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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / GOVERNOR : Police, Bosses Split Over Endorsements : Brown wins backing of rank-and-file officers. Wilson gains support of police chiefs and sheriffs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a case of dueling endorsements, the state’s largest group of cops on the beat backed Democrat Kathleen Brown for governor Monday, one day after their bosses--police chiefs and sheriffs--threw their support to Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

The Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, which endorsed Wilson four years ago and opposed Brown in the Democratic primary, switched to Brown for the general election in part because she promised to give rank-and-file officers a formal voice in her judicial appointments process, said Skip Murphy, the labor group’s president.

But Sacramento County Sheriff Glen Craig, speaking for the California Peace Officers Assn., said Wilson has a long and solid record of fighting for improved law enforcement and deserves another four years as governor.

The struggle for the police endorsements--always an intense part of any governor’s race--has taken on new dimensions this year because crime is atop the list of voters’ concerns, according to public opinion polls.

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Police groups can raise significant sums of campaign money and, perhaps more important, their seal of approval gives credibility to the claim that every candidate makes: that they are the best choice for voters interested in public safety.

The endorsement from PORAC--which represents 39,000 California law enforcement officers--was something of a coup for Brown, whose scant record on criminal justice issues and personal opposition to the death penalty have left her open to Wilson’s charge that she would be a weak leader in the fight against crime.

Citing those concerns, the police labor group backed Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi over Brown in the Democratic primary this year.

At the time, Murphy said Brown seemed to be telling the group’s board members “what she thought we wanted to hear.”

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But Brown turned that sentiment around with a dogged lobbying effort in which she pursued the endorsement in meetings with the local police union leaders who sit on the association’s board of directors.

“Past candidates are past candidates and past races are past races,” Murphy said. “Today we’re dealing with two people and we weighed those two people. Today we are convinced that for California’s rank-and-file law enforcement officers, that Kathleen Brown is the absolute best candidate for that position.”

Murphy said: “Police officers and deputy sheriffs are convinced that Kathleen Brown will enforce the death penalty.”

Craig said Murphy’s group was more interested in bread-and-butter issues than law enforcement. He said the Peace Officers Assn., which represents management, is a better gauge of the law enforcement community’s view of the candidates.

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