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Cooley leads race for state’s top cop

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley took a narrow lead Tuesday in the race for attorney general, with the career prosecutor providing the GOP with its best hope at a statewide office as Democrats led in the other partisan races.

Early voting tallies showed Cooley with an edge over his opponent, San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris, who sought to make history by becoming the first woman, first Asian and first African American to serve as the state’s top law enforcement official.

The two prosecutors waged a bruising campaign, trading barbs over the death penalty, environmental prosecutions and how they would defend or enforce some of California’s most controversial laws, including a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage and a law aimed at curbing greenhouse gases.

In the race for lieutenant governor, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was leading GOP’s Abel Maldonado, who aimed to win election to the position he was appointed to earlier this year. In the campaign for insurance commissioner, Assemblyman Dave Jones (D-Sacramento) was pulling ahead of fellow Assemblyman Mike Villines (R-Clovis).

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Meanwhile, three Democratic officeholders held off GOP challengers. Treasurer Bill Lockyer defeated state Sen. Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Niguel); Controller John Chiang beat state Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks); and Secretary of State Debra Bowen overcame political newcomer Damon Dunn.

In the nonpartisan contest for state superintendent of public instruction, Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), the teachers unions’ favorite, led over retired school superintendent Larry Aceves.

While the positions have gained less attention this year than the expensive race for governor, California’s other statewide posts have historically served as steppingstones to higher office.

Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican father and a mother from India, has been a rising star in the Democratic Party, but she faced a tough battle to prevent Republicans from regaining the attorney general’s post for the first time since 1998.

Political observers considered Cooley an early favorite thanks to his history of political success in the state’s most populous county, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2 to 1. The moderate Republican was the first district attorney to win three elections in Los Angeles County in more than 70 years.

Harris cast herself as “smart on crime” and called for new approaches that would reduce recidivism and prison overcrowding. She depicted Cooley as soft on environmental crimes and criticized him for saying he would defend Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban approved by voters in 2008.

Cooley hit back, calling his opponent a radical who coddled criminal illegal immigrants and refused to seek the death penalty for the killer of a police officer. A career prosecutor, Cooley vowed to defend ballot initiatives and state laws as long as they were constitutional. He also promised to expand prosecution of Medi-Cal fraud.

The position of lieutenant governor is largely ceremonial, but the officeholder takes the state’s helm if the governor leaves the state, becomes incapacitated or dies.

Maldonado, the incumbent, promised to make the state more business-friendly and help job growth. But the former state senator had to deal with lingering hostility within his own party over his decision last year to break with the GOP and support a key budget vote, including a tax increase.

Maldonado drew more fire recently when, acting as governor while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was out of the country, he declined to appeal a federal judge’s ruling that declared the state’s ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional.

Newsom promised to fight oil drilling off the coast and bring green energy jobs to California. As mayor he was best known for issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004, winning acclaim from gay rights groups but drawing the ire of gay marriage opponents.

The fight for insurance commissioner pitted two Assembly members forced out by term limits. At stake is the chance to regulate all types of insurance, including life, automobile, and property and casualty coverage. The winner will play a key role in how the state handles President Obama’s healthcare overhaul.

Jones and Villines refused campaign contributions from insurance companies. Nevertheless, various companies contributed to a political action committee that aired independent TV ads praising the GOP candidate and opposing Jones. The committee has spent more than $2 million on the race.

Voters also had the chance to reshape the state’s fiscal offices of controller and treasurer, both held by Democrats.

As controller, Chiang has played a pivotal role in the state’s budget crisis, blocking Schwarzenegger’s orders to furlough state employees and cut their pay. His reelection campaign is a rematch of a 2006 contest against Strickland, who has accused the incumbent of mismanagement.

Lockyer, an elder statesman of California politics who has served as attorney general, assemblyman and state senator, was seeking to stretch his career in state office beyond 40 years with a second term as treasurer.

Trying to end that run, the GOP’s Walters urged voters to support new blood in a state office that manages billions of dollars and oversees complex borrowing and investment decisions.

Bowen, another veteran Democrat incumbent, touted her efforts as secretary of state to improve security in voting systems during her first term.

Her Republican challenger, Dunn, a businessman and former Stanford University football player, accused Bowen of bungling attempts to help Californians register to vote entirely online. But the 34-year-old had to deal with questions over his own voting record: He didn’t vote until 2009.

The superintendent of public instruction is the one nonpartisan executive statewide office. Aceves, a retired San Jose-area superintendent, recently called for making it easier to fire poorly performing instructors and criticized seniority rules that result in the layoff of young, talented teachers during tough budget times.

Torlakson, a veteran state lawmaker, emphasized the need to recruit, train and retain qualified teachers and increase education funding. He enjoyed the strong financial backing of the state’s teachers unions.

Four seats were up for grabs on the Board of Equalization, which collects state taxes and arbitrates taxpayer disputes with the government. Among those who led in early voting results were three incumbents: Democrats Jerome Horton and Betty Yee as well as Republican Michelle Steel. State Sen. George Runner (R-Lancaster) was leading in the only open seat, which includes a large swath of the state’s inland area.

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jack.leonard@latimes.com


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