One of Orange County’s most high-profile election races this year – to become the next District Attorney – intensified this week with Republican incumbent Todd Spitzer formally launching his reelection bid at a park in La Palma on the border of Los Angeles and Orange counties.
The race sets up a litmus test of sorts over whether a region of 3 million people wants a more progressive county prosecutor’s office, one tackling racial disparities in the criminal justice system and rethinking enhanced sentencing policies that add years to people’s incarceration.
Spitzer is facing off against progressive challenger Peter Hardin, who’s calling for sweeping changes to the county legal system, somewhat similar to the goals that nearby Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón has pursued.
The incumbent, in turn, has painted himself as one of the only people standing in the way of such reform-minded policies taking root locally, stopping what he calls a “woke” approach led by Gascón – an approach he argues will only increase crime – from “ruining our communities.”
Spitzer rallied supporters from Los Angeles County on Wednesday like Torrance resident Emma Rivas, whose son was shot and killed in front of her other son in 2016.
Rivas said she once supported Gascón but now has voter’s remorse. She’s also part of efforts to recall him and now sits on the board for Parents of Murdered Children’s Los Angeles chapter. Meanwhile, she voiced admiration for Spitzer: “He is tough on crime.”
Yet protesters who mixed in with the crowd of supporters at Spitzer’s back on Wednesday reminded the incumbent DA that he’s also running against his own track record, one which opponents intensely and vocally denounced during Spitzer’s speech.
At times, during the news conference, both sides attempted to drown out the other while Spitzer paused at the microphone to let the cacophony die down.
Spitzer’s campaign, noting the intensity of the scene Wednesday, later sent out an afternoon press release calling the protesters an organized “mob.”
However, Spitzer during his speech that morning said the goal was to have both supporters and opponents in attendance.
“You can tell just by the interest in this race, this is one of the most important races in America,” Spitzer said, speaking at La Palma’s El Rancho Verde Park on Wednesday morning. He later added “we have a real and present threat to public safety in Orange County. But actually, the nation.”
Spitzer called out a movement to unseat District Attorneys across the U.S. with the goal of replacing them with candidates seeking progressive reforms to prosecutor offices – such as the discontinuation of cash bail or enhanced jail sentencing policies.
One such figure who successfully took office – Gascón – now oversees one of the U.S.’s largest and densest metropolitan areas, Los Angeles County.
Gascón, a lawyer in his 60s and former Los Angeles beat cop, was elected on the heels of national protests over the police murder of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis.
Among other efforts to overhaul the office, Gascón has issued directives to not seek the death penalty or charge kids as adults. Gascón has also stated his office would not prosecute sex workers.
As a result, Gascón has come under heavy fire from crime survivor groups, law enforcement officials, and some of his own prosecutors who say he’s gone too far. A second recall effort against him is reportedly underway. The first try failed to gain momentum in 2021.
Gascón is still supported by progressives in Los Angeles County – like Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter’s Los Angeles Chapter – who oppose an overpoliced state, one where public safety issues arise from a system in which taxpayer dollars go to the police rather than parks or libraries and people of color see disproportionate punishment.
Spitzer referred to his supporters behind him on Wednesday when making this claim:
“They (supporters) understand that if Mr. Hardin comes to Orange County and implements the policies of George Gascón … every single crime including property crime will go up.”
His supporters held signs echoing the phrase that’s become Spitzer’s campaign slogan: “No LA in OC.”
“So the hashtag, #NoLAinOC …” Spitzer started.
“Is completely racist and divisive,” interjected one protester with a sign behind him.
Spitzer continued: “… is to educate people about the fact that we cannot allow Los Angeles to deteriorate, or Orange County to become Los Angeles.”
He claims the slogan is not meant to denigrate Los Angeles as a community – rather, the policies pushed by Gascón.
The scene at Spitzer’s press conference seemed to foreshadow the kind of fireworks that are expected throughout the campaign.
The incumbent finds himself at the center of several lawsuits from female prosecutors in his office arguing in court that he isn’t very supportive of victims on his watch – and if anything is vindictive if complaints get in the way of his image.
In addition, an investigator looking into allegations of pay-to-play schemes under Spitzer – whom Spitzer fired from the office in 2020 – has been reinstated through an arbitrator who was highly critical of Spitzer’s administration. The county was also ordered to pay the investigator a year’s worth of back pay, according to the Orange County Register.
Spitzer’s campaign event attracted protesters with an array of different grievances.
One frequent Spitzer critic in attendance was Paul Wilson, whose wife Christy was killed in the 2011 Seal Beach salon shooting.
Wilson supported Spitzer’s 2018 election and even appeared in a campaign ad for him, but has since accused the incumbent of failing to follow through on the reforms and law enforcement accountability he promised voters surrounding prosecutorial misconduct in the Seal Beach case.
Spitzer, in response to the critics standing around him, blamed much of their discontent on the office’s prior administration, saying there were problems he “inherited” from his predecessor – a mentor-turned-political-foe – former district attorney Tony Rauckackas.
“There are people here today who were very disappointed about what happened with the prior administration. It was my job to clean that up,” Spitzer said, pausing again as the competing noise between protesters and his supporters erupted once more.
Other Spitzer critics held signs for Hector Hernandez, a Fullerton man who police shot and killed in front of his home in 2020 while he lay on the ground. Spitzer cleared the officer who shot Hernandez, Jonathan Ferrell, of any criminal culpability – a decision that’s roused continued protests by residents who live on his street.
Spitzer didn’t speak to the Hernandez shooting during his speech.
He mainly focused his remarks on victims of crime, that they should be defended even all the way through parole hearings for people in jail, saying the public needs someone like him to prevent their release.
“The public demands that after we get a conviction in a case, that we stand up in front of that parole board, and we continue to defend that case, and do everything we can to keep that person away from society,” Spitzer said.
He continued: “And yet, Mr. Gascón, Mr. Hardin, would abandon the victims in parole hearings.”
“You abandoned the victims,” a protester beside him shouted.
“What about the evidence for Hector Hernandez?” said another.
In a news release Wednesday afternoon, Spitzer accused Hardin of organizing the protestors.
“During the press conference, Spitzer’s woke opponent, Pete Hardin, reached a new low by sending a mob to harass, accost, intimidate, and shout down the women, victims, and victims’ family members in attendance. Witnesses even observed Hardin’s field organizer orchestrating the mob on site,” reads the news release.
Yet at his campaign event, Spitzer also said he “demanded” the event take place in the open, “to ensure that people who both supported me and oppose me could be in the same place at the same time.”