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Late last week, in the final days of the campaign for Los Angeles County district attorney — head of the nation’s largest prosecutorial agency — the increasingly vitriolic candidates faced off at a 15th and final debate. The snide remarks they’re tossing off — allusions to character and personality — often mark the endgame of a close political race, but that’s definitely not the case in L.A. It’s hard to find anyone at this stage who will predict that two-term incumbent Gil Garcetti can overcome the local support amassed by Steve Cooley, the high-ranking deputy who wants to oust him. Here, it seems, the nasty repartee is more personally revealing: For Garcetti, it’s a telling departure from his usual polished, articulate demeanor. In Cooley, who’s the working stiff — Joe Friday, complete with deadpan — it sounds like nothing less than unvarnished disdain. Not that there aren’t policy differences between the two 30-year veteran prosecutors. Cooley says the office needs to return to putting criminals behind bars and denounces the specialized prevention-education programs that he says are useful only to aggrandize the DA with “coffee-table books, calendars and other silly things.” Garcetti says his programs, targeting everything from truants to check kiters to hatemongers, are the strength of the office. But Cooley cranks it up, calling his opponent “a celebrity DA who takes care of his rich contributors.” Garcetti responds that Cooley is a “tired prosecutor who responds to the latest case” without realizing “being DA is more than that.” For Garcetti, “the latest case” could be code for “most recent albatross.” Four years ago, Garcetti’s bid for a second term barely survived his office’s loss of the O.J. Simpson murder case. One of his deputies, John Lynch, launched an underfunded 11th-hour bid that came so close to succeeding that it encouraged Cooley to start working toward 2000. This season, the looming disaster is Garcetti’s prosecution of four officers in the scandal involving the Rampart district police station. Although police abuses have resulted in more than 100 convictions being overturned and generated tens of millions of dollars in civil exposure, newspaper accounts of the trial, coinciding with the closing days of the campaign, detail charges dismissed and witnesses uncalled. “I know how to prosecute police officers,” Garcetti insists, noting that his office has gone after more than 100 for felonies, perjury and the like. And, he added for Thursday’s debate audience, as an ex-LAPD reserve officer, Cooley comes from the camp where the blame resides. The Rampart prosecution is coming unwound even though Garcetti has deployed 40 to 45 lawyers on it full time for 14 months, responded Cooley. “Does this sound like someone who knows what he’s doing?” A defense attorney in the case, Harland Braun, is a former Garcetti backer who now says cheerfully, “Gil is history.” He adds that Garcetti is no longer perceived as “competent or ethical,” in contrast to Cooley, “who’s a straight-arrow, unpretentious guy.” Back in the late 1960s when Braun was a prosecutor, he was the one who helped lure Garcetti — a UCLA law school classmate — into the Los Angeles DA’s office. Braun and others on both sides of the criminal justice system refer to those as the golden days, when, under district attorneys Joe Bush and John Van de Kamp, there was a working relationship between defense and prosecution. “There doesn’t have to be the animosity we have now,” says Charles Lindner, former head of the county’s Criminal Courts Bar Association. “Cooley has enormous good will from the defense bar. He seems calmer, saner.” Another point that appeals to the defense bar is that Cooley and Garcetti have staked out different positions on the state’s “three strikes” law. Under Garcetti, the office has been tough, occasionally running into bad press when the third strike is incongruous — as in the man who drew 25 years to life for stealing a slice of pizza. Cooley has said that’s a misuse of the law, and repeated Thursday night that his office would take a pass on third strikes connected to “stealing food, diapers, small amounts of drugs and the like.” In televised ads, Garcetti has tried to use that criticism, as well as the high plea bargain rate in regional offices that Cooley has headed, to his advantage. One ad accuses his opponent of being soft on “even chronic drunk drivers, child abusers and drug dealers.” It was an allegation, however, that Garcetti avoided during the final debate. One possible reason: It would have given Cooley an opening to remind voters how many law enforcement groups, including the city’s police protective league, have switched their support to him. Van de Kamp, now of counsel at the Los Angeles office of Dewey Ballantine, has also endorsed Cooley. He won’t go into detail about why he would like to see Garcetti thrown out after having repeatedly advanced the DA’s career. Instead, he says simply that if Garcetti hasn’t accomplished what he set out to by now, “he should step aside.” But Garcetti is planning to take his agenda further. He says in the next four years, he will double the number of schools in his anti-truancy program from 343 to 686, further cut the rate of domestic violence homicides, and assign new anti-gang prosecutors in at least 10 more communities. Those programs would be at risk under Cooley, says Gerald Chaleff, and that’s one of the reasons that he remains a Garcetti backer. Chaleff, best known as the defense attorney in the Hillside Strangler serial murder case, now practices white-collar defense in the Los Angeles office of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. As a former head of the Los Angeles County Bar Association and the current president of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, his endorsement is important to Garcetti. The embattled DA — behind in every poll — also has targeted influential lawyers in other major firms, on the theory that they provide guidance to the public at large. “I was up in the air,” says Kevin O’Connell, an antitrust lawyer at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. But Garcetti visited the firm last week, and now O’Connell thinks the DA will get his vote. He’s not sure district attorneys should be in the business of running anti-truancy programs, he says, but he’s glad someone is doing it. Also getting play in the closing days of the campaign are the prominent Democratic politicians who have endorsed Garcetti: Gov. Gray Davis, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, and nine members of Congress, including Howard Berman and Henry Waxman. Although the race is officially nonpartisan, those nods should matter in a jurisdiction in which only one out of every four registered voters is, like Cooley, a Republican. But in practical terms, it may mean less than the fact that virtually every major newspaper has come out in favor of Cooley. If Cooley pulls off the expected win Tuesday, close observers differ on how much he can really change the office, in which some 1,100 prosecutors and their support staff handle 70,000 felonies and 300,000 misdemeanor criminal cases a year. Braun notes that Garcetti has had eight years of making appointments, most of which, thanks to civil service protections, are locked in place. Lindner has said he’s urged Cooley to make some major public gesture to help restore the image of the office, because in the end, he says, “tone is what it is all about.” And while those top appointments may be intractable, it is in the middle range that the office has been hurting, Lindner continues. Sixteen years of Republican governors naming prosecutors to the bench have decimated the middle ranks, interfering with much of the teaching that goes on. Lindner, Braun and others in the trenches agree that one of the most significant things the winner of the election will do — a task that has not become an issue in the campaign — is fill those intermediate positions.

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