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A close election needn't be a nasty one

So far, the long, tense Cooley-Harris ballot count has mostly been devoid of rancor from either side. The candidates should keep it that way.

November 13, 2010

While Barbara Boxer returns to work and Jerry Brown imagines the mess before him, while Carly Fiorina nurses her wounds and Meg Whitman counts what's left of her money, one statewide race from last week goes on. The secretary of state continues to sift ballots in the extraordinarily close battle between two capable candidates, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley and San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris, who are competing for the office of attorney general of California. So far, that very long count has been followed diligently but respectfully by the candidates. They should resolve to keep it that way.

On election night, Cooley blurted an early declaration of victory, claiming the office as returns were still coming in. That became embarrassing when the lead shifted to Harris. Then, as absentee and provisional ballots were tallied, the contest settled into a siege. Late last week, Cooley gradually added to what has become his slim lead.

In the past, situations like this have brought out the worst in candidates. Who can forget Bush vs. Gore? Fresher are the memories of last week, when tight emotions produced a snarky election night all but devoid of the graces customarily observed. Few were the pledges of cooperation or bipartisanship, many the promises to fight on. The dignified exits of defeated candidates past — of John Glenn or Gerald Ford or Adlai Stevenson — seem consigned to history along with Republican moderates.

For the most part, the Harris-Cooley contest has skirted those depressing trends. Each side has touted its advantages: Cooley enjoyed a narrow lead in the votes counted for the first few days and he pointed to it; Harris countered by calling attention to the large number of votes still to be tallied from liberal enclaves such as Los Angeles. As the numbers gyrated, Cooley emphasized how far ahead of the Republican ticket he had run, while Harris stressed her strength in Cooley's home turf. All of that is fair game and within the boundaries of propriety and civility.

Soon after election day, it seemed unlikely to remain this civilized. The Cooley campaign issued a surly statement on Nov. 4 suggesting that Harris' camp might try to skew the results by lodging challenges; not that it had, mind you, but that it might. Since then, the two sides have done a better job of restraining themselves.

This could go on a long time. As it does, Cooley and Harris should rein in their operatives and remember that they are competing to become this state's top legal officer. The rule of law, undergirded by the legitimacy of this election, will govern their work in office. It should guide them through this difficult, tense time as well.

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