Party's Not Over Yet

GOP insider maneouvers for DA's office

Until recently, election observers believed the high-stakes district attorney's race between Wally Wade (an assistant district attorney) and Tony Rackauckas (a Superior Court judge) might end without fireworks. In front of voters, Wade and Rackauckas played the roles of overly gracious cartoon chipmunks Chip ("After you") and Dale ("No, no, I insist, after you"). Instead of attacking each other, the candidates aimed at Rose Bird--the controversial, liberal former California Supreme Court judge who has been out of office for 12 years. But by the time Wade and Rackauckas stood before a group of local Republican women at Michael's Supper Club in Dana Point Harbor on April 15, things had changed. The chipmunks were gone. Seething anger and contempt had replaced back-slapping chivalry.Against the tranquil backdrop of blue water and gently rocking boats, Rackauckas and Wade tore into each other. But for all the smoke, there wasn't enough light to illuminate the real issue in this race: the attempt by Orange County Republicans to take back an office that has been used against them as often as for them under Republican District Attorney Mike "Mad Dog" Capizzi. The Tax Day showdown started off with mild differences over résumés. "Wally has taken to low-ball politics," Rackauckas charged. "He is really no more than an administrative bureaucrat." He accused Wade of having a predilection for "SWAT-team" tactics. Wade fired right back: "I'm glad Tony is here. I don't like to speak about him when he's not here to respond." He questioned several of Rackauckas' claims, including the judge's assertion that he was once named "prosecutor of the year." (The Rackauckas camp sticks by the story but did not produce evidence of the award when it was requested by the Weekly.) "You want to talk about low-ball politics," Wade told the mostly retired crowd. "I think it is important for a district attorney candidate to tell the truth."

Signs of trouble first appeared a few weeks ago. In March, Rackauckas filed a lawsuit claiming Wade falsified candidacy papers by listing himself as "the" assistant district attorney and not "an" assistant district attorney. There are four assistant DAs. Rackauckas is also frustrated by his opponent's claims to be the only candidate in the race with management experience. Wade scoffed at the lawsuit and threatened to file his own suit nailing Rackauckas on the prosecutor award claim, his actual role in the Rose Bird recall, and the extent of his involvement in writing a victims' rights law--all of it listed on Rackauckas' candidate's statement. The Rackauckas camp quietly dropped its suit. Tensions rose higher when Wade slammed the judge for soliciting campaign contributions from the government employees he will supervise in the DA's office, should he win. "In my opinion, that kind of practice isn't healthy," said Wade. But the biggest blow of the campaign came just days before the Showdown at the Supper Club. Wade had mailed voters a flier detailing the "Case of Judge Rackauckas and Ronald Lara." According to Wade, Lara's criminal record includes convictions for 20 violent felonies, including two attempted kidnappings, 16 robberies and two attempted robberies. In 1995, Lara was arrested, charged by the DA with a felony for the 21st time, and faced tough Three Strikes sentencing provisions.

"Ronald Lara embodies the definition of a violent, repeat criminal offender," Wade wrote. "But when Lara was brought before Judge Rackauckas, the felony charge was reduced to a misdemeanor, and Lara--who should have faced 25 years to life--was sentenced to just a year in Orange County jail." Wade called the decision "inexcusably lenient" and said: "I am for vigorous enforcement of the laws on the books, and Three Strikes is not being applied like it should. We have a right to safe streets." If Wade's goal was to unnerve Rackauckas, it worked; Lara became the Willie Horton of the DA's race. Rackauckas already has a tough time with public speaking (he reportedly barfed before a televised campaign appearance on OCN in March). He grew noticeably edgy when talk at the Republican women's club forum shifted to Lara's case. Wade claimed that Rackauckas reduces 65 percent of his felony "Three Strikes" cases to misdemeanors. The judge grew defensive, then angry, and he ultimately lost his judicial composure. "You've got this hit piece that Wade sent out claiming I am soft on crime," Rackauckas told the Republican women. "He's talking about a man named Ron Lara. He has a past that is certainly a bad past. I don't want to say anything to discount that. Those were bad things. Those all happened when he was in a gang. He went to prison on two occasions. It wouldn't hurt my feelings if he spends the rest of his life in prison. But he was charged with writing a $400 bad check at Disneyland--a dollar less, and it would have been a misdemeanor. That's what I call a low-grade type of felony. [Rackauckas was mistaken. According to court records, Lara didn't write a bad $400 check. He forged another person's $498 Disneyland payroll check at a liquor store.] It's my duty as a judge to look carefully at somebody who is a threat to society. He wasn't." Rackauckas said with an audible sigh: "So that's what happened." The audience was silent. He continued. "Mr. Wade--in his eagerness--has claimed I am soft on crime. That is a lot of baloney. I fully support Three Strikes. I've sent people to prison for possessing only a small amount of drugs. I sent away someone who stole just four pairs of Levi's. I've looked people in the eye and sent them to prison," said a clearly flustered Rackauckas. "This whole thing is getting under my skin." Wade is a 21-year prosecutor who currently works as director of special operations in the DA's office. The Weekly has not always agreed with him--particularly in his less-than-aggressive criminal investigation of Merrill Lynch's role in Orange County's $1.7 billion bankruptcy. No one, however, questions his integrity. He is an articulate speaker with solidly conservative convictions. On the campaign trail, Wade frequently points out that--unlike Rackauckas--he has the management expertise to run a $70 million-per-year DA's office with 1,000 employees. If the San Juan Capistrano resident wins the June 2 election, he said he will continue the department's "successful" anti-gang efforts and focus more resources on domestic violence and crimes against children and the elderly. But Wade has been less willing to go after Rackauckas on the one issue that really distinguishes the two: keeping politics out of prosecutorial decisions. Wade is not a party insider. He is, indeed, endorsed by Capizzi, which in GOP circles is equivalent to a campaign appearance with Bill Clinton himself. Rackauckas, on the other hand, is a longtime party insider. A prosecutor and defense attorney in Orange County, his involvement in Republican politics earned him an appointment to the bench in 1990. He is popular among other judges, trial lawyers and cops; in the courtroom, Rackauckas has demonstrated fortitude by making unpopular but legally sound decisions.

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