Republican Steve Cooley’s popularity as district attorney, a nonpartisan post, in the Democrat-heavy county presents a challenge.

Kamala Harris, here speaking at USC last week, has stuck to a well-worn path of Democratic success: focusing on African Americans, Latinos and women, as well as reaching out to young voters who were lured to the polls by Obama’s presidential run. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times / October 22, 2010)

By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
October 29, 2010

When Democratic attorney general nominee Kamala Harris opened a South Los Angeles campaign headquarters earlier this month, she picked a spot on Crenshaw Boulevard right next door to the site of one of Barack Obama’s satellite offices during the historic 2008 presidential campaign.

Harris, the San Francisco district attorney, can only hope that Obama’s political magic in Los Angeles County — where he won a whopping 69% of the vote — will drift down the sidewalk.

Voter-rich Los Angeles County represents a sure-fire victory for most Democrats on Tuesday’s ballot, but it’s anything but assured for Harris. Her GOP rival, Steve Cooley, has won three consecutive elections as the county’s district attorney despite Democrats outnumbering Republicans 2 to 1 in the county — and, a recent poll shows, he has the edge this time too.

“If Kamala Harris loses L.A. County, she won’t win,” said Allan Hoffenblum, whose California Target Book handicaps California political races. “L.A. County is to the Democratic candidates what the Central Valley and Inland Empire are to Republican candidates. You have to be strong where your party is strong.”

Harris has been a frequent flier to Los Angeles for more than a year, and in the primary beat former Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo by 10 percentage points in his own county. She’s stuck to a well-worn path of Democratic success: focusing on African Americans, Latinos and women, as well as reaching out to young voters who were lured to the polls by Obama’s presidential run.

Since announcing her candidacy for attorney general in November 2008, Harris has delivered a commencement address at UCLA law school, chatted with Hollywood glitterati at fundraisers, stood side by side with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at City Hall news conferences, hopscotched among African American churches across Southern California and, just last week, joined Obama at a packed Democratic rally at USC.

Yet Cooley held a 42%-33% advantage among likely L.A. County voters in mid-October, according to a Los Angeles Times/USC poll. Statewide, he led 40% to 35%.

Cooley has taken a different route, holding low-profile get-togethers with police and legal associations, speaking to business groups and rarely sharing the political stage with other Republicans on the statewide ticket, such as gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman or Senate candidate Carly Fiorina.

On Saturday, the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs put on a barbecue for Cooley in Monterey Park, attracting law enforcement officers and commanders from across the county. Cooley, wearing a windbreaker, polo shirt and khakis, worked the room as crime novelist Joseph Wambaugh, a former Los Angeles Police Department detective, handed out his latest book, “Hollywood Crows,” for those who made donations.

After 10 years as district attorney, Cooley is well known among local voters and in recent months has benefited from the spoils of being the hometown prosecutor in America’s second-largest city. He dominated L.A. area headlines and newscasts in September when he announced the arrest of eight former and current leaders of the scandal-plagued city of Bell.

Cooley campaign spokesman Charles T. Moran said the publicity has given the candidate an edge. “When they really sit down and evaluate, he’s a guy they’ve heard of, someone they know who is doing things, versus someone they don’t really know,” Moran said.

An additional advantage for Cooley: The post of district attorney is nonpartisan, so he has been able to define himself in Democrat-heavy Los Angeles without carrying his party’s baggage. Cooley also has distanced himself from the polarizing “tea party” movement and the right-wing rhetoric that’s singed GOP candidates in the past in California.

“We can’t run the typical Republican campaign. We can’t slam the unions, we can’t slam the people who don’t fit in the Orange County or Placer County Republican mold,” Moran said. “We can’t do that. We need to win L.A. County.”

Over the last two decades, no Democrat has won an election for statewide office without at least an 8 percentage point margin of victory in the county.

The last Republican to win the county in a statewide contest was Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the politically unhinged 2003 recall election that replaced Gov. Gray Davis. Schwarzenegger lost the county in his 2006 reelection campaign.

The only other Republicans to capture L.A. County in the last two decades were Gov. Pete Wilson and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, in their 1994 reelection campaigns.

Harris’ supporters are confident she’ll close any gap in the county, especially since the L.A. Times/USC poll showed 17% of likely voters in the county were undecided. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, along with individual public employee unions, has been manning phone banks urging voters to support Harris, and is just starting to walk neighborhoods.

A crowd packed in when Harris opened her office in South Los Angeles on a drizzly day earlier this month, excited to go to work for the only African American candidate on the statewide ballot.

“A lot of people here are just starting to pay attention to the campaign, to her, because she is a Democrat,” said former Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden. “They will not be biased against her because of the name-calling. And when they go to the polls, they’re not going to switch over” to Cooley.

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