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Orange County’s race for district attorney is developing into a national story, as a movement arrives that’s trying to oust DAs and replace them with people 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, Todd Spitzer, who’s staring down a reportedly well-funded opponent in Peter Hardin, a Democrat and former prosecutor.

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.

Spitzer, acknowledging the public scrutiny around justice reform, has come 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, despite being late to the game, 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.

Campaigns often come down to who can fundraise enough to get their name and message out to voters – and both candidates are off to the races. Spitzer is known as a prolific fundraiser with over $200,000 in the bank, while Hardin says he’s raised over $200,000 in the first month of his campaign.

And a new group has emerged on the scene to fundraise for ousting Spitzer as part of the national movement to reform DA’s offices. That means Hardin – or whomever that group ends up backing against Spitzer – could have something most people don’t have, which is a national fundraising base for local office.

The group – End Police Brutality PAC – was founded by Andy Thorburn, a millionaire businessman and Democratic donor who says he’s aiming to help build a grassroots movement around reforms wanted by large majorities of the public.

In an interview, Thorburn said the group has helped the national effort to replace DAs by funding field organizers who played a role in replacing DAs over the last year in Georgia and Colorado. And now they’re setting their sights on replacing Spitzer.

“We got to the point where I think we have scale and I think we have a critical mass of Americans willing to look seriously at these problems,” Thorburn told Voice of OC in a recent interview.

“Studies show that our current procedures…actually make us less safe,” he added.

When people are locked up for a low level misdemeanor, Thorburn said “it’s like sending them to graduate school in criminality…all their associates are criminal.”

The PAC’s website  says it was founded to “help candidates for DA and Sheriff who reject police union money and vow to end police brutality win their elections.” Thorburn said the group is funded by smaller-dollar donors who have each contributed less than the $1,000 he put in, which is reflected in the group’s campaign filings so far.

What remains to be seen is whether it will be pitted against the single most well-funded group in county politics: the sheriff’s deputies union.

“I would hope in some situations, the police unions would be allies,” Thorburn said, adding, “the vast majority of the police, they’re hard working public servants.”

Critics say reform-minded DAs make communities less safe by going easier on violent criminals who terrorize local communities, including people of color.

They point to newly-elected George Gascón of LA County as a case in point, with Spitzer taking to the airwaves in recent weeks to say his opponent will bring Gascón’s style to Orange County.

Spitzer didn’t respond to phone messages seeking an interview for this article.

Whether or not Spitzer or Hardin wins next year, it’s clear there is going to be a debate in Orange County about criminal justice reform. Spitzer himself has acknowledged that, going on radio and telling Voice of OC he wants to see treatment offered as an alternative to jail for low-level drug offenses.

Almost two months later, it’s unclear if Spitzer will actually follow through. His critics say Spitzer does a good job of preaching criminal justice reform, but fails to back up his words with real actions.

“The hypocrisy of Todd Spitzer is extraordinary…He lays out this [platform] of reform, yet makes it the number one most prosecuted crime,” Hardin said in a recent interview with Voice of OC.

“Throwing thousands of people who are suffering from drug addiction into a concrete box is not going to cure the addiction or other underlying issues,” Hardin said, adding that his answer is to expand the capacity of OC’s diversion programs and collaborative courts to help addicts get back on their feet.

“Research suggests that we are actually less safe, as jail time for these low level nonviolent misdemeanors actually increases the likelihood that someone will re-offend in the future,” he added, pointing to a recent study.

What’s more, Hardin said, “prosecutions for these low level offenses disproportionately affect our less affluent communities and communities of color.”

Hardin, for his part, has no track record in elected office and was an unknown figure in local political circles until he announced his campaign a few weeks ago.

He said he served as an officer and prosecutor in the Marine Corps, where Hardin said he led its largest prosecution office, before moving to Orange County and working as a DA prosecutor for about a year and a half starting in late 2013 or early 2014.

Hardin said he prosecuted a variety of misdemeanor cases and tried 12 cases while he was at the DA’s office, ranging from DUIs to domestic abuse to drug use
.

While Hardin says he’s raised over $150,000 in the weeks since his campaign launched, the extent of that fundraising – and who gave – won’t be fully clear until sometime in July when his first official disclosures are due.

Voice of OC asked Hardin to voluntarily disclose his donors so far, and his campaign responded with a list of 14 of its largest donors who have given maximum contributions of $2,100.

While Spitzer has suggested the movement to oust him is funded by billionaire George Soros, Thorburn said his group is not.

“We’re not [funded by Soros],” Thorburn told Voice of OC

“I think he’s right that George Soros has funded some of this movement, but I’m not sure why that’s a negative by the way…He’s devoted hundreds and hundreds of millions of his own money to support democracy around the world,” Thorburn added, saying he’s never talked to Soros or his organization.

Hardin says he’s not connected to Thorburn’s PAC, which legally cannot coordinate with candidates.

But he said the fact it exists taps into what he’s seeing nationally and locally – a public hunger for a different approach to prosecutions.

“I can’t control which groups are going to become interested in and invest in this race. That aside, I will say the national interest in this race reflects the fact that across America, our nation is facing a national reckoning with an outdated and ineffective criminal justice system,” Hardin told Voice of OC.

“We’ve turned to prisons and punishment and turned away from rehabilitation, support and redemption.”

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

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