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Steve Cooley, left, and Kamala Harris may continue to vie for attorney general several weeks past Tuesday's election. Photos courtesy of Steve Cooley for Attorney General and Kamala Harris for Attorney General.

Still no winner in state’s tight attorney general race

on November 4, 2010

Amid a wave of Democratic victories in California that defied major gains for Republicans in the rest of the nation, the race to become the state’s next attorney general is so evenly split—between Democratic candidate Kamala Harris and Republican Steve Cooley—that its winner may not be known for weeks. Cooley enjoyed higher returns on Tuesday than any other Republican candidate running for statewide office in California, but that may not be enough to propel him to victory.

As of Thursday afternoon, with partial results from all counties, the California Secretary of State’s Office reported that Harris led Cooley by just one-tenth of one percentage point. Under California law, the Registrar of Voters offices in the state’s 58 counties have until November 30 to count all ballots, and the election’s winners will not be officially declared until December 3. Though many winners are obvious immediately after an election, official word is often slow in coming. “The Secretary of State’s Office would never call an election without counting every ballot,” said Shannan Velayas, a spokesperson for that office.

The attorney general is the chief law officer in the state, responsible for ensuring that the state’s laws are “uniformly and adequately” enforced. Whoever wins will succeed current Attorney General Jerry Brown, who served as California governor from 1974 to 1982, Oakland mayor from 1998 to 2006, and is now returning to Sacramento for his third term as governor.

The attorney general’s race has pitted one sitting district attorney against another: Harris from San Francisco, and Cooley from Los Angeles. Harris, a Democrat, has gained attention for her opposition to the death penalty, as well as for presiding over a “sanctuary city” in which law enforcement officers are required to check the immigration status of anyone arrested for a felony, but not for misdemeanors. Cooley has criticized Harris over the sanctuary city ordinance, and has notably supported the ban on gay marriage enacted by Proposition 8, which Harris opposes.

Neither candidate’s office returned phone calls on Thursday asking how their campaigns will respond to the near-tie. Harris’ website directed visitors to a Los Angeles Times article describing her slight lead, and Cooley’s offered a message that his staff “will continue to monitor the situation,” and that they are prepared for the ballot count to continue into December.

Regardless of the winner, the state’s next attorney general will not have to account for the controversial Proposition 19, which would have decriminalized the recreational use of marijuana in the state. The ballot initiative was voted down by voters on Tuesday, but many wondered how Cooley, who was known for prosecuting medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles, would have dealt with more widespread use of the drug.

The next attorney general will likely play a role in the state’s ongoing battle over gay marriage rights. The gay marriage ban enacted by the passage of Proposition 8 was struck down in August, and the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court is expected to hear an appeal in January, just as the new attorney general takes office. As attorney general, Jerry Brown has been a vocal opponent of Proposition 8.

Although Harris and Cooley are running neck and neck statewide, in the Bay Area the vote has been more one-sided. In Alameda County, which has historically leaned Democratic, Harris enjoys a 39-point lead.

Check out all of our Oakland elections coverage on our Campaign 2010 page.

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