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California Attorney General Candidates Debate at King Hall

Posted By Kevin R. Johnson, Oct 6, 2010

The UC Davis School of Law yesterday hosted what may well be the only debate between the two candidates for California Attorney General, Republican Steve Cooley, the District Attorney for Los Angeles County, and Democrat Kamala Harris, District Attorney of San Francisco. I was pleased to attend and to meet both of the candidates.
AG debate handshake
(Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

In a tight race, the debate was an opportunity for each candidate to shine. Both Cooley and Harris were well-prepared and dignified, and the debate lacked the high drama and fireworks that some had predicted. Cooley looked the part of a grizzled career prosecutor from the 1950s and his responses to questions had a no-nonsense quality.   Part of a new generation of prosecutors, Harris, also an experienced career prosecutor, appeared poised, forceful, and tough throughout.

Each of the candidates focused on what they apparently believed were their strengths. Steve Cooley emphasized his support for the death penalty and that he had the backing of all 47 of the state’s law enforcement organizations. Denying that the death penalty (which she opposes but would enforce as the law as Attorney General) was the one and only issue facing the Attorney General’s office, Kamala Harris focused on her innovative, non-status quo approaches to issues of recidivism, environmental justice, high tech crime, prisons, etc. with innovation in her view necessary to fix the “broken” criminal justice system.

Between the answers to the specific questions posed by journalists from the L.A. Times, Sacramento Bee, and San Francisco Chronicle, both candidates had very different views on the appropriate role of the California Attorney General.  Kamala Harris emphasized that the Attorney General is an elected official who must exercise independent judgment as the state’s leading law enforcement officer, including which initiatives to defend in court. The Attorney General, she said, must be a leader, not a follower. Steve Cooley understands the Attorney General as the lawyer for the public, which is the “client” (especially when it comes to Propositions that are not “patently unconstitutional”). In some respects, Cooley’s conception of the Attorney General’s role as the lawyer for the client might be problematic. Recall that U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez (as well as others in the U.S. Attorney General’s office during President George W. Bush's administration) viewed the office as simply the "lawyer" for "the client," the President, and made some judgments in the so-called “war on terror” that have been much-criticized.

Cooley’s decision to pick-and-choose the ballot propositions about which he would take a position provoked many questions. He repeated his opposition to Proposition 19, which would de-criminalize the possession of marijuana for personal use. However, Cooley refused to take a position -- a refusal that Kamala Harris mentioned repeatedly -- on Proposition 23, an initiative that would allow the slowing of the implementation of certain environmental protections until the economy improves. He stated that he would only take a public position on an initiative to be voted on by the people, when it involves “public safety,” which he has decades of experience in as a career prosecutor. Some might – and Kamala Harris did -- say that the environmental concerns implicated by Proposition 23 are in fact a “public safety issue.”

For obvious reasons, immigration will not be as big an issue in the California Attorney General's race as it is in the California gubernatorial race between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman.  Nonetheless, immigration did come up in the debate yesterday.  Steve Cooley does not support the “concept of the Arizona law” known as SB 1070. Offering hope that the upcoming court decisions might offer guidance to the states, he did not go into detail explaining his opposition but used the question as an opportunity to rail on “sanctuary cities” like Harris’s San Francisco.  Harris emphatically stated her opposition to SB 1070 and emphasized that immigration regulation was the job of the federal government. She challenged Cooley to say whether he supported the “anti-immigrant” Proposition 187, a 1994 measure championed by Cooley supporter former California Governor Pete Wilson. Cooley did not take the bait.  Harris emphasized that she opposes any policy that shields criminals from being brought to justice, whatever their immigration status.

Over the hour long debate, the candidates also sparred over Proposition 8 and gay marriage, possible challenges to health care reform, and other issues. One of the shortest colloquies occurred when Cooley was asked if he would take his pension from Los Angeles as well as a $150,000 salary as Attorney General. He replied with an emphatic “yes,” stating that the salary was much too low (even though an annual salary of this amount would probably not seem low to many Californians, especially in these difficult economic times).

Cross-posted from ImmigrationProf Blog.

For a summary of all the news coverage, and to see streaming video of yesterday's debate, please see this web news story on the Law School website.