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Steve Cooley won't seek 4th term as L.A. County district attorney

Steve Cooley, who was first elected in 2000, sets the stage for one of the most competitive races for the job in more than a decade. He is supporting Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Jacquelyn Lacey in her bid to become the first African American and first woman to hold the post.

May 18, 2011|By Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times
  • Steve Cooley defeated incumbent Gil Garcetti to become L.A. County district attorney in 2000. He's supporting Jacquelyn Lacey to succeed him.
Steve Cooley defeated incumbent Gil Garcetti to become L.A. County district… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Tuesday that he would not run for a fourth term as the county's top prosecutor, ending intense speculation and setting the stage for the most competitive district attorney's race in more than a decade.

Cooley had remained coy for months about his political future and his decision promises to have a dramatic effect on the 2012 election campaign, which features several candidates who had promised to pull out if Cooley ran again.

Cooley told The Times that many of his law enforcement supporters encouraged him to seek reelection but that he decided instead to help Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Jacquelyn Lacey in her bid to become the first African American and first woman to hold the post.

"When I complete this term, I will be 65 1/2 years old," Cooley said in a phone interview. "I will have 39 years and 10 months of public service. There's a sense of wanting to leave on top."

Cooley, a Republican who narrowly lost a bid to become state attorney general last year, was first elected district attorney in 2000, beating incumbent Gil Garcetti to the nonpartisan post. The largely low-key prosecutor managed to draw political support in a county dominated by Democratic voters and in an office that has been unforgiving to some of his predecessors. In 2008, he became the first person to win three terms as L.A. County district attorney in more than 70 years.

Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton who is following the campaign, said Cooley's retirement from politics will have a major effect on next year's election.

"It means there will be a campaign," he said. "Cooley is a formidable force in Los Angeles County politics....He would have had no difficulty in being reelected."

Cooley said his decision was easy once Lacey convinced him she was serious about her campaign. Earlier this year, Cooley promoted Lacey to the No. 2 position in the district attorney's office.

Lacey is running against several other veteran county prosecutors, including Bobby Grace, Danette Meyers, Mario Trujillo and Alan Jackson, who announced his endorsement by county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich on Tuesday. All but Meyers have said they would stand down if Cooley were to run for another term.

Earlier this week, Steve Ipsen, the former head of the county prosecutors' union who ran an unsuccessful election challenge to Cooley in 2008, announced he was campaigning for the office again.

Meanwhile, L.A. City Atty. Carmen Trutanich has set up an exploratory committee for district attorney and previously said he was interested in a run if Cooley decided not to seek another term.

Cooley said he respected some of the other candidates' accomplishments as prosecutors but believed that Lacey had the management experience necessary to run the largest local prosecutorial agency in the country.

Cooley supported Trutanich in his successful 2009 campaign for city office but said he had advised Trutanich against a run for district attorney.

"I've told him over the last several months that he should remain city attorney and not run for D.A.," Cooley said, adding that the two remain friends. "He knows exactly my feelings on that."

Trutanich's campaign strategist, John Shallman, released a statement Tuesday saying that Trutanich would soon decide whether to run for district attorney. The statement also questioned Cooley's decision to endorse Lacey.

"It was expected, though a bit out of character, since one of the things that always set Steve Cooley apart was his determination to keep politics out of the office of district attorney," Shallman wrote. Shallman has worked as a political consultant for Cooley in the past.

The statement quoted Trutanich as praising Cooley's tenure and wishing that he would have sought a fourth term.

Cooley said he could not rule out changing his mind to run for another four years if Lacey ever pulled out of the race. But he told political supporters in a letter last week that he had decided to retire and urged them to back Lacey.

"I feel very comfortable clearing the decks for her," he told The Times. "It's hard for her to be calling likely supporters when they respond to her with, 'What is Steve going to do?'"

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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