Cooley, Harris clash in race for California attorney general

San Francisco District Attorney, Kamala Harris, right, the Democratic candidate for Attorney General, laughs at a light-hearted comment made by her opponent, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, left, during their debate at the University of California, Davis, School of Law in Davis, Calif., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010.
San Francisco District Attorney, Kamala Harris, right, the Democratic candidate for Attorney General, laughs at a light-hearted comment made by her opponent, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, left, during their debate at the University of California, Davis, School of Law in Davis, Calif., Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris faced off in their one and only scheduled debate in their contest for California attorney general. They offered starkly different views on a variety of issues.

The death penalty topped the list.

Cooley criticized Harris for opposing capital punishment in her role as San Francisco district attorney. To make his point, he had invited the widow, mother and sister of a slain police officer in the audience. Harris prosecuted the killer without insisting on the death penalty.

“She's absolutely, consistently, religiously refused to follow the Constitution and the oath in that regard," Cooley said. "I think that has in a sense put the residents of San Francisco city and county and the rest of the state in certain jeopardy because of her failure to obey the law.”

Harris bristled at the suggestion she doesn't follow the law.

“Steve, I think you really should not go below the dignity of this debate or the office that we seek," Harris said. "The reality of it is I am personally opposed to the death penalty, but I will follow the law."

Harris also said her position on the death penalty is the same as four of the last nine attorneys general. Later, Harris explained that she opposes the death penalty because innocent people have ended up on death row.

The next California attorney general will face mountains of litigation surrounding the overcrowded state prison system. During the one hour debate at UC Davis Law School, Harris said she would not appeal federal mandates to improve California's prison medical care.

“We have to comply with what the court has decided should be the appropriate amount of care that has to be given constitutionally to those people in the prison system.”

Cooley said he would challenge the three judge panel that is demanding California provide prisoners better health care.

“I do not concede for a moment that a three judge panel of federal justices is smarter, more reliable or better in their exercise of justice than our elected governmental leaders," Cooley said. He also said following their order would be too costly.

Prison policies also surfaced during the debate.

Cooley maintained that California’s incarceration policies of the past three decades have helped reduce crime. Harris contended that the state needs to shift its focus toward reducing recidivism rates by helping people when they get out of prison – an example, she said, of her willingness to be more innovative than Cooley.

The two also clashed on Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage. Harris said she would not challenge a judge’s ruling that Prop 8 is unconstitutional. Cooley said the attorney general has an obligation to defend an initiative passed by the voters.

Some state attorneys general are suing the federal government over President Obama’s health care reform plan. Harris said she would not, and warned Cooley would.

“My opponent has said that he will stand with those southern state attorneys general and have California weigh in with her limited resources and sue the national government over health care reform.”

Cooley denied it, although he left the door open for a change of plans.

“There would have to be a consensus by whoever's going to be governor and the new state legislature," he said. "They are going to have to give that directive before I would join any such lawsuit.”

Cooley, a 63-year-old career prosecutor, repeatedly warned the audience that Harris would favor her own ideology over the law if elected attorney general. Harris, also a career prosecutor but 20 years younger than her opponent, said she represents the future.

“This campaign and this race presents two clear choices, and it is the choice between defense of status quo and innovation."

“We do have important differences between us," Cooley said. He suggested voters follow the recommendation of the 47 law enforcement organizations that have endorsed him.

Harris shot back that she has the support of a number of high profile law enforcement officials, including former LAPD Chief Bill Bratton.

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