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Harris worked hard in LA County to beat Cooley in California attorney general race

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris has won in the race against Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley for California Attorney General
Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Obsolete
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris has won in the race against Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley for California Attorney General

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris has won a historic comeback victory in the long drawn out race for California attorney general. Her Republican opponent Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley conceded the race Wednesday – more than three weeks after the election.

A spokesman said Cooley’s 50,000 vote deficit was insurmountable. More than 9 million votes were cast. Harris becomes the first woman, the first African-American and the first Indian-American ever elected to the state’s top law enforcement job.

The day before the November 2 election, L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley chatted with a reporter during a stop at the police historical society in Highland Park.

“Feeling great. I think we are in good position," Cooley said at the time. "When 57 law enforcement organizations endorse in a race and they only endorse one person, namely Steve Cooley, you gotta feel pretty good about that."

Cooley added, "I think we are going to claim victory tomorrow night.”

That’s exactly what Cooley did election night – only to back off when it was clear the race would not be decided until county registrars tallied mail-in and provisional ballots. The lead changed four times since then, until the 63-year-old moderate Republican was forced to concede.

What Cooley may not have known was his 46-year-old Democratic opponent spent the final weeks of the campaign practically camped out in L.A.

“L.A. is probably 40 percent of the vote the estimate goes, and so it is very important," Harris said the Sunday before the election outside the West Angeles Church in South L.A. – one of seven churches she would visit that morning.

"You know, to the extent that Karl Rove decided to put his $1.1 million hit piece against me in Los Angeles only tells me certainly that L.A. is very much in play," Harris added.

Harris was referring to an ad campaign by the national Republican State Leadership Committee, which has denied any connection to Rove. Spending by the committee, police groups and Cooley himself topped $7 million.

Harris and her labor allies spent about four-and-a-half million or so, according to her strategist Ace Smith.

“I think what you saw was a historic victory by a candidate who really decided to throw away conventional wisdom," Smith said. "Conventional wisdom being that you can only run for attorney general on traditional law enforcement issues.”

While Cooley touted his tough-on-crime credentials and blasted Harris for her opposition to the death penalty, Harris talked about the need for criminal justice reform and prosecuting environmental polluters.

Cooley strategist Kevin Spillane sees it differently.

“The reality is that when you’re a down ballot candidate, you’re simply a sailboat on a rather large ocean and you are at the mercy of the wave.”

And in California the wave was deep blue, with every statewide race won by Democrats. Spillane said if GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman had done better, Cooley would have won.

The strategist noted Cooley actually performed well as a Republican candidate in this state, garnering more votes than Whitman. Spillane scoffed at a suggestion that Harris worked harder than Cooley, who appeared to make fewer campaign appearances.

There were other factors in Cooley’s loss, including a Harris ad that featured him saying he would accept both his L.A. County pension and the attorney general’s salary – a practice sometimes called "double dipping."

Harris also received important help. President Obama was among the top party leaders who visited California to get out the Democratic vote.

Mr. Obama called Harris “A dear, dear friend" at a rally at USC. "So I want everyone to do right by her – San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris!" he said to a cheering crowd of more than 30,000 people.

Polls indicated Harris was behind by as much as 10 points a month before the election, and was losing L.A. County. She ended up beating Cooley in his own county by 14 points.

Many thought a liberal African-American woman from San Francisco couldn’t win the state’s top law enforcement job. Harris, who is also Indian-American, did it with a message that emphasized turning criminals around more than locking them up.

“I mean, people all know that the criminal justice system in California is broken," Harris said as she campaigned in South L.A. "In California, we release 120,000 prisoners every year and within three years of their release, seven out of 10 re-offend. Any system with a seven out of 10 failure rate is shouting and crying out for reform.”

Harris is refusing to declare victory until the vote count concludes next week.

When the counting is done and victory is in hand, Kamala Harris immediately becomes California’s most visible rising star in the Democratic Party.