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Hollywood Backs Harris as Cooley Pulls Away

Steve Cooley

At this point in the campaign for California Attorney General, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, the Democrats' nominee, was supposed to be choosing a designer to make over her new Sacramento office following her sure win in November. Instead, every reliable poll has her far behind Steve Cooley, Los Angeles County's top prosecutor and her Republican opponent.

How this reversal occurred in one of the bluest of blue states is a case study in the real nature of California's electorate.

Many political consultants and media wags had seen Harris as the perfect candidate for statewide office in California: a smart and youthful 46, who could stand in as the prom queen for Barack Obama's new post-racial America.

What voters are going for instead, the polls and consultants are saying, is pragmatics over ideology — but not if startled Hollywood has anything to say about it.  

Harris' physician-researcher mother, a Tamil immigrant from India, and her Stanford economics-professor father, an Afro-Caribbean from Jamaica, met as student activists at Berkeley. She was elected San Francisco D.A. seven years ago and has since been re-elected without opposition. Never married, Harris lives in a chic loft in San Francisco's trendy South of Market neighborhood, where — as she recently told an interviewer — she's happily working her way through Alice Waters' latest cookbook.

Cooley, stocky and stolid at 63, is virtually a caricature of a grumpy old white guy. He looks rumpled even when well-dressed and wears a wry expression that somehow suggests that what he'd really like is another drink.

He's not the face of California — or so conventional wisdom had it back when the race began.

Cooley was born in Los Angeles, the son of an FBI agent and a stay-at-home mom. He's been re-elected L.A. County District Attorney twice since he unseated Gil Garcetti a decade ago, which makes him the first three-term D.A. since Buron Fitts in the 1930s.

Cooley has been married for more than 30 years and raised two children in a house bought in pricey Toluca Lake when it was affordable and middle-class.

Yet in his own back yard — Hollywood — Cooley finds few friends. Harris' camera-friendly presence and life story, not to mention her doctrinaire Democratic politics, have made her a great favorite on the Hollywood fundraising circuit.

Not since Tennessee senatorial candidate Harold Ford set up practically a second campaign headquarters in Beverly Hills in 2006 have west-of–La Cienega wallets opened so wide for a candidate of color who wasn't Barack Obama.

Two years ago, Katie Abrams, the politically active wife of megaproducer J.J. Abrams, was chatting with a chum in San Francisco who told Abrams she just had to meet Kamala Harris. In a world of caterers on retainer, such things are easily arranged. Soon, the Abramses were hosting a meet-and-greet for the San Francisco prosecutor at their sprawling hillside home.

Poised, exotically beautiful and impeccably liberal, Harris was a hit. She was honored at a luncheon hosted by former studio head Sherry Lansing, whose approval guarantees that fundraising office-seekers get treated seriously by Hollywood's big money. "She's a dedicated public servant," Lansing says, "someone who truly believes in justice. She's a moral and decent person, and on top of it all, she's beautiful."

Among Harris' big donors are Ron Meyer, the president of Universal Studios, and wife Kelly. The couple hosted a summer party in the backyard of their beachside Malibu estate, where Ziggy Marley provided entertainment. "Ron was the first to meet her," Kelly Meyer says, "and he came home saying how impressed he was. He wanted me to meet her and, when I did, I knew she was the real deal. Everything about her is lovely." 

The sponsors of an October 27 Universal Studios gala for Harris include showbiz heavyweights Bob Iger, Marilyn and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Jamie and Michael Lynton and the Meyers with hosts Steven Bochco, Michael Burns, Bruce Cohen, the Abramses, Norman Lear and Lansing.

Admission is $500 to $13,000. The event probably will sell out. 

Harris has raised more than $1.5 million from the southern part of the state. Lawyers and entertainment-industry types — from actors to studio heads — appear to have provided the bulk of it. Among those ponying up $6,500 apiece are Aaron Sorkin, Bill Maher, Jamie Foxx, George Lopez, Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw.

Some Cooley loyalists have muttered that this is payback for Cooley's dogged pursuit of fugitive filmmaker Roman Polanski, whose extradition from Switzerland the D.A. tried to force last year.

But the organized American film industry support for Polanski is centered in New York, and Hollywood was strongly in Harris' camp before Cooley declared his candidacy.

"She's smart, she's progressive, she's charismatic, she's articulate, she's a woman and she's a person of color. What's not to like?" says Donna Bojarsky, a public-policy consultant in the entertainment industry.

Yet for all the money pouring into Harris' campaign from the industry that thrives just down the street from his neighborhood, Cooley is commanding the race. The polls say the perfect candidate for the blue state is sinking.

That says something about California voters' taste for pragmatism over purity and a hunger for competence ahead of ideology. Longtime Democratic strategist Rick Taylor sums it up:

"When we think of the office of attorney general, we think of a no-nonsense, crotchety white guy," Taylor says. "Cooley fits that mold. He is that guy."

Against the hysterical opposition of more ideological prosecutors, Cooley pushed unsuccessfully for modification of the state's Three Strikes statute and, in his own office, has adopted policies to forestall what he calls unfair sentences for nonviolent third offenses.

When ideological D.A.s branded Cooley a soft-on-crime quisling, he resigned from the prosecutors' statewide association.

Although crime is down across California, Cooley has managed to hurt Harris on the law-and-order side. Criminal-justice commentators usually ignore a D.A.'s overall conviction rates, because prosecutors win the overwhelming majority of the cases they decide to file.

But they pay attention to the ratio between arrests and convictions, because that tends to measure something more than simple systemic advantage. There, the difference between Cooley's office and Harris' is striking. In San Francisco, four out of every 100 arrests result in jail or prison time; in Los Angeles, it's 38.7 of every 100.

Harris' campaign has been forced to explain that this is because the Bay Area has the most liberal and lenient jury pools and judges in the nation.

Cooley became D.A. in the wake of the Rampart scandal in the Los Angeles Police Department, and made clear that he believed some prosecutors had, if not abetted corrupt testimony by dirty police witnesses, at least enabled it by looking away.

He moved to create internal safeguards against tainted testimony from cop witnesses. Along with LAPD reforms, those steps have kept his office scandal-free so far.

Harris, by contrast, got caught up in a series of scandals involving dishonest and corrupt police forensic technicians and her prosecutors' failure to provide so-called Brady information to defense attorneys.

She was damaged by disclosures in the San Francisco Chronicle that she had failed for years to institute a formal system to assure that her prosecutors were abiding by the Brady ruling. Under Brady, prosecutors must disclose to the defense any information regarding police witnesses that might be used to attack their credibility, such as police misconduct or disciplinary actions.

Cooley also may be benefiting from California's north-south rivalry.

To an extent not seen for years, the state's Democratic hierarchy is based in the north — both U.S. senators, both gubernatorial candidates and Harris are from the Bay Area. Cooley is a favorite son of Southern California with a record of winning over Democrats in the vote-rich region.

He's been asked if he has an eye on the governor's job, and says he doesn't. But many of Harris' supporters see the A.G.'s job as a step on her ladder to the top. Who'd have thought her climb might be halted by the rumpled white guy from Toluca Lake?