Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley strolled into a conference room that bristled with news cameras on a recent morning and announced a sweeping set of corruption charges against government leaders in Bell.
The brewing scandal came at a perfect time for the burly prosecutor, who normally shuns the limelight yet this time seized the publicity windfall in the middle of his campaign for state attorney general. But questioning at the news conference soon grew pointed.
Cooley was asked whether he had given favorable treatment to Bell's former police chief, who was conspicuously absent from the list of Bell defendants. Cooley brushed off the suggestion.
"I would charge my mother," he told reporters, "if I had evidence against my mother."
The answer was classic Cooley, a glib, tough-talking lawman who has billed himself as a corruption buster in the run-up to the Nov. 2 election.
His opponent, San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris, has cast him as a lock-'em-up Republican unsuited to reversing California's sky-high recidivism rate or solving the state's prison crisis.
On the campaign trail, Cooley has sometimes appeared to play to that image, crediting the state's bulging prisons with keeping crime rates low and making his support for the death penalty a central part of his platform.
But in Los Angeles County, Cooley, 63, is better known as a moderate who has drawn support from all sides of the criminal justice system.
Law enforcement groups are solidly behind him, praising his aggressive pursuit of gang members and other violent criminals. But so are many defense attorneys, who applaud what they call an even-handed approach to the state's tough three-strikes law.
Despite the county's heavy tilt toward registered Democrats, Cooley has won three D.A. elections, the first person to do so in Los Angeles County in more than 70 years. In an election year when moderate Democrats and independent voters are expected to lean to the right, many political observers consider Cooley an election favorite.
"He's not an ideologue," said Jaime Regalado, a political science professor at Cal State L.A. "What voters like in their top cop is an even hand.… And in this case, you might have had Steve Cooley for D.A. for life."
Nevertheless, Cooley has seen his fair share of controversy.
Critics have accused him of going soft on a number of potential targets, including the Catholic Church and bad cops. And some faulted his office for not taking action against Bell officials last year when prosecutors first received reports alleging corruption in the city.
He drew fire over his large pay raise two years ago, bringing his current salary to $297,859, and has been accused of doing little to seek similar increases for his prosecutors. His opponent launched a television ad attacking him for saying that he would take a county pension of nearly $300,000 as well as the $151,000 attorney general's salary if he wins the election.
Attacks have also come from within his office.
The union that represents the county's rank-and-file prosecutors contends that he has discriminated against members — an allegation he denies. Hyatt Seligman, president of the Assn. of Deputy District Attorneys, said Cooley has imposed an "imperious" management style that has left many prosecutors afraid to speak out.
"Cooley has put himself and his managers first," Seligman said. "He has treated [the employees] as second-class citizens."
Cooley disputed that charge, saying that "the vast majority" of prosecutors in his office don't share that view.
In this year's Republican primary election, Cooley's campaign slogan touted him as "a prosecutor, not a politician." But during 37 years in an office frequently roiled by infighting, the career prosecutor demonstrated political know-how and an instinct for survival.
The son of an FBI agent, Cooley joined the office straight from USC Law School in 1973. He spent a decade as a trial deputy before taking charge of the Narcotics Division. Later, he ran the district attorney's office in the Antelope Valley.
In the mid-1990s, while heading the D.A.'s San Fernando branch, Cooley took a leading role in a colleague's campaign to unseat then-Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti. Cooley blasted the incumbent for allegedly trading favors for campaign cash. When Garcetti won, Cooley found himself banished to the relatively unglamorous Welfare Fraud Division.
Four years later, he challenged Garcetti and won a bruising election campaign.
Cooley cut a different figure from some of his hands-on, high-profile predecessors.
Head Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lynch recalled an e-mail he got from Cooley in 2002 as prosecutors weighed whether to file shoplifting charges against movie star Winona Ryder. I don't want to micromanage the case, Lynch recalled the message saying, I just want "accurate justice."
"I don't get the feeling that someone is looking over my shoulder questioning my every move," Lynch said.
Ryder was charged and convicted.