Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas may face his strongest election challenge in 20 years as his well-financed former protégé, County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, could block Rackauckas from winning re-election in the June 5 primary and instead force a run-off in November.
“There are a lot of dents in Rackauckas’ armor, but I don’t know if it’s enough to take him out just yet. It’s hard to beat an incumbent,” said Chapman University professor Mike Moodian who specializes in elections. At the same time, “you need to raise a lot of money to run a viable countywide campaign, and this is what Spitzer does well.”
According to a May 24 campaign filing, Rackauckas, a Republican, has raised $169,093 so far this year, and has $18,101 in the bank as well as $48,244 in campaign debts.
Spitzer, also a Republican, has by comparison raised $259,718 so far this year and has $978,061 in the bank.
There also are two Democrats in the race. Brett Murdock, a former Brea mayor and attorney who is endorsed by the Democratic Party of Orange County, raised $36,948 this year and had $9,712 left to spend as of the most recent filings. Murdock ran for Congress against Rep. Ed Royce in 2016.
Lenore Albert-Sheridan, a consumer attorney who currently is suspended by the State Bar but will appear on the ballot, has raised $4,014 this year and had $291 in the bank. Albert-Sheridan did not return a request for an interview.
Rackauckas, 75, enjoys the support of four of the five members of the Board of Supervisors (except for Spitzer), four members of Congress, two state senators, five state Assemblymen and a number of GOP insiders. His campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.
Spitzer, 57, once Rackauckas’ hand-picked successor, was fired from the DA’s office in 2010 for allegedly overstepping his authority. Since then the feud between the two Republicans has intensified, injecting the race with a palpable acrimony.
Rackauckas is facing mounting criticism of cronyism and misconduct, allegations that Spitzer has seized on to campaign as a reform candidate who would restore integrity to the office.
Perhaps Rackauckas’ biggest liability is the “jailhouse snitch scandal,” or how DA prosecutors are accused of illegally using informants to obtain incriminating evidence against charged defendants in violation of their constitutional rights. Revelations of misconduct led to retrials and reduced sentencing in at least seven serious criminal cases. In the prosecution of mass murderer Scott Evans Dekraai, a judge barred the entire DA’s office was from prosecuting the case and later threw out the death penalty.
The U.S. Department of Justice and state Attorney General are both investigating the potential systemic abuses of jail informants, and the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against the DA and Sheriff to force increased disclosure of informant use.
But the DA has pushed back at criticism, pointing to a controversial Orange County Grand Jury report that dismissed the allegations of systemic informant abuse as a “myth” perpetuated by the media and the public defender’s office.
Rackauckas also has denied accusations by three former investigators, in legal claims and lawsuits, that he interfered with investigations into political allies and retaliated against employees for whistleblowing.
Jon Fleischman, a conservative commentator and blogger, said he doesn’t believe the corruption allegations or snitch scandal will be on most voters’ minds when they pick up their primary election ballots. Fleischman is supporting Rackauckas.
“The overwhelming number of people that vote in June aren’t really going to focus on the DA’s race at all,” Fleischman said. “I think that what will happen is voters who feel safe will feel more inclined to support their incumbent, and voters who don’t feel safe will probably favor challengers.”
Given that there are four candidates on the ballot, Fleischman said he thinks it’s likely no candidate will receive an outright majority and the race will go to a run-off in November.
Moodian agreed, pointing to the results of a recent survey of Orange County social and political attitudes. Respondents were asked to name the biggest problem facing Orange County today.
Only four percent of respondents named crime as the top issue, while more than a quarter of respondents named housing affordability as the biggest problem.
In surveys from previous decades, crime has always ranked in the top three issues, Moodian said.
“There isn’t this feeling that crime is out of control, that we’re having major problems, that are leading us to have to get an incumbent out of office,” Moodian said. “That’s not at the top of people’s minds right now, and that’s telling.”
Rackauckas joined the DA’s office in 1972, taking a leave of absence in 1982 to lead a statewide recall of controversial state Supreme Court Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.
Rackauckas was a municipal court judge from 1990 to 1993, followed by an appointment to the Superior Court, where he served as a judge until he took office as District Attorney in January 1999.
If he wins re-election in November, Rackauckas would be serving his sixth term. But he told Village Television in February that he would “try to find somebody, pretty soon, after the election, who would be able to take over that job,” prompting speculation by OC Weekly reporter R. Scott Moxley that Rackauckas would step down early and appoint his chief of staff, Susan Schroeder, as DA.
