Reporting from Sacramento — After 12 years in which two veterans of the state's Democratic establishment have held the office of California attorney general, several less-known politicians -- nine in all -- are vying to land the influential post.
Incumbent Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown won in 2006 after two terms as Oakland's mayor, two terms as governor and three failed presidential bids. His predecessor, current Treasurer Bill Lockyer, had served 25 years in the state Legislature, including four as Senate leader.
Now, half a dozen Democrats have lined up to succeed Brown. Among them are San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris, three sitting lawmakers and a Facebook executive. Former L.A. City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo is making his second bid for the job; he was trounced by Brown in the 2006 primary.
Republicans are upbeat about their chances to wrest control of the office without a household-name Democrat in the running. Boosting those hopes was the recent entrance of Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, a Republican elected three times in Democratic-leaning Los Angeles County, into the race. But the moderate Cooley must navigate a primary race in a state where most of the GOP faithful are conservatives.
The job of chief state law enforcement officer comes with broad powers to investigate, regulate and prosecute in the nation's most populous state. And three former attorneys general -- Earl Warren, Pat Brown and George Deukmejian -- have gone on to be governor in the modern era; Brown is bidding this year to make it four.
Money is a key barometer of a candidate's chances, especially in California.
Among the Democrats, Harris, 45, outpaced her opponents to collect $2.2 million last year, some it from such Hollywood heavyweights as Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. PBS news anchor Gwen Ifill has called Harris, who is half African American and half Indian, "the female Barack Obama."
As attorney general, Harris said, she would protect consumers and pursue white-collar crime. "By and large, that is a crime going without consequence," Harris said.
Factors such as gender, ethnicity, geography (where a candidate hails from) and his or her profession as listed on the ballot also make a big difference, said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. Breaking through to the public with any more distinctive information "is going to be a challenge," he said.
Delgadillo, who served two terms as city attorney, touts his relative prominence in the voter-rich Los Angeles area. "In the largest media market, we are the most well known," he said.
But Delgadillo's last term was plagued by controversy, including revelations that his wife damaged his city car while driving without a license and a federal investigation into her consulting business, which resulted in no charges.
Some opponentshave suggested that although Delgadillo is well known, he is not necessarily well regarded. Asked about such perceptions, Delgadillo said "state legislators have an 80% disapproval rating" and noted there are three incumbent lawmakers in the race.
Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said his record pressing legislation to rein in financial industry abuses will be an asset. Lieu, recently promoted to lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, said he would continue that fight as attorney general.
Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, a Newark Democrat and former labor lawyer, has the backing of several influential police unions, and organized labor has accounted for more than 25% of his donations.
Delgadillo, Lieu and Torrico each amassed more than $1 million in 2009. Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D- Santa Barbara), a former deputy district attorney in Fresno, is a self-described dark horse whose money haul has been far less than that of his major opponents. Still, the race is anyone's to win, Nava said, adding that a candidate could win the Democratic primary with as little as 20% of the vote.
If Nava is the dark horse, then Chris Kelly, Facebook's chief privacy officer, is the wealthy wild card. "I'll be a major personal investor" in what he said he thinks will be a $5-million to $10-million campaign, the 39-year-old political novice said in a Facebook message.
That is millions more than his opponents are expected to have, and Kelly has already spent $2 million of his own money. The financial advantage could mean that Kelly, who lost his only other bid for public office, a Palo Alto City Council contest in 2001, could be the lone attorney general hopeful whom voters hear from widely in TV and radio ads this year.
Among Republicans, state Sen. Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) leads the money race after raising $667,000 in 2009. Cooley and John Eastman, the former dean of Chapman University Law School, began fundraising only after joining the contest last month.
Cooley, a career prosecutor, began in the district attorney's office in 1973. As the elected district attorney since 2000, he has won praise from diverse groups including defense lawyers and police chiefs. But his pursuit of changes to California's "three-strikes" law has caused friction with conservatives.
Eastman is a conservative legal scholar. Among his GOP bona fides: He once clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.