District Attorney Todd Spitzer is set to battle it out tonight, face-to-face, with three lawyers looking to take his job at an election debate right in front of residents.

It’s the only time Orange County will see incumbent DA Spitzer stand in front of residents and be challenged critically on his record or future plans for office.

Yet it won’t be broadcast. 

And other candidates are already questioning whether the moderator will really allow tough questions – given that he’s a major donor to Spitzer’s campaign.  

The only chance to see this debate is to show up at the Elks Lodge in Fullerton today from 5 to 7:30 p.m.

Last week, Spitzer skipped a debate organized by activists in Santa Ana. He was the only candidate who didn’t attend. 

While the three challengers have committed to attend all three known DA debates, tonight is the only one that Spitzer is known to have confirmed plans to participate in.

Tonight’s debate, organized by the North Orange County Bar Association, is scheduled to be moderated by a major donor to Spitzer’s campaign – who has given the maximum-allowed donation.

After the donations from attorney Jeff Kent were brought to light in recent days, organizers tried to find a new moderator but weren’t able to find someone else in the time remaining before the debate, Kent told Voice of OC on Tuesday.

The debate comes as residents raise concerns about public safety, racial disparities in prosecution rates and the District Attorney’s willingness to hold police officers accountable for misconduct.

The election also comes on the heels of a rise in hate crimes in Orange County, according to a report by the OC Human Relations Commission.

The debate can be attended in person, and will be recorded but not streamed live online, according to Kent.

Kent has contributed $8,600 to Spitzer’s campaigns since 2011, according to public campaign finance filings.

That includes a maximum-allowed $2,200 to Spitzer’s current campaign for DA.

Kent is president of the North Orange County Bar Association, which is hosting the debate.

All of his donations to county campaigns since 2011 have been to Spitzer and Supervisor Andrew Do.

“As for the moderator, we tried to find a replacement, but were unable to do so in the time given,” Kent said in a text message to Voice of OC.

Before Kent was back in as moderator, DA challenger Peter Hardin’s spokesman said Hardin was grateful the bar association was ensuring the moderator’s independence.

“They were amenable to ensuring the independence of the moderator at the debate, and we’re grateful for their consideration,” Hardin’s campaign said in a statement to Voice of OC.

After Kent became the moderator again, Hardin’s campaign said he would still join the debate, “in spite of the circumstances.”

DA candidate Bryan Chehock said candidates should have been told about Kent’s donations to Spitzer’s campaign.

“It is pretty remarkable that Jeff Kent or the [North OC Bar Association] Board would think it was appropriate for him to be the moderator without at least disclosing that fact to the candidates,” Chehock said in a statement to Voice of OC.

Another DA candidate, Mike Jacobs, said he hopes whoever moderates the debate doesn’t simply repeat questions provided by a particular candidate.

“Sometimes the moderator is someone who just funnels questions made up [by a candidate],” Jacobs said.

“If this moderator just funnels questions [from Todd] that would concern me.”

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The debate is taking place a little more than a week after another debate that every candidate but Spitzer attended. It was hosted by a group of nonprofits, including Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development and Resilience OC.

[Read: Local Lawyers Vying To Become OC’s Next Top Prosecutor Sound Off]

The District Attorney race is drawing intense interest from across the political spectrum – as well as national attention.

Orange County is the second most-biggest county in America with a competitive DA race this year, after Maricopa County, Ariz.

OC was the most populous such county this year, until Maricopa County – home to Phoenix –  saw its own elected prosecutor resign in late March, triggering an early election.

Incumbent OC DA Todd Spitzer is running on a platform of protecting OC from the LA-style progressive reforms envisioned by his opponent Peter Hardin, who in turn argues he’s putting forward a smarter approach that would make the public safer.

Voice of OC has exposed a number of controversies around both of the leading candidates.

Spitzer – who was elected in 2018 with promises of bringing integrity back to a DA’s office tarnished by ethics scandals – has faced a string of allegations from career prosecutors he’s overseen of racial bias and failing to protect workers from harassment – even retaliating against a female prosecutor who reported harassment by Spitzer’s friend Gary LoGalbo.

Another controversy facing Spitzer surrounds remarks he made during in a death penalty meeting that drew red flags from proscutors in the room.

In mid-February, documents emerged showing Spitzer ignited a firestorm of concern from prosecutors and a lead detective after he made racial remarks about Black men dating White women when deciding whether to seek the death penalty against a Black defendant.

Voice of OC was the first news agency to report on the concerns and the memos at the center of it.

Spitzer ultimately acknowledged that at the Oct. 1 death penalty meeting, he asked prosecutors about the race of the defendant’s former girlfriends and said he had “seen Black men date White women in certain circles in order to have others around them be more accepting.”

In a scathing letter to the judge, the lead detective in the Buggs case wrote Spitzer ruined the death penalty case by making the racial remarks and then trying to cover them up by removing all the existing prosecutors from the case and dropping the death penalty effort.

Newport Beach Detective Court Depweg wrote to the judge that he had been told by multiple current and former DA officials that Spitzer “made an unsolicited, derogatory, and racist comment about Black men/persons” at the Oct. 1 meeting.

In March, one of the nation’s oldest civil rights groups – the NAACP – called on Spitzer to resign for presiding over a criminal justice system the group says systematically discriminates against people of color.

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Hardin, his leading opponent, also faces his own controversies.

Reporting by Voice of OC revealed that Hardin was counseled by his supervisors about concerns that swirled around his alleged workplace interactions with women, according to the manager who oversaw Hardin’s supervisor at the time.

The memo’s allegations – which Hardin disputed in a February interview with Voice of OC – included reports that Hardin tried to “hit on” a defendant just after his case was dismissed against her and tried to date another woman who had been a witness in a case he had prosecuted.

[Read: Hardin Was Counseled About Being Seen as a ‘Womanizer’ at OCDA, Says Retired Top Official]

Voters are likely to see a wave of negative campaigning all the way to November from Spitzer and Hardin’s campaigns – which have each raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for their bids.

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

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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