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The Orange County District Attorney race continues to intensify under a national spotlight, with warnings at a Monday crime victims’ rally organized at DA Todd Spitzer’s office that his election challenger would put criminals above crime victims.

The rally, in turn, has prompted accusations from Spitzer’s opponent, Peter Hardin, that the rally violates a state law against using taxpayer resources for campaigning.

Spitzer hasn’t responded to messages asking for his response to that allegation.

The national focus on Spitzer comes from a movement that’s trying to oust DAs across America and replace them with officials who are promising to reduce mass incarceration and combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

That movement is now trying to kick out Orange County’s Republican DA, Spitzer, who’s staring down a reportedly well-funded opponent in Hardin, a Democrat and former prosecutor.

The issue played out Monday at the annual crime victim’s rally, which this year was organized and broadcast live by Spitzer’s DA’s office.

Spitzer – who vilified former incumbent DA Tony Rackauckas in his 2018 campaign – declared on Monday that he welcomed the national spotlight on prosecutors in Orange County – a county, he says, that “has been doing it right for decades.”

At the rally, held at a plaza next to the DA’s headquarters, speakers said Spitzer’s election challenger is spitting on crime victims and wants to put criminals ahead of families and public safety.

Steve Herr, whose son Sam was murdered in 2010, read aloud a quote of Hardin saying the death penalty is “a pointless and cruel exercise because it forces surviving victims to endure decades of appeals.”

That statement “disgusts me to my core,” Herr said in his speech to the rally.

“For him to assume that he could speak for me – or all crime victims and their families – illustrates his lack of understanding for the grieving families,” Herr added.

“In his guise of protecting crime victims, he has – for all intents and purposes – spat on the victims and their families.”

His remarks brought public appreciation from Spitzer’s second-in-command at the DA’s office, Shawn Nelson.

“Steve thank you for those words,” Nelson said.

A prosecutor also told the rally that Spitzer was facing candidates who prioritize criminals above victims.

“Your DA, Todd Spitzer – he is just the best,” said Jonathan Hatami, an LA County deputy DA who prosecuted the torture and murder of 8 year-old Gabriel Fernandez.

“We are facing a situation today – even here in Orange County – where some DAs and some DA candidates want to place criminals ahead of victims and survivors and families and public safety,” said Hatami.

“For political purposes, they want to divide us. They don’t even want to prosecute child murderers to the fullest extent of the law,” Hatami said of some DA candidates in Orange County.

Hatami didn’t name the challengers, though Hardin is the only known candidate running against Spitzer in next year’s election.

The prosecutor praised Spitzer as a protector of public safety and called on Orange County to stay vigilant about who it empowers as DA.

“To some of those politicians masquerading as DAs, I have one thing to say: Not in our community,” said Hatami, who thanked Spitzer for inviting him to the rally.

“We won’t have a DA who abandons survivors, abandons family members. We won’t have a DA who sends mothers of murdered children to parole hearings by themselves to face the murderers of their children. We won’t have a DA who enforces blanket policies on every single case for political purposes.”

“DA Todd Spitzer knows the #1 job of a DA is to make sure that children, families and their community are safe,” Hatami told the rally.

“Thank you so much for those words,” responded Nelson, the chief assistant district attorney, who has updated filings with the county to fundraise for a potential election for judge in Orange County Superior Court in 2022. 

The rally and video of the speeches were promoted and streamed online by the DA’s Office.

That’s illegal, says Hardin.

“Using or even permitting public resources to be used for political activity is against the law, a law the District Attorney is responsible for enforcing,” Hardin said in a statement pointing to a law against campaigning with public resources.

“Here the DA himself used public resources to organize a rally wherein his allies lobbed a number of misguided attacks against a political opponent,” Hardin added.

“That’s not just inappropriate, it’s illegal, but it’s just another day in the life of Orange County’s corrupt District Attorney.”

Spitzer and his spokeswoman didn’t return phone messages for comment.

As for Herr’s criticism of his position on the death penalty, Hardin said his position is based on victims telling him they prefer the quicker process of prosecuting life without parole.

“I understand and respect that each victim has their own experience and journey to becoming a survivor,” Hardin said in a statement.

“In my discussions with victims’ families what I’ve heard time and time again is that given the moratorium which renders another execution in California improbable, the finality of life without parole is overwhelmingly favored to decades of litigation which forces a family to relive their most horrifying moment over and over.”

Hardin also disputed allegations at the rally that he spits on victims.

“I entered this race with the support of survivors, and I won’t turn my back on them now or ever,” Hardin said.

“Enhancing safety through modern approaches isn’t divisive–that’s leadership that will bring us together and enhance quality of life for our families and in our neighborhoods.”

It’s shaping up to be a hard-fought battle for the future of Orange County’s justice system, with Spitzer himself showing up to Hardin’s press conference when the challenger announced his campaign to unseat the DA.

In February, Spitzer came out with his own statements pointing to racial disparities in the criminal justice system, urging treatment as an alternative to jail for low-level drug offenses, and calling for an end to mass incarceration.

Hardin says Spitzer is faking it and failing to follow up his words with any meaningful actions. Hardin is promising to have the DA’s office seek diversion in first-time drug possession and paraphernalia cases, end the use of cash bail, stop prosecuting minors in adult court and stop pursuing the death penalty.

Hours after Voice of OC reported Monday that the national movement for DA reform is coming to Orange County, Spitzer publicly embraced a national spotlight.

“We’re part of a national conversation. We’re fighting for victims. We’re fighting on a national stage. I want to be on this national stage,” Spitzer said at the rally.

Hardin says Orange County’s in the national spotlight “for all the wrong reasons.”

“We’re part of the national #MeToo conversation because DA Spiter has promoted abusers and retaliated against women that have complained of sexual harassment,” Hardin said in a statement.

“We’re part of the national conversation around dated approaches to criminal justice because Todd Spitzer charges more drug paraphernalia cases than anything else,” he added.

“And we’re part of the national conversation around justice system integrity because this District Attorney has failed to remedy the scandals he promised to cure during his campaign two years ago.”

Two months ago, Spitzer called for major reform of low-level drug prosecutions, saying he wants to offer treatment instead of jail as an option for people arrested on low-level drug crimes like being under the influence while not driving.

And when Spitzer ran for election as DA in 2018, when he harshly criticized Orange County law enforcement ethics violations in the so-called informants scandal, and promised to clean things up.

But at this week’s rally, Spitzer said the county has been handling prosecutions the right way for decades.

“This conversation needs to start and focus on Orange County,” Spitzer said of the national discussion.

“Why? Because this county has been doing it right for decades.”

At Monday’s rally Spitzer praised Ebrahim Baytieh, a high-ranking DA executive who defended the prosecutors’ actions in the informants scandal – who is now also running for Superior Court judge.

“I want to thank Brahim Baytieh. I want to thank the appellate unit. We have the best prosecutors in the entire nation here in Orange County. Okay? We’ve got the best team,” Spitzer said.

The DA added that both he and Baytieh can remember the facts of their long-ago prosecutions “by heart, because they are in our hearts.”

In his speech to the rally, Spitzer said he will fight against “evil” forces wherever they are.

“We will not allow any forces of evil to overtake our community – whether it comes from people who try to hurt us, or if it comes from individuals who are also in the system,” Spitzer said at the crime victims’ rally.

“We will not allow it.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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