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Cooley Stands Between Garcetti and a Rare Third Term

Rampart scandal--which the challenger blames on the incumbent, who in turn blames the LAPD--is at the center of their differences. In the other countywide race, any one of the 16 candidates could come out on top.


It has been 60 years since a district attorney of Los Angeles County was elected to more than two terms. Gil Garcetti could break that streak if he wins reelection to a third term Tuesday--but it's a big if.

Garcetti is widely viewed as vulnerable to a challenge from top Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who finished first in a three-way primary election March 7 and has led Garcetti in every poll conducted since then. The two have strong disagreements, and will have debated at least 15 times by election day. So voters have an unusually revealing record on which to base their decision.

The district attorney's race is one of two campaigns for countywide office on the ballot. The other is a much quieter race for county assessor that features a bumper crop of candidates running for an unexpired seat.

Garcetti, 59, barely won his first reelection bid in 1996, four years after he defeated two-term incumbent Ira Reiner. If the 1996 campaign was a referendum on the Garcetti staff's loss in O.J. Simpson's murder trial, Cooley, 53, has sought to frame this year's race as a referendum on the Rampart Division police corruption scandal.

Over the course of the campaign, other issues have emerged, including Garcetti's emphasis on crime prevention programs, the personal ethics of the two contenders and the enforcement of California's three-strikes law.

Cooley has accused Garcetti of overlooking warnings within his own department that something was wrong in the anti-gang CRASH unit of the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division. Had Garcetti paid more attention to a deputy's memo in 1997 expressing concerns about Officer Rafael Perez, the central figure in the scandal, the D.A. might have been able to crack down on allegedly corrupt cops several years ago, Cooley says.

Moreover, Cooley argues, Garcetti lost an opportunity to uncover rogue officers when he canceled his office's "roll-out" program in 1995. That program, later reinstated, dispatches prosecutors to the scene of shootings involving police officers to determine whether the police have acted properly.

Garcetti maintains that Rampart is a problem born and bred in the Police Department, not in his agency. He has dismissed talk about his deputy's memo on Perez, saying it was handled properly by D.A. supervisors and never really implicated Perez in any pattern of corruption.

And he says that budget concerns forced him to reluctantly cancel the roll-out program, but that it is unlikely that it would have uncovered "dirty" shootings in Rampart anyway.

Garcetti maintains that the most important issue dividing the two candidates is not Rampart, but the crime prevention programs that he has instituted as district attorney. These include programs to prevent truancy in elementary and middle schools, to rescue children from the brink of delinquency, and to discourage hate crimes, stalking and "date rape."

Cooley says some of the programs may be worthwhile, but others are little more than publicity stunts designed to promote Garcetti. He has promised to assess each program if he is elected and determine whether it is accomplishing its goals and is worth the cost.

Each candidate has accused the other of lax ethics. Cooley has charged that Garcetti has given special treatment to campaign contributors or their relatives. Garcetti has countered that Cooley acted improperly by accepting campaign donations from judges and fellow prosecutors.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, the three-strikes issue has emerged as one of the hottest in the race.

Garcetti believes in relatively strict enforcement of the three-strikes law, which sets out a prison term of 25 years to life for anyone who commits a third felony after being convicted of two violent or serious felonies. He says it should be applied even when the third crime is relatively minor.

Cooley supports a policy under which the third strike would ordinarily be waived if a person is convicted of a minor, nonviolent third felony.

In addition, Garcetti, a Democrat, has tried to play up the fact that his opponent is a Republican, even though the office they are seeking is officially nonpartisan. Only 28% of registered voters in Los Angeles County are Republicans.

The contest has seen a barrage of expensive mailers and television ads. To pay for that, Garcetti has raised roughly $1.8 million, including $200,000 of his own money. Cooley has come close, with about $1.4 million.

In the county assessor's race, 16 candidates are running to fill the unexpired term of Kenneth P. Hahn, who retired in January because of his own and his mother's illnesses.

The Board of Supervisors named Rick Auerbach, 52, a 30-year veteran of the office, to fill the vacancy until Tuesday's election, and Auerbach has the power of incumbency working in his favor.

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