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Will Kamala Harris' Death Penalty Opposition Cost Her?

First Posted: 07/06/10 12:39 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 06:00 PM ET

Kamala Harris Death Penalty

The following story comes courtesy of California Watch.

By Timothy Sandoval

In her campaign to become California's next attorney general, Democratic candidate Kamala Harris may be facing a big blue wall.

Few endorsements are more coveted by politicians than those from police and law enforcement groups. But they are particularly important in the attorney general race between Harris and her GOP opponent, Steve Cooley, the district attorney of Los Angeles.

A few major law enforcement groups will announce their endorsements during the summer, but Harris already faces challenges in gathering widespread support from police unions - because of her opposition to the death penalty.

Harris has said in the past that she will review the facts of each murder case to make a decision on whether to pursue the punishment. That nuance may not sit well with some police organizations.

"When (police unions) have a choice between two district attorneys, I have a feeling that they are going to lean toward the one that is going to be tougher on crime in their perception," said Wesley Hussey, assistant professor of government at CSU Sacramento. "If one of them is very skeptical about capital punishment and one is not, then they are going to lean towards the one that is in favor of capital punishment."

One death penalty case has dogged Harris' campaign. In 2004, Harris' office declined to seek the death penalty against a defendant who had murdered San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza. The decision caused in uproar among police around the state, including notably the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

At the time, Gary Delagnes, president of the SFPOA, said: "Officer Isaac Espinoza made the ultimate sacrifice. We believe, in the interest of justice, his killer should also pay the ultimate price."

The SFPOA, which donated two $500 contributions to Harris' primary opponent, Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, has not endorsed any candidate for attorney general. In an interview, Delagnes said the union would most likely remain neutral throughout the general election. But if the union decided to endorse anyone, he said it would most likely be Cooley.

"There is no way that my members would ever allow me to endorse Kamala Harris after she refused to seek the death penalty on the guy that killed the cop," Delagnes said. "That is a relationship that is never going to be okay."

Hussey said losing SFPOA's endorsement to Cooley could hurt Harris substantially. "To me that would be a huge signal," he said. "If Cooley gets that endorsement of the San Francisco police union and can run an ad about it, that could be pretty brutal."

Brian Brokaw, campaign manager for Kamala Harris, said he would not specifically address Delagnes' comments regarding Espinoza, but said he believed Harris would garner police support for other reasons - reducing crime and raising felony conviction rates.

"Kamala is a career prosecutor and has worked with police for many years," Brokaw said. "She has shown that it is possible to be tough on crime and smart on crime."

(An SF Weekly article released in May, however, reported felony conviction rates out the San Francisco district attorney's office had fallen "significantly" in past two years, and suggested that the numbers from the district attorney's office are not as impressive as they may seem.).

Last week, Harris's campaign unveiled more endorsements from district attorneys around the state. Harris has received endorsements from prosecutors in Colusa, Imperial, Mendocino, Merced, Sonoma, Plumas and Tehama counties. She also received an endorsement from the former district attorney of Los Angeles, Ira Reiner.

Brokaw pointed to a lawsuit filed against Cooley from the Association of Deputy District Attorney's, the largest prosecutor's union in the nation. The 2009 lawsuit alleged that Cooley's office in Los Angeles had retaliated against union members through unpaid suspensions, improper work transfers, threats of termination, and had raised health insurance premiums solely for unionized prosecutors.

Cooley dismissed the claims in a news report in April, saying they were made "by disgruntled individuals who have faced disciplinary matters or who were using the legal process to assert their own personal or political agendas."

Brokaw said police unions would be looking for support from someone who has stood up for working people, and he believes that Harris falls into that category. It said a lot about Cooley's position on unions that the only union he worked with in Los Angeles hit him with a lawsuit, he said.

Cooley's spokesman, Kevin Spillane, declined to comment.

Torrico endorsements

During the primaries, Torrico seemed the law-enforcement favorite. He received an endorsement from the Police Officers Research Association of California, which represents 62,000 police officers around the state, as well as many other local and statewide police unions. In total, Torrico received about $62,000 in contributions from various police unions around the state.

Ron Cottingham, president of PORAC, said the union's endorsement of Torrico was not an endorsement against Harris or Cooley. PORAC will interview both candidates in August and then make their decision, Cottingham said.

"With Torrico, we have had a long standing relationship," Cottingham said. "We had been to war this individual and we knew what he stood for."

Barry Krisberg, senior fellow at the Boalt Law School Center for Criminal Justice at UC Berkeley, said he did not think endorsements from law enforcement would have a large impact on the campaign.

Attorney general is the de facto lawyer for the state of California. The principle law enforcement function is mostly implemented at the local level or through state police, and the attorney general has a limited role in its implementation, Krisberg said.

"We want an attorney general who is respected by law enforcement," he said, "but I don't think it is as critical (to) the groups that represent district attorneys."

Krisberg pointed out voters had a chance to choose candidates heavily endorsed by police unions during the primaries, like Torrico, but instead chose Cooley and Harris.

Harris has received some endorsements from police leadership and higher-ranking officials, including San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon, San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey, San Diego chief of police William Lansdowne, and former Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton.

Cooley bagged endorsements from 10 statewide and Los Angeles-based police unions and organizations. He also received endorsements from district of Mono, Kern, Inyo, Riverside, Yolo, Amador, Sacramento and Ventura counties.

Battle with prison guards

Cooley also has been on the opposing side of some battles with the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents prison guards around the state, particularly for his efforts to reform California's three strikes law.

Cooley has been a vocal critic of the law. His office attempted to only prosecute three strikes in cases where the defendant had committed a violent or serious crime in their criminal careers. Those who had committed lesser crimes, like non-violent burglaries or minor drug offenses, would not get prosecuted under three strikes by Cooley's office. In his tenure as LA's district attorney, three-strikes convictions dropped 39 percent.

In 2006, Cooley initially was going to work with Harris to author an initiative that attempted to make the reforms he adopted in LA statewide. Cooley and Harris ended up squashing the partnership, but Cooley still went on to write the initiative. A bill similar to the initiative was introduced to the state Senate by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-East Los Angeles, but received little support and died in committee.

The CCPOA has been an ardent defender of three strikes, and put $200,000 behind the Proposition 184 in 1994, which put the law on the books in the state. The union also put $500,000 to defeat Proposition 66, an initiative that would have changed the three-strikes law to be used against only criminals who had committed a violent or serious crime as a third strike.

Cooley also endorsed Romero's 2004 bill that would have ended a controversial clause of the CCPOA's contract allowing the union to review information about reports of prison guard abuse, including the accuser's name, before an investigation starts. Critics, like Cooley, said the clause allowed for intimidation from the unions against those reporting the abuse.

The bill was defeated amid tens of thousands of dollars in lobbying expenses from the CCPOA.

Other three-strikes advocates have spoken out against Cooley.

In January, Mike Reynolds, a wedding photographer who authored Prop. 184 in 1994 after his daughter was murdered by a repeat offender, wrote a critical column claiming Cooley was not fit to run for attorney general.

Three Strikes must be protected and Cooley has shown by his record, office policy and philosophy that he will do completely the opposite. Californians cannot afford to have an attorney general that will allow known criminals to continue wreaking havoc on our neighborhoods.

The CCPOA's endorsement is pending.

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