Who will keep the streets of Orange County safe? 

Are local police officers really being held accountable for misconduct? 

What can county leaders, like the District Attorney, do to stem the recent tide of hate crimes and incidents reported by residents in recent years?

These are just a few of the most telling questions residents have raised at recent debates surrounding the election for the county’s next top prosecutor, ahead of the primary election next month.

Tonight, the League of Women Voters of North Orange County hosts the third and final debate for candidates vying to become DA  tonight at 7 p.m. on Zoom.

To learn how to register to watch the debate live, click here.

Mike Moodian, a political science professor at Chapman University, called the District Attorney position one of the most powerful in elected politics in a Monday interview.

“As a chief prosecutor, the DA has an extraordinary amount of power right up there hand in hand with the Sheriff of the county,” he said.

Moodian said the district attorney’s race is notable in Orange County and will have an impact on residents because it echoes an ideological debate taking place across the country on how we should approach the criminal justice system and go about prosecuting individuals in the U.S.

“We’re seeing it play out in a real election right here in Orange County, between a perception by some that the that the Republican Party is the party of law and order and a perception by some that those who are more representative of the progressive side in terms of prosecution tend to favor reforming the entire system,” he said.

Moodian also noted that Orange County has drifted away from being a predominantly Republican county to a more politically balanced one.

“We see an incumbent Republican DA who is very good at winning elections. Todd Spitzer has been winning elections since he was elected to a school board decades ago and he’s a good fundraiser … but we see a formidable challenge from Pete Hardin, who is somebody who is embraced and endorsed by the Democratic Party,” he said.

In 2018, Orange County voters picked Spitzer to represent them in the District Attorney’s office and tasked him with prosecuting people who break the law and threaten the safety of the community they live in.

In doing so, the voters entrusted him with the power and discretion to file criminal charges against people accused of committing a crime and to determine the severity of those charges.

Four years later, Spitzer finds himself tangled in a series of controversies that have raised questions about his judgment as well as allegations that OC’s top prosecutor himself is a racist while he simultaneously tries to keep his job in the upcoming election.

Three lawyers, however, are looking to strip incumbent Spitzer of that responsibility this election season and make it their own – some of whom have their own controversies themselves.

Opponent Pete Hardin, a Marine combat veteran and former prosecutor, has faced criticism over a memo about how he allegedly treated women when working as a prosecutor at the DA’s office.

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

Throughout his campaign and the debate, Spitzer has routinely compared Hardin and his proposed policies to Los Angeles County’s progressive District Attorney George Gascón.

Spitzer has made the centerpiece of his campaign message that he’s trying to protect OC from turning into LA.

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Controversy in the DA’s office is not something new in Orange County, according to Moodian who pointed to Tony Rackackus’s time as the County’s top prosecutor.

He said that the question on many voters’ minds when they fill out the ballot this year will be: Who is the most ethical candidate?

He also said residents want a DA that will keep their community safe.

“This is something that has been consistent in the county wide surveys that I’ve done in years past,” Moodian said. 

“It’s important in the minds of county residents that they elect someone who will work toward keeping county residents safe – ethics, competence, and which candidate will do the best job at keeping people safe. Police accountability is another one,” he described as the main issues in the race this year.

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Hardin and two other DA challengers – Michael Jacobs and Bryan Chehock – will be facing off against each other tonight in the third District Attorney Candidate debate in three weeks – the last expected debate prior to the June 7 primary election.

Yet again Spitzer won’t be there to answer questions from the public or defend himself from attacks and criticisms from his opponents.

He didn’t show up to a debate hosted by local nonprofits in Santa Ana late last month either.

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

To date, the only debate Spitzer has attended and allowed himself to be questioned by his constituents was moderated by a groomsman at his wedding and a major campaign donor.

It was the only opportunity residents really had to question their District Attorney publicly on issues that have plagued the county and residents quality of life like public safety.

[Read: District Attorney Todd Spitzer Takes On Racism Allegations, Faces Critics Head On]

Moodian said it was unfortunate that Spitzer only attended one debate but that many election front runners tend to avoid debates believing they can get their message out better by focusing on mailers and other campaign strategies.

“We can’t have a democracy without an informed citizenry,” he said, adding that debates are an opportunity for the public to question candidates and receive an unscripted answer.

“Spitzer obviously is spending a lot of money on his campaign and on commercials and ads to make sure that his carefully crafted message gets out there.”

Meanwhile, some residents are hungry for answers from the District Attorney’s office as well as reforms to the local criminal justice system that they say is inherently racist.

In the past two debates, residents have raised questions on police accountability, racial disparities in prosecution rates, and have asked candidates about their stance on the death penalty.

Some people have also taken to the streets to demand justice for Kurt Reinhold, a Black homeless man shot dead in 2020 by a Sheriff deputy after being stopped for jaywalking in San Clemente. The deputy was cleared earlier this year by the DA’s office.

People have also called for justice for Hector Hernandez who was killed by police in Fullerton. Orange County prosecutors later choose not to pursue charges against a Fullerton Police officer

Residents have also raised concerns about the county leading the state in transferring inmates to Immigration and Custom Enforcement for possible deportation.

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This year Voice of OC will be publishing a quality-of-life survey showcasing side by side comparisons of the candidates of various races including the District Attorney and where they stand on the issues.

[Read: Santana: Tough Questions We Should Be Asking Our Leaders For The June 7 Primary Election]

Readers are encouraged to email questions for candidates to our County Reporter Nick Gerda at ngerda@voiceofoc.org

Voice of OC has also come up with a couple of questions for the candidates as well and intends to publish its election guide next week with answers from the people running to be the County’s future shotcallers.

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

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