Garcetti remained aloof in the run-up to the March election, never deigning to join debates with Cooley and a second challenger, environmental lawyer Barry Groveman. But the morning after his second-place finish, which he attributed to voters' looking for someone to blame for the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart corruption scandal, he held a news conference and agreed to debate Cooley "as often as he wants."
That, it turned out, would be a remarkable 15 times--easily a record for any local race in living memory. The debates, which ranged from an impromptu dust-up before a disabilities commission in Santa Monica to three confrontations on live TV, defined the campaign and gave voters an unusual opportunity to get to know two very different candidates.
Most already knew Garcetti, who became an international figure during the Simpson case. But Cooley began the race as a cipher, and much of the campaign involved efforts by each campaign to define him.
Garcetti tried to cast Cooley as a partisan Republican and arch-conservative who would take the office back to the 1950s, undoing decades of social progress and dismantling the crime prevention programs that Garcetti, a Democrat, considered his greatest achievements.
Cooley, who acknowledged being a Republican in a heavily Democratic county, argued that his party affiliation was irrelevant in the officially nonpartisan race. He presented himself as a political moderate and man of integrity who would take a struggling office and turn it around.
Far from merely defining himself, Cooley attacked Garcetti relentlessly, calling him a "failed prosecutor" and an unethical man who gave favors to campaign contributors and created "phony" crime prevention programs designed only to burnish his own image.
When Garcetti attacked him for being soft in applying the three-strikes law, which calls for 25-years-to-life sentences for three-time felons, Cooley shot back that Garcetti was engaging in "effective racial profiling" by using the law to send disproportionate numbers of black and Latino felons away for long terms. He said he would change the office policy so that three-strikes would be used only when the third felony was violent or serious.
Both candidates aired harshly negative television commercials in the last week of the campaign. Garcetti's tagged Cooley as a soft-on-crime Republican--an oxymoron as far as some people were concerned--who relied too heavily on plea bargains. Cooley's charged, among other things, that Garcetti "could have prevented the worst police scandal in history," and didn't.
Of the two, Garcetti proved to be the more tireless and natural campaigner, a distinction Cooley tried to turn to his advantage by constantly reminding audiences that he was a prosecutor, not a politician.