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Attorney general candidates offer differing visions of post

In a searing first debate, state attorney general candidates Steve Cooley and Kamala Harris on Tuesday traded shots over their differing visions for California’s top law enforcement job, with Cooley hammering on his opponent’s opposition to the death penalty and Harris accusing her rival of lacking the political courage to take a stand on gay marriage and other issues.

Held four weeks before election day, the debate offered the first and possibly only head-to-head clash between the two nominees in the campaign, with Republican Cooley trying to cut an image as a tough-on-crime prosecutor and Democrat Harris casting herself as the best leader for modern-day California.

Harris, the San Francisco district attorney, said Cooley possessed a “blind adherence” to traditional law enforcement ideas and failed to adequately grasp critical voter concerns over environmental protection, financial crimes and issues such as identity theft.

Cooley, the Los Angeles County district attorney, accused Harris of coddling criminal illegal immigrants in San Francisco and defending the city’s “sanctuary city” policies. He also amped up the political drama by inviting to the debate relatives of slain San Francisco police officer who have harshly criticized Harris’ 2004 decision not to seek the death penalty against the killer.

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“We are starkly different,” Cooley said in his opening statement. “My opponent absolutely, ideologically opposes the death penalty, which is the law of California. I support it. This particular position of hers was underscored when she refused to pursue the death penalty against the killer … who shot down Officer Isaac Espinoza. She declared opposition to pursue the death penalty in that case before he was buried.”

Harris, who appeared to tire of the debate’s initial focus on capital punishment, told Cooley his comments undercut the “dignity” of the race. If elected, Harris said, she would continue to undertake the role of the attorney general’s office in defending death penalty cases on appeal.

“The reality is, I am personally opposed to the death penalty but I will follow the law,” Harris said, noting that the last two state attorney generals, Democrats Jerry Brown and Bill Lockyer, also personally opposed the death penalty but appealed capital punishment cases.

Tuesday’s debate was held at the UC Davis School of Law, inside a standing-room-only practice courtroom, and webcast live on the university’s website and by local media outlets. The event was not carried live on radio or television stations, demonstrating a lack of media interest in most of California’s so-called down-ballot statewide races. The campaign has been staid so far, especially compared with the spectacle of the governor’s race, but voters can expect to see a rash of television campaign ads and mailers as election day nears.

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Throughout the debate, Harris highlighted Cooley’s refusal to take a stand on Proposition 23, a ballot initiative aimed at suspending California regulations to curtail greenhouse gas emissions and funded in part by Texas oil companies. She said his lack of a position was calculated to avoid “political risk.”

“The cost that crimes against the environment exact on its victims are as imminent in many situations as any other crimes you can imagine or watch on television every night,” Harris said. “I would like my opponent to be clear on his position on that.”

Cooley said the attorney general should remain neutral on voter initiatives, because the agency could be pressed into defending the measures in court. He said the attorney general must ultimately be guided by the will of the people.

When Harris pointed out that Cooley has announced his opposition to Proposition 19, a measure to legalize the possession and cultivation of marijuana, Cooley said he makes an exception for voter initiatives that would affect law enforcement. (Harris also opposes Proposition 19.)

The two candidates also offered starkly contrasting views on the attorney general’s role in defending Proposition 8, the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage that a federal judge tossed out as unconstitutional this summer. Harris sided with the decisions made by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, the defendants in the case, not to appeal the ruling.

“We should not use the precious resources of California to defend a law that’s unconstitutional,” Harris said.

Cooley said the attorney general had an obligation to defend the ballot initiative because it was the “people’s will” and had been declared constitutional by the California Supreme Court. Filing an appeal also would provide clarity to the law, especially if the appeal reached the U.S. Supreme Court, because a ruling by a federal district court judge applies solely to that district, he said.

“That principled approach to defending the people’s will is something I would also apply if the people of the state of California decided that same-sex marriages were to be the law of California. I would defend that with as much vigor,” said Cooley, who added that the attorney general has a responsibility to execute the duties of the office in a nonpartisan manner.

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Throughout most of hour-long debate, Harris focused her answers on her accomplishments as San Francisco’s top prosecutor, such as a retooled diversion program for nonviolent first-time offenders, a crackdown on elementary school truancy to ensure children don’t grow into a life of crime and the creation of new units focused on environmental crimes, consumer protection and public integrity.

The next attorney general to Sacramento should use the same approach to tackle recidivism among imprisoned felons, reduce prison overcrowding and address quality-of-life issues for Californians, she said.

“We should not judge the capacity of the office based on how the work has traditionally been done,” she said.

Cooley, however, countered by saying that for more than a decade he has brought even more effective programs to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, and has a much stronger record prosecuting environmental crime, consumer fraud and government corruption than Harris. He urged Harris to join him in providing a case-by-case comparison between the two D.A.s’ offices.

Harris also bashed Cooley for indicating he would join other states to block President Obama’s healthcare reforms, insinuating that the GOP nominee has aligned himself with the president’s hard-core Republican opposition. Cooley tried to quickly extinguish the issue, saying he would take legal action only if there were a consensus among the governor and legislative leaders.

One of the most interesting moments of the debate came toward the end, when Cooley was asked if he would “double-dip” if elected attorney general, collecting both a state salary and the pension he has earned working in Los Angeles.

“Yes,” Cooley said flatly. “I’ve definitely earned whatever pension rights I have.”

Harris, when asked to respond, said with a laugh: “Go for it, Steve. You’ve earned it; there’s no question.”

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The attorney general makes approximately $150,000 a year, about half of what Cooley was paid last year. Given his base salary and his more than 37 years working for the district attorney’s office, his annual pension would amount to at least $287,791, according to a Times review of county salary and pension figures.

phil.willon@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jack Leonard contributed to this report.


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