Garcia: SF district attorney faces steep climb to state office

She spent a lot of time campaigning for President Barack Obama and even more campaigning for herself, which will explain why San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris has been away from her office so much.

She probably shouldn’t get used to it — it may be the only one she’ll get.

Harris finds herself under intense scrutiny these days after it was revealed that she failed to disclose key information to defense attorneys about a lab technician suspected of skimming drugs and another tainted witness who testified in a number of criminal cases. She was ripped by her campaign challengers after a local publication reported an alarmingly low conviction record in felony trial cases.

Her missteps have been her main obstacle in her pursuit to be the next California attorney general, but now she’s facing an opponent more formidable than herself. And this may be one time that being identified as a “San Francisco Democrat” in a largely Democratic state is not such a good thing.

In some elections, size does matter, and Harris’ opponent in November is a popular Republican from Los Angeles, a county with more than 10 times the number of residents as San Francisco. District Attorney Steve Cooley has won three nonpartisan races in Los Angeles, and its 4.4 million voters always play a key role in determining the state’s top law enforcement officer.

For Harris, the contrast could not be greater. Not only is Cooley considered a by-the-book law-and-order candidate, he’s been a strong advocate of the death penalty, something Harris opposes. Her position may play well in the Bay Area, but in Orange County and other populous regions of the state, law enforcement is considered just that.

Still, Cooley is a moderate by most standards, someone who worked to try to amend the state’s three-strikes law by not sending nonviolent felony offenders to prison. His more-conservative opponents in the Republican primary tried to portray him as “too liberal,” which is kind of amusing for someone whose office had more death-penalty convictions last year — 13 — than the state of Texas.

“It’s nice to be in the middle where you can be attacked on both sides,” Cooley said. “I think that as a Republican elected in a Democratic county, I’m uniquely appealing to moderate and independent-minded voters throughout the state.”

Cooley said recent revelations that Harris’ office did not have any policy to track police officers who were accused of wrongdoing — so-called Brady cases — may prove even more detrimental. Los Angeles was the first to set up a police-misconduct disclosure policy back in 2002.

Yet no matter how far apart they are on the issues, the race may come down to sheer numbers, which will be hard even for the telegenic Harris to overcome. Cooley easily carried Los Angeles County during the primary, and most political analysts believe Harris would have to cut deeply into Cooley’s home base in order to win, which would require her to virtually camp out in the Southland.

And right now, that would not be very popular in San Francisco, where she has been beset by so many recent problems that last week she announced a major shake-up in her office.

Even if Harris were to recover from the string of headlines that have hurt her standing, the timing of events does not appear to be in her favor. Word has it that the trial of suspected gang member Edwin Ramos, accused of killing three members of the Bologna family, could begin as early as September, just two months before the general election. Ramos, who was in the country illegally, is a lightning rod for those opposed to lenient sanctuary-city policies. 

Harris’ perceived vulnerability in the attorney general race is not the only campaign she may have to worry about. If she doesn’t win the state office, Harris would be up for re-election next year, and sources say she may have a host of challengers for the job, including longtime U.S. Attorney Joe Russoniello and San Francisco Police Commissioner David Onek.

She’s proved it’s hard to manage one office from afar. She’ll be especially hard-pressed to pull off the trick of ­juggling two.

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