Cooley Beats Garcetti by Wide Margin


Veteran prosecutor Steve Cooley brought an end to Gil Garcetti's turbulent eight years as Los Angeles County district attorney Tuesday, rolling to a commanding victory after a bitter campaign fueled by deep-seated differences of personality and policy.

Analysts were quick to attribute Cooley's margin to voter discontent over the Rampart police scandal and leftover resentment about the O.J. Simpson case.

With two-thirds of the vote counted, Cooley was leading by nearly 2-1. Garcetti scheduled a news conference for this morning at which he is expected to concede defeat.

A tearful Cooley declared victory at 11:30 p.m. before a jubilant crowd of about 1,000 at the same hotel in Universal City where his wedding reception was held 25 years ago. Some of his supporters, including his mother, Mary Jeanne Cooley, waved signs reading: "Goodbye, Gil."

His campaign, Cooley declared, "was about the good cops, the good defense attorneys and the good prosecutors who want one thing: a justice system that works for the people of California."

John Shallman, Cooley's campaign manager, said he thought Garcetti had been undone by the corruption scandal in the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division.

"People voted today for the first time on whether they thought the justice system was moving in the right direction. Clearly, they did not," Shallman said.

Other observers looked back even further, to the loss by Garcetti's prosecutors in the Simpson case in 1995. "People have not forgotten O.J.," county Supervisor Don Knabe said.

Among those in attendance at Cooley's party was Superior Court Judge Lance Ito, who presided over the Simpson trial.

The mood was reserved at Garcetti's headquarters at a Santa Monica hotel, where about 200 people milled about in a below-ground meeting room unadorned by balloons or ribbons. Garcetti retired to his hotel suite late in the evening after insisting that it was too early to call the election for Cooley.

"I think the pulse of the community is a little different from the initial returns, and at the end of the day, we'll be smiling," he told the crowd. He added that he expected a long night of waiting.

"This has been quite a journey," he said.

Cooley's spokesman, Joe Scott, watched Garcetti's speech on television at the winner's headquarters. "The eternal optimist," he said sarcastically.

In an interview, Garcetti's son, Eric Garcetti--who plans his own campaign for City Council next year--spoke about the intense feelings stirred up in the race. "Sometimes you got the feeling Steve Cooley was running just because he hated Gil Garcetti," he said.

Cooley himself said he was looking ahead to Dec. 4, when he will be sworn in as district attorney. He said he would begin by issuing a new, more flexible policy on enforcement of the three-strikes law, and by opening up the district attorney's files to people who suspect they have been victims of police corruption in the Rampart Division.

He also promised a sweeping reorganization of top officials in the district attorney's office.

"You are going to be proud of this prosecutor, because I am going to surround myself with people who are ethical, experienced and professional," he said in his victory speech. "We're going to do this, we're going to do the right thing for a change."

The campaign had pitted two career prosecutors who disagreed strongly about how the office should be run, and who turned years' worth of personal animosity into a long and nasty race.

Garcetti, 59, became district attorney in 1992 by defeating incumbent Ira Reiner, exacting revenge for an embarrassing demotion several years before. Cooley, 53, who supported Garcetti in that election, would later be stung when Garcetti transferred him from a prestigious post in the San Fernando Valley to the relative obscurity of the downtown Welfare Fraud Division.

The transfer came shortly after the 1996 election, in which Cooley had strongly supported challenger John Lynch against Garcetti. Lynch narrowly lost that election after being vastly outspent by the incumbent, who still was reeling from his office's loss in the Simpson case the year before.

Angered by his transfer, and by what he saw as a series of ethical and administrative failings by Garcetti, Cooley decided to seek the office himself. He placed first in a three-way election March 7, but fell short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff with Garcetti, who came in a close second.

Unlike Lynch, Cooley was able to nearly match Garcetti in fund-raising, taking in about $1.4 million to Garcetti's $1.75 million. Considering that Garcetti threw in $200,000 of his own money, the two candidates came close to parity in outside contributions.

Garcetti remained aloof in the run-up to the March election, never deigning to join debates with Cooley and a second challenger, environmental lawyer Barry Groveman. But the morning after his second-place finish, which he attributed to voters' looking for someone to blame for the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart corruption scandal, he held a news conference and agreed to debate Cooley "as often as he wants."

That, it turned out, would be a remarkable 15 times--easily a record for any local race in living memory. The debates, which ranged from an impromptu dust-up before a disabilities commission in Santa Monica to three confrontations on live TV, defined the campaign and gave voters an unusual opportunity to get to know two very different candidates.

Most already knew Garcetti, who became an international figure during the Simpson case. But Cooley began the race as a cipher, and much of the campaign involved efforts by each campaign to define him.

Garcetti tried to cast Cooley as a partisan Republican and arch-conservative who would take the office back to the 1950s, undoing decades of social progress and dismantling the crime prevention programs that Garcetti, a Democrat, considered his greatest achievements.

Cooley, who acknowledged being a Republican in a heavily Democratic county, argued that his party affiliation was irrelevant in the officially nonpartisan race. He presented himself as a political moderate and man of integrity who would take a struggling office and turn it around.

Far from merely defining himself, Cooley attacked Garcetti relentlessly, calling him a "failed prosecutor" and an unethical man who gave favors to campaign contributors and created "phony" crime prevention programs designed only to burnish his own image.

When Garcetti attacked him for being soft in applying the three-strikes law, which calls for 25-years-to-life sentences for three-time felons, Cooley shot back that Garcetti was engaging in "effective racial profiling" by using the law to send disproportionate numbers of black and Latino felons away for long terms. He said he would change the office policy so that three-strikes would be used only when the third felony was violent or serious.

Both candidates aired harshly negative television commercials in the last week of the campaign. Garcetti's tagged Cooley as a soft-on-crime Republican--an oxymoron as far as some people were concerned--who relied too heavily on plea bargains. Cooley's charged, among other things, that Garcetti "could have prevented the worst police scandal in history," and didn't.

Of the two, Garcetti proved to be the more tireless and natural campaigner, a distinction Cooley tried to turn to his advantage by constantly reminding audiences that he was a prosecutor, not a politician.

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