DA spokeswoman Michelle Van Der Linden later told Voice of OC Rackauckas “has never even contemplated not serving his full term” and he would “most likely look to groom someone who would then eventually run and be elected to take over the office when his term is over.”
Spitzer said he views himself as ushering in a new era for Orange County law enforcement in a county where voters are tired of scandals and misconduct.
“He [Rackauckas] represents the old, passive Orange County – lock them up and throw away the key without any regard to what is right or just,” Spitzer said. “I represent the future of Orange County, competent prosecution, understanding we need to move people into drug diversion programs and enhance collaborative courts.”
Asked about Rackauckas’ support from Republican elected officials, Spitzer said he has refused endorsements from politicians to avoid conflicts of interests. Spitzer has received endorsements from retired police chiefs in Costa Mesa, Brea, Placentia, Anaheim and Garden Grove.
“There’s certainly individuals who are supporting Tony because they know he looks the other way on corruption,” Spitzer said.
He said he disagrees with Moodian, pointing to polling conducted by his campaign that suggests two-thirds of Orange County residents have felt less safe in the past few years.
But Spitzer is controversial in his own right, with critics pointing to an incident in April 2015 when Spitzer handcuffed a man at a Wahoo’s Fish Taco for harassing him.
“Todd Spitzer’s batshit crazy,” said Fleischman. “At moments when you talk to him, he seems rational, generous and sanguine – then it’s Jekyll and Hyde.”
Spitzer, who has been asked about the Wahoo’s incident during television appearances and at public events, said he detained the man because he was “talking to himself, scaring people” and felt the man “needed to be checked out” by police.
“It wasn’t like he was waving a weapon, but it was scary for a lot of people,” Spitzer said in an interview, noting the owner of the chain restaurant later gave him a plaque for his actions.
He said accusations that he is unstable are untrue and part of politically motivated attacks.
The supervisor has also been criticized for his management style by a former county employee, Christine Richters, who claimed Spitzer required his staff to be on-call for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and respond to text messages within 15 minutes.
The county later paid Richters $150,000 to settle legitimate wage claims, Spitzer said, but said the rest of her accusations are untrue.
Part of his personality is an intensity, Spitzer said, a lack of tolerance for “bench warmers” and government employees who are there to collect a paycheck. Although at-will political employees at the county work unusual and demanding hours, Spitzer said he has never required employees to work unreasonable hours.
Spitzer first joined the OCDA’s office in 1990, where he was a prosecutor until he was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1996. He was elected to the state Assembly in 2002 and served three terms. From 1990 to 2000, he also served as a Los Angeles Police Department reserve officer.
Spitzer returned to the DA’s office in 2008 as an Assistant District Attorney. After he was fired in 2010, Spitzer was elected to the Board of Supervisors in November 2012, and was re-elected in 2016.
“This is where I started – this is where I plan to retire,” Spitzer said. “I plan to return it to the best DA’s office in the state of California.”
Murdock, an attorney and former Brea mayor who is endorsed by the Democratic Party of Orange County, also is running for DA as a reform candidate. He called Spitzer a “career politician” who is “unpredictable and erratic.”
“I see myself as the adult in the room – the candidate who is reasonable and measured,” Murdock said. “Even if a good friend of mine were to break the law…I would serve justice first instead of my personal political biases.”
Both Murdock and Spitzer say they would end a “win at all costs” culture in the DA’s office, quoting a report by a panel of attorneys that blamed the informant scandal, in part, on leadership failures.
They say prosecutors should be evaluated more holistically, rather than based on their records of criminal convictions, which encourages a culture where winning a trial comes before following the law.
Both said if elected, prosecutors who are found to have engaged in misconduct will be passed up for promotions, fired, or reported to the State Bar.
Murdock said he would focus on rehabilitative approaches to law enforcement and ending mass incarceration, in part by re-examining the use of gang injunctions and marijuana-related offenses.
A licensed attorney since 2012, Murdock has never been a prosecutor and said he wouldn’t try any cases as the elected DA.
“The job of the DA is to be a leader, not only in the office but in representing the office to the rest of the county, the state and nation,” Murdock said. “I’m not discounting [prosecutorial experience] but what’s way more important is having an intelligent leader that can lead the organization in the direction that it needs to go.”
He said that would include leading on major legislative issues, such as being an outspoken voice for gun control. Murdock said he would also pursue political corruption cases “fairly and objectively.”
“When you allow elected officials to do these things, you embolden them,” Murdock said about political corruption. “To feel like he can do whatever he wants and he’s going to be fine.”
Contact Thy Vo at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.