hope to work together with the City Council to connect unhoused people with supportive services and long-term housing. The way to fix this problem is to help people permanently get off the streets—not simply shuffle them around from one part of the city to another.
Further, prosecutorial discretion is an important component of the City Attorney's role. Prosecutorial discretion is a bedrock of our justice system, and prosecutors of every stripe—Republican and Democratic, punitive and restorative, “law-and-order” or justice-oriented—use it every single day. A good example of this discretion is Kamala Harris' decision to decline to defend Proposition 8 on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.
How will you work with a police department that is actively hostile to any change in the old order?
I’m going to try to work collaboratively with the police. The goal will be to get their buy-in—or at least the buy-in of some officers and department leaders. Of course, I know that I’ll face pushback. Most large organizations—government bodies or not—are resistant to reform. They’re comfortable doing what they’ve always done and maintaining the status quo. Change requires hard work and adjusting not only actions, but also assumptions. But things have to change when it comes to the way we police and the way that we hold police accountable. And I’m going to make that clear.
I know that the LAPD is resistant to change. What I will try to make clear to them is that change—including the reforms I’ve campaigned for—will make their jobs easier in the long term. Right now, a significant portion of communities of color have lost all trust and faith in the police. Successful policing requires community trust and buy-in. It requires that the people you’re policing trust that you have their best interests at heart. I want to get to a place where vulnerable, marginalized, and historically over-policed communities trust that the police have their best interests at heart AND see that the police actually do have their best interests—their well-being, their safety, their civil rights—at heart.
How did your bar membership get suspended?
It was a simple administrative oversight. In California, attorneys have to complete 25 hours of MCLEs (Minimum Continuing Legal Education) every 3 years. I completed the MCLEs by the required deadline, but I was late in submitting my proof of completion to the State Bar. That wouldn’t have been a problem, except for the fact that I overlooked a $200 penalty that I was required to pay because of the late submission. I immediately took action once I was aware that I’d been placed on inactive status, and I was quickly reinstated.
Should people be concerned that that represents carelessness?
No. If anything, I think it shows that I’m human. We all make small mistakes from time to time. What matters is that you acknowledge those mistakes, take corrective action, and learn to do better next time. I’ve never missed a deadline for a case or any legal matter.
Changing—not “defunding”, not “abolishing”—the LAPD, transforming its current “my posse is meaner then your posse” culture, would have not only have positive socio-political consequences, it would also be a financial boon: The city, represented by the City Attorney’s office, pays out staggering sums to the all-to-often marginalized citizens our police mistreat, injure, and kill. If elected as City Attorney, Gill will be a member of a loosely-defined, growing cohort of “progressive prosecutors” that includes both embattled LA County Prosecutor George Gascon and the recently-recalled San Francisco Prosecutor Chesa Boudin. So is Los Angeles ready for a “progressive”—i.e. sensible—City Attorney? We’ll see in November.
Hydee Feldstein Soto did not respond to an emailed request for an interview.
**Misdemeanors are less-serious crimes—driving on a suspended license, disorderly conduct, public intoxication, petty theft, shoplifting, soliciting for prostitution—lacking an element of violence.
***Histrionics about tsunamis of violent crime committed by recidivist criminals released due to cash-bail reform are false narratives pushed by the bail-bond industry and others with interests in the status quo. The United States is one of only two countries that use cash bail (the other is the Philippines). Simply reminding people that they have court dates is as effective as, and far less destructive than, cash bail at getting people to show up for their trials. Two-way text messaging apps that notify people of pending court dates and that allow them to communicate with their lawyers have dramatically reduced failure-to-appear rates. Cash bail doesn’t stop crime; it stops Justice.