By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas can breathe now.
On Tuesday, just one day after the Weeklyreported on ocweekly.com that Assemblyman Todd Spitzer would abandon his plans to challenge the DA, Spitzer formally bowed out.
Talk of a Spitzer-Rackauckas race for DA dominated local political circles for months largely because Spitzer repeatedly said he would definitely run to clean up the office. In the aftermath of Spitzer's announcement, both men offered forced, happy talk about each other. In truth, the two men—once close conservative Republican allies—despise each other. Rackauckas has portrayed Spitzer as overly ambitious and immature. The assemblyman, a former deputy district attorney, believes the DA is inept and unethical.
"The people of this county want and deserve a DA who is fair, just and above reproach," Spitzer told a Rush Limbaugh Club meeting last October. "The average person in Orange County doesn't think the DA's office is fair anymore. We know that the DA has intervened on behalf of his friends, fouled up cases, and there's been an ongoing issue of retaliation against deputies who haven't politically supported Tony Rackauckas."
Such views delighted the DA's critics but were widely seen among Orange County Republicans as disloyal. Party officials frequently work to diminish competition among Republicans before voters get a ballot; Spitzer's campaign threatened that system. In the eyes of the Rackauckas camp, the assemblyman doesn't know how to earn goodwill in the GOP. They've described his approach to politics as "ready, fire, aim."
For more than four months, Spitzer worked energetically behind the scenes to generate interest in his candidacy and sounded confident of victory. "Orange County deserves much better than Rackauckas," he often said. But sources say Spitzer re-evaluated his plans after the DA's successful Jan. 25 campaign kickoff. That event raised $109,000 for the June 2006 election and drew the attendance or support of the county's major Republican and even Democrat officials.
"Todd might not like to admit it, but that Rackauckas event hurt," said a longtime Spitzer friend. "The race was shaping up as him against the entire local establishment—a daunting task even for someone as capable as Todd."
Nevertheless, Rackauckas and his advisers feared Spitzer, who is a prodigious fund-raiser, skilled campaigner and, at times, media darling. As a signal of his early seriousness, Spitzer hired Rackauckas' former campaign manager as his own. In contrast, the DA shuns public appearances, often stumbles during speeches and had just $24,000 cash on hand, with $80,000 in debts, as of Dec. 31. Poverty is nothing new for the DA, who funded a previous campaign using his personal credit cards.
But Rackauckas collected an impressive bipartisan endorsement list that included every major local Republican and Democrat official. With that in hand, the DA's strategists believed they could easily intimidate Spitzer. They confidently predicted as early as January that the assemblyman would find a reason to drop out of the race by March—15 months before the election.
On Feb. 18, the DA's advisers decided to assist their prognostication. At the bottom of a press release, they noted this would be Rackauckas' last campaign.
The bait worked. That same day, Spitzer told reporters at TheOrangeCountyRegisterand LosAngelesTimesthat the news would prompt him to evaluate his plans. Tellingly, he noted that he had no desire to cause a civil war within the local GOP. That looked to some observers like a quid pro quo: in exchange for dropping out now, they said, Spitzer may expect the party's full support after Rackauckas leaves office in 2010.
A veteran prosecutor who has no faith in Rackauckas called Spitzer's departure from the race "sad" and lamented that "this tainted DA now will have free reign for mischief during the next five years."
For Spitzer fans, the future is, well, half a decade from now. "I can only speculate that by doing this, Todd becomes the prohibitive favorite in 2010," said Bill Mitchell, an attorney, good-government advocate and frequent critic of the DA. "The campaign between Rackauckas and Spitzer would have become very nasty and would have taken a heavy toll on Todd and his family. He is young, and he figures he can wait for years."
Voters will have to wait as well. Ironically, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger believes Californians eager to reform government need competitive elections. Here in Orange County, Rackauckas and Sheriff Mike Carona, the two men who control the local justice system as well as $600 million in annual public spending, will win third terms in office unopposed next year.