Attorney general debate: The innovater versus the cops’ cop

Picture-3By: Rina Palta, The Informant

So far, we’ve seen a lot from the candidates for governor in the upcoming election. And we’ve seen possibly even more from the two major candidates for US senate. (The phrase “ad nauseam” comes to mind.) The race for attorney general has largely fallen to the back burner. Which made today’s debate at UC-Davis between Republican Steve Cooley and Democrat Kamala Harris, the two major candidates, a good opportunity for some insight into how the candidates see themselves–or at least, want to be seen by voters.

Kamala Harris, currently the district attorney of San Francisco, framed the choice for attorney general as being between innovation and the status quo. On everything from the federal government’s intervention into the state’s overcrowded prisons to the death penalty, to global warming laws, Harris demonstrated nuance. The prisons are overcrowded, she said repeatedly, because the system is broken and low-level criminals pass through its doors over and over and over again. If we don’t fix that problem ourselves, she said, the federal courts will make California release prisoners early, which cannot be allowed to happen. On capital punishment, Harris said, she’d defend death penalty cases just like every other attorney general before her has, regardless of their position on the death penalty. (Though she thinks there are systemic issues with such an irreversible punishment.) As far as Harris is concerned, the office of the attorney general has the obligation to provide leadership and resources when it comes to all areas of the law, whether determining, like Jerry Brown did, that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional, or working to take polluters and white collar criminals to task.

“We have broken systems in California,” Harris said in her closing statement. We spend billions of dollars on a system that doesn’t seem to change any convicts’ minds about crime, she said. “This is the home of innovation. A place where change happens.” And Harris, we’re led to infer, would bring fresh, new ideas to a system entrenched in its own failures.

According to Steve Cooley, she’d also bring partisanship. Cooley, the current district attorney of Los Angeles, showed a more traditional take on the law. Cooley painted himself as a good cop: someone who doesn’t make the rules, just makes sure they’re not broken. “This state finally needs someone who has a prosecutor’s background and is non-partisan,” Cooley said. As attorney general it wouldn’t be his job to decide that a proposition (like Prop 8, the same-sex marriage ban) is unconstitutional and not defend it; or that a law like Arizona’s, which targets immigrants, usurps federal powers over immigration policy. As a lawyer, Cooley said, “you figure out what your client wants. If you impose your ideology, you’re not going to be serving the law.”

The notable exception that basic articulated rule is Cooley’s strong stance on Proposition 19, which he vehemently opposes. (Harris also opposes the law.) “My instincts say it’s unconstitutional,” he said. If the voters approve the measure, Cooley indicated he may not defend it against federal challenges. On this particular issue, he said, his “public safety expertise” allows him to take a stand where propositions about global warming and gay marriage are best left to the people.

More than anything, Cooley seemed to want to emphasize his cred as law enforcement: he’s a former cop, he’s endorsed by a lot of cops, and he brought in supporters of his to the debate: the family of San Francisco officer Isaac Espinoza, who was killed on the job, and for whose killer Kamala Harris neglected to seek the death penalty.

And Harris, who herself is a career prosecutor, was left occasionally reminding the audience of that fact–and of the fact that the attorney general’s office deals with all legal issues facing the state, often with great discretion.

The candidates did, however, find common ground on one issue. A panelist asked Steve Cooley, who if elected, is due for a pension from his county job, if he would “double dip” and accept both a salary from the state and a pension. Cooley said he would, at which point the questioner gave Harris an opportunity to comment. “Go for it, Steve!” she said.

Original Article can be viewed here:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *