The choices presented to The Times' editorial board at election time often are dispiriting: Candidate X mumbles bromides about being tough on crime and illegal immigration; Candidate Y naively imagines that the mere power of ideas will overcome the influence of special interests. Everyone claims to be an environmentalist, including those who would roll back environmental progress; everyone is skeptical of big government, even as they propose to make it bigger or tougher. Ultimately we must choose whom to endorse, but we often do so with reluctance.
This year's race for the office of state attorney general poses the opposite difficulty. California's two best-known public lawyers -- the heads of the Los Angeles and San Francisco district attorney's offices -- are competing for the job. They are both worthy candidates, and closely matched. Either Steve Cooley, a Republican, or Kamala Harris, a Democrat, would do a fine job. After serious deliberation, The Times endorses Cooley.
Cooley, the Los Angeles County district attorney, is familiar to most Angelenos and has received this board's endorsement in his previous races. As D.A., he has been principled and brave, a solid custodian of the public trust and public access. Cooley came to office in the aftermath of the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart scandal and used that crisis to modernize his office's procedures for sharing information with defense lawyers. His so-called Brady policy -- a written protocol for prosecutors to determine which evidence must be shared with defense lawyers -- is a model for other agencies. Cooley raised principled objections to the state's blunt three-strikes policy; his guidelines, which other Republican prosecutors throughout the state have vigorously opposed, should provide a template for district attorneys as they search for ways to apply a bad law to real life. Cooley has confronted the blase attitudes of elected and appointed officials who are required to conduct their work in public but often do not; he has been appropriately tough on those scofflaws, and his example should be more widely emulated by his peers.
One of the biggest troubles facing the state of California in recent years has been the dissolution of the political center and, with it, the ability to make the compromises that allow government to function. As a Republican, Cooley has defied his party's orthodoxy time and again. He is the rare politician in California today who genuinely is drawn to the center and who takes risks to remain there. That has earned him our regard.
It is true that we disagree with Cooley on some of the leading issues of the day. He has declined to support same-sex marriage; history will favor it. He has suggested that he might join a constitutional challenge to the new federal healthcare reform law; that was crass politics, and he knows it. He supports the death penalty, as do many Californians; someday, that brutal expression of state power will seem a barbaric relic.
On these issues, Harris is right where Cooley is wrong. She supports the healthcare law and same-sex marriage. She opposes the death penalty, though she would enforce and defend it as attorney general. Moreover, Harris is a smart, dynamic and forward-thinking leader whose bright future we happily anticipate. She sees a potential for the attorney general's office that is bigger and more comprehensive than the office that exists today, one that addresses issues such as truancy and criminal recidivism, that attacks crime at a causal level, not just a reactive one. She is a thinker, and a good one.
But Harris' positions and ideas matter less for this job than one might suspect. Her opposition to the death penalty, though correct, is made irrelevant by the obligation of the attorney general to defend it. Her vision for the reach of the office, though compelling, is more suited to a moment when the state regains its economic footing. Meanwhile, her management of the San Francisco district attorney's office (which is substantially smaller than Cooley's office) has been a work in progress; she has cycled through top aides and was late to recognize the importance of strong guidelines for Brady material. Of the two candidates, Cooley has stronger demonstrated abilities as a manager, and that is especially relevant, at this point in time, to the job for which they're competing.
Were we searching for an attorney general in whom we would find ideological kinship or visionary leadership, Harris would be it. But what the next four years require most of all in the office is strong, capable, nonpartisan, professional supervision. Steve Cooley has delivered it to Los Angeles County. He is what the state needs now. He deserves to be California's next attorney general.
The Times' endorsements in the Nov. 2 election are collected upon publication at latimes.com/opinion.