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Cooley Upbeat on His Bid to Keep D.A. Job

County's top prosecutor has a healthy war chest and the support of law enforcement and labor. So far there are only two challengers.

October 23, 2003|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley has raised more than $710,000 for his reelection campaign.

The Republican has been endorsed by large unions, including the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Assn. and the powerful Service Employees International Union.

The county Democratic Party hasn't found anyone to challenge him.

But Cooley's announcement Wednesday that he will seek reelection is just the beginning, political observers say. The election is in March, and the success of the top prosecutor can fluctuate as quickly as crime rises and falls, and as high-profile cases, which Los Angeles County seems to produce in abundance, are won and lost.

Cooley has several notable successes, such as the conviction of Symbionese Liberation Army associate Sara Jane Olson for the attempted bombing of two Los Angeles police cars. Glendale respiratory therapist Efren Saldivar, the so-called Angel of Death, is behind bars, and actress Winona Ryder was convicted of shoplifting at Saks Fifth Avenue.

But another case that drew significant national attention ended in a mistrial this summer when a jury deadlocked on whether to convict Inglewood Police Officer Jeremy J. Morse in the videotaped beating of a teenager. Jurors acquitted Morse's partner of filing a false police report.

Cooley, a career prosecutor who joined the office in 1973, is positive about his chances for victory. Only two lawyers have stepped forward as possible challengers.

"I feel very confident that having already secured all of law enforcement support so far, having secured all of labor in L.A. County and having already amassed a very respectable amount of funds, I'll be able to deal with any challenger," Cooley said as he announced his candidacy at his alma mater, Cal State Los Angeles.

He was joined by his wife, union leaders, Sheriff Lee Baca and former Dist. Atty. John Van de Kamp.

Political consultants say Cooley will very likely succeed unless a strong opponent jumps in and raises a lot of money quickly -- or unless the district attorney makes a serious misstep in the next few months. The race is much different from the previous election, when Cooley won by nearly two-thirds of the vote and ousted his boss, incumbent Gil Garcetti, after a bitter campaign, strategists said.

"Garcetti was weak and the sharks were circling," said Burbank-based consultant Steven Afriat. "Such is not the case in this go-around."

Critics contend that Cooley has not fulfilled basic campaign promises and has not been an aggressive leader. Cooley was criticized for agreeing to drop a criminal investigation of Newhall Land & Farming Co. in exchange for the firm's promise to set aside a preserve for an endangered plant the company allegedly destroyed to clear the way for housing.

Others, including some of his own deputies, opposed his decision not to file charges over the Belmont Learning Complex and his handling of prosecutions of police corruption in the LAPD's Rampart Division. Cooley disbanded his Rampart task force, declined to file charges in dozens of cases and issued a report that many said minimized the extent of the scandal.

"He ran on a platform that he was going to once and for all complete the Rampart investigation and prosecute those who are guilty," said Los Angeles County Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman. "Mr. Cooley has not risen to the challenge."

Cooley counts among his most important accomplishments his crackdown on political corruption. Attorneys have prosecuted many cases against politicians and government officials, including former South Gate Treasurer Albert Robles, and have chastised school boards for not following the public meetings law. Several other investigations are underway.

During an interview last week, Cooley emphasized his effort to extradite accused criminals from Mexico and his forensics sciences work expanding DNA databases and promoting victims' rights legislation.

Cooley also changed how the office prosecutes three-strikes cases, which he said has made the process more evenhanded. Under Garcetti, prosecutors often sought life sentences when repeat offenders committed petty thefts and drug offenses. Now prosecutors don't seek such sentences for minor, nonviolent third crimes, or strikes.

His endorsements and campaign funds show how he is perceived in the community, he said.

"One way to evaluate how you're doing -- in addition to polls -- is, are you able to go out there and raise money?" said Cooley, who has already collected more than half of his total war chest when he was first elected. "I think we are doing very, very well."

Roger Mayberry, president of the county Professional Peace Officers Assn., said Cooley has maintained an open-door policy with law enforcement. The association also endorsed Cooley in 2000.

"We are not afraid to go against an incumbent if necessary," Mayberry said. "Fortunately, we don't find it necessary this time. We've got a good D.A."

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