The winner of California's race for attorney general will have a tremendous amount of influence over state and federal environment and energy policy, although the race doesn't particularly hinge on environmental issues.
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris (D) is the environmentalists' clear favorite over Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley (R). A Field Poll taken at the end of September had them in a statistical dead heat, with Cooley at 35 percent to Harris' 31 percent and with 34 percent undecided.
The job is widely seen as the second-most influential position in California. And although politicians in many states have used the position of attorney general to springboard to national prominence -- among them Govs. Charlie Crist (I-Fla.), Jennifer Granholm (D-Mich.) and Chris Gregoire (D-Wash.); former Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D-N.Y.); Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.); and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, former attorney general of Colorado -- California's attorney general wields unusual power.
Current California Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown (D) used the office to regulate greenhouse gas emissions even before the state's landmark global warming law, A.B. 32, took effect. He sued local governments for failing to take carbon dioxide into their long-term development plans under the California Environmental Quality Act, winning a landmark case against San Bernardino County and a $7 million settlement with ConocoPhillips over emissions from a planned refinery expansion (E&ENews PM, Sept. 11, 2007).
Brown has also been instrumental in defending the state against lawsuits stemming from its low-carbon fuel standard and in defending the use of state and municipal funds to back property-assessed clean energy loans, which have come under fire from the Federal Housing Finance Agency (Greenwire, July 15).
Alice Kaswan, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, said she expects the next attorney general to have a heavy A.B. 32 burden, as well, assuming a proposition on next week's ballot to postpone the law fails. The state Air Resources Board is due to release cap-and-trade regulations within the next two weeks, in preparation for emissions trading to begin in 2012. "I expect there'll be litigation, probably from both sides of the fence," she said. "The attorney general's office is going to have a significant workload."
California's attorney general also plays a larger role than most in national politics. If a federal climate bill resurfaces, the attorney general will be involved in issues of state pre-emption and shaping the legislation itself. "The question is what will happen to state programs," she said. "Also, California's experience in developing climate programs has given the state a lot of expertise, so the attorney general will be involved in sharing that information with other states and federal policymakers."
The Sierra Club originally endorsed state Rep. Pedro Nava (D) for the job, citing his membership on the Ocean Protection Council and eight years on the California Coastal Commission. Bill Magavern, director of Sierra Club California, said there is "not a huge" difference between Nava and Harris, who received the group's endorsement after the primaries.
"We were impressed by her in the interview and think she would be an outstanding attorney general," he said. "She has made a solid commitment to CEQA, including using it to help local governments plan to grow more sustainably with a lower carbon footprint." Cooley makes no reference to the environment on his campaign website and declined to answer during an Oct. 5 debate whether he supported Proposition 23, the ballot initiative to suspend A.B. 32 until unemployment falls to 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters.
"I'm not approaching this issue from an ideological position, as my opponent seems to be," Cooley said. "The will of the people may be Prop 23, or it may be A.B. 32. I will implement their will if they pass it, and I will implement A.B. 32 if they don't pass it."
When asked if he would continue enforcing local land-use planning under CEQA, Cooley sharply criticized Brown's actions. "I would review every single threatening letter that he's sent to different parts of the state of California," he said. "It may very well be that Attorney General Brown has exceeded his authority and created a very, very bad jobs environment for legitimate businesses and development here in California."
While using terms like "dynamic," "forward-thinking" and "energetic" to describe Harris, most newspapers have endorsed Cooley. "Were we searching for an attorney general in whom we would find ideological kinship or visionary leadership, Harris would be it," the Los Angeles Times said in its endorsement. "But what the next four years require most of all in the office is strong, capable, nonpartisan, professional supervision."
That echoes most voters' perception of the position, said Rick Frank, a former California deputy attorney general and director of the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley. "I think, for better or worse, most Californians view the AG as the state's top cop," he said. "They have a fairly narrow and focused view of the attorney general, and most voters don't know or don't care that the AG has many responsibilities above enforcing the death penalty."
Harris is seen as softer on crime than Cooley, due to her staunch opposition to capital punishment. The Virginia-based Republican State Leadership Committee, whose donors include Exxon Mobil Corp., BP PLC and Devon Energy Corp., began running an ad last week criticizing her decision not to seek the death penalty in 2004 against a man who killed a San Francisco police officer.
Other oil companies have been taking an active interest in the campaign, as well, with Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips, Occidental Petroleum Corp., Valero Energy Corp. and Venoco Inc. all contributing to Cooley. Harris has raised about $4 million to Cooley's $4.6 million, but her donor list is full of Hollywood heavyweights like Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Aaron Sorkin.
The last-minute ad campaign underscores industry's sophisticated appreciation of the attorney general's role, Sierra Club's Magavern said. "The ads focus on the death penalty, but why these businesses care about the attorney general have nothing to do with the death penalty and everything to do with enforcement of environmental and consumer laws," he said.
Kahn reported from San Francisco.