By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
There was good news for Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley last week, but probably not the kind he expected at this late stage of his run to win the Republican primary of the California attorney general's race on June 8.
Something of a favorite among political wizards and editorial boards, Cooley's been having a hard time convincing real-life Republicans that they should vote for him — in a Survey USA poll released on May 10, Cooley was losing by seven percentage points to state Sen. Tom Harman of Huntington Beach, with 36 percent of likely voters undecided. It was startling news for the L.A. County prosecutor, who works in the state's largest TV and radio market, a fact that gives him solid name recognition in voter-rich Southern California. He has grabbed major headlines with his high-profile attempts to regulate medical marijuana and to throw film director Roman Polanski in jail for statutory rape in 1977.
"We're in a tight race," concedes Cooley campaign consultant Kevin Spillane.
A new Survey USA poll, however, suggests that Cooley has caught up, although he's still not the clear front-runner. That poll shows 29 percent of likely Republican voters backing Cooley, 28 percent supporting Harman and a sizable 29 percent undecided with just days to go. Former Chapman University Law School dean John Eastman, another Orange County Republican, lags behind with 14 percent of likely voters.
Cooley's real challenge since entering the race for attorney general early this year is the fact that he is a moderate Republican. Popular in a county that typically chews up and spits out its top prosecutors after just a few years, Cooley is serving his third term and is the longest-surviving L.A. County D.A. since Buron Fitts left office in 1940.
He faces conservatives in Harman and Eastman, both of whom have consistently banged him over the head for his handling of "three strikes" law offenders. Cooley believes prosecutors should only seek a third strike — and thus put a repeat felon in prison for 25 years to life — if it involves a violent or serious felony crime.
Essentially, if a two-time felon gets arrested for stealing pizza or socks, Cooley doesn't go after a third strike. His practice has earned him the reputation of pragmatic prosecutor by the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers.
But Cooley's rivals and critics have gained inroads by pointing to his practice as evidence that he's out of step with conservative, law-and-order Republicans, an important voting bloc during the primary season. Harman's campaign strategist Tim Rosales says in a press release that Cooley is a "liberal L.A. D.A.," with an "absolute commitment to weakening three strikes."
As a result, Cooley is facing one of the most difficult campaign races of his political career. Entering office in 2000 after defeating incumbent Gil Garcetti, Cooley has become a media fixture thanks to such highly publicized cases as the murder trials of music producer Phil Spector and actor Robert Blake. But the county's high-profile crimes are easy to bungle, and the public loves to blame the top prosecutor when that happens. Garcetti was widely criticized for his office's handling of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which led to his downfall and Cooley's rise.
In the campaign for California attorney general — considered a "down-ticket" and an underpublicized race that is generally not closely watched by voters — Cooley would at first appear to have an advantage over lesser-known rivals Harman and Eastman.
"L.A. County is part of the L.A. media market," says Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, noting its reach includes L.A. and Orange counties and western parts of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, with the nearby markets of Santa Barbara, Palm Springs and San Diego also watching L.A. news. "That market reaches about 45 percent of the Republican vote in California," Sragow says. "And being the D.A., it tells voters you fight crime."
Cooley, if he wins the GOP primary next week, is widely expected to reach out to California's huge population of moderate voters in November, giving the Democratic nominee — also to be chosen next week — a run for his or her money. (The Survey USA poll shows Democratic San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris leading Facebook executive Chris Kelly by eight percentage points, with former Los Angeles city attorney Rocky Delgadillo just behind Kelly.)
But Cooley faces the same problem — being a moderate Republican — that led in part to former mayor Richard Riordan's walloping by conservative Bill Simon in the 2002 battle for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in California. "The most conservative or most liberal candidate has a built-in advantage," says Schnur. That's because primaries tend to be ignored by all but the most interested and invested voters — often the most liberal and most conservative wings of the two parties. When turnout swells, the math changes: People who are less hard-core about their party show up to vote, and moderate candidates have a better chance of being elected.