They are badly outspent by a two-term incumbent. They have to defend themselves against accusations of misconduct. And political consultants give them little hope of success.
But the two candidates running to unseat Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley say they think voters deserve the chance to choose a new top prosecutor June 3.
Steven J. Ipsen, a deputy district attorney in Cooley's office and longtime president of the union that represents most of its prosecutors, says discontent is high among his colleagues. The 47-year-old career prosecutor accused the D.A. of being too close to defense attorneys who have given him thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
And he criticized Cooley for failing to do enough to improve pay and working conditions for rank-and-file prosecutors while seeking a hefty $55,000 pay increase -- to $292,300 a year -- from the Board of Supervisors for his own post earlier this year.
"It's the mentality and the sense of entitlement and privilege that this D.A. has," Ipsen said.
Unlike Cooley's own insurgent campaign against then-Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti in 2000, few prosecutors have contributed to Ipsen's effort, which has raised only $28,000 -- far short of the $835,000 Cooley has gathered.
Ipsen said he has been spending most of his free time on union business and pushing for a "victims' rights" ballot initiative that would, among other changes, prevent prosecutors from seeking campaign contributions from defense lawyers who have cases pending before them.
In 2005, the California Supreme Court condemned Ipsen for manipulating evidence "intentionally and without good-faith justification" when he told two juries that different defendants delivered the fatal blow in a 1988 killing. Both defendants were convicted and sentenced to death, but the Supreme Court overturned the death penalty for one of them.
Ipsen defended his actions, saying that he changed his theory about the case when he learned more about the crime scene evidence after the first trial.
Cooley's other challenger is Albert Robles, a private attorney who has yet to report raising any campaign funds.
Robles, 39, is battling misdemeanor charges, filed by the district attorney's office, alleging that he violated election law by sending out anonymous mailings to voters during a water board election.
Robles, who sits on the board of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California, accused Cooley of targeting black and brown elected officials in Southeast Los Angeles County in a crackdown on corruption and said he was a victim of selective prosecution.
"It's time for him to go," Robles said.
Cooley dismissed such criticism as unfounded and said he had no plans to debate either challenger.
"These people are not in my league," he said.