The race for California attorney general pits Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley against San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris. Both are career prosecutors. The similarities stop there. Harris bills herself as an innovator. Cooley says he’s a by-the-book lawman.
Retired LAPD Detective Jimmy Trahin remembers training Steve Cooley in the early 1970s as a reserve police officer.
“First thing I noticed about Steve is that he was one of these gung-ho types," Trahin told a reporter a couple of years ago. "He just couldn't wait to get out there and pick up bad guys.”
Trahin recalls one confrontation with three robbery suspects on the rough streets south of downtown Los Angeles.
“It was an all knock-out brawl. And it ended up, other officers came in and Steve backed off," Trahin said. "Then he came back in with his baton, and he was doing his number to try to keep these people down, and he ended up hitting half of the other cops that were there with his baton."
In 1973, Cooley took his fight against criminals to the courtroom as a prosecutor. For the 63-year-old son of an FBI agent, enforcing the law is a straightforward matter. Cooley criticizes Kamala Harris’ opposition to the death penalty as a violation of her oath of office – even though she’s promised to uphold the law.
He says he promises something different if voters elect him attorney general.
“Nonpartisan. Nonpartisan," Cooley has said on the campaign trail. "If you visit your political ideology into that office where you’re the people’s lawyer, you’re going to fail.”
Critics say Cooley hasn’t always taken an evenhanded approach. The Los Angeles Times reported two years ago that he's opted to file criminal charges in 4 percent of police misconduct cases the LAPD’s referred to him – half the rate of his predecessor.
Veteran criminal justice journalist Joe Domanick wonders why Cooley didn’t file more charges in the police department’s Rampart scandal.
“I never could get a satisfactory answer from him about why he wasn’t vigorously looking into these other divisions," Domanick said.
Cooley says the evidence didn’t warrant more prosecutions.
Domanick said Cooley is hardly a right wing ideologue. He angered fellow district attorneys – and won the backing of many defense attorneys – when he quit employing the state’s three strikes law in cases that involved non-serious or non-violent crimes. It was "courageous," Domanick said, for a conservative prosecutor.
“He felt that the three strikes law as it was being implemented by his predecessor and others around the state was really negatively affecting the integrity of the system," he said.
Domanick noted that Cooley's motivation had nothing to do with helping criminals. "He didn’t say anything – you know, ‘I feel sorry for these poor guys’ or anything like that.”
Indeed, while the graying, ruddy-faced prosecutor has supported a handful of programs to help ex-convicts – including a diversion court for women – he mocks Harris’ call for a new, more rehabilitative approach to criminals.
“It’s truly not an attorney general function," Cooley said. "Right now, I think her whole concept of being smart on crime means being soft on criminals.”
Much of the attorney general’s job involves civil cases – defending California in litigation and enforcing regulations. Cooley’s criticized current Attorney General Jerry Brown for refusing to defend Proposition 8, the voter-approved initiative that outlawed same-sex marriage. But he also says he isn’t inclined to defend Proposition 19 if voters want to legalize marijuana.
“You’re not obligated as a constitutional officer, as the attorney general, to defend an initiative or law that you deem to be unconstitutional," he said.
Cooley points to where the U.S. Constitution says federal law prevails, and federal law says marijuana is illegal. But Brown argued that Prop 8 violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause.
Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson says Cooley can’t say he’s merely following the law.
"When he says that he would defend Prop 8, well that’s his choice, but he has to acknowledge he made that choice," Levenson said.
The next attorney general will make important choices – including on how aggressively to enforce environmental regulations. In her campaign ads, Harris knocks Cooley’s environmental record.
An announcer ominously says “Who will protect California’s environment? Steve Cooley shut down his entire environmental crimes unit."
While Cooley says he still prosecutes environmental crimes, Levenson says he doesn’t make them a big priority.
“That might raise some concerns, honestly," she said. "If the people of this state want environmental prosecutions to be a high priority, they need to send that message that the environment is as important as the death penalty."
Cooley's been praised for his work on public corruption, welfare fraud and the use of DNA technology.
And he's seen as someone who shies away from politics.
“He’s the real deal. Steve comes in, none of this polished fingernail, just came from the hair stylist stuff," Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell said.
During a recent campaign stop with law enforcement leaders, Cooley rose to speak after his friend, L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, teased him about his run for attorney general.
“Nuch said you do not have to be a smart guy, nor a great litigator to be attorney general. Well I think I fit the bill. I meet all of these qualifications," Cooley said.
It was the kind of dry humor Cooley’s known for, and cops love. And Steve Cooley is nothing if not a lawman at heart.