Tony Rackauckas can breathe. Assemblyman Todd Spitzer will soon abandon plans to challenge Rackauckas for the county's most powerful office, according to sources close to Spitzer.
Talk of a Spitzer-Rackauckas race for DA dominated local political circles for months largely because Spitzer repeatedly said he would "definitely" run. Though once close conservative Republican allies, the two men now despise each other. The two-term DA has portrayed Spitzer as overly ambitious and immature. The assemblyman, a former deputy district attorney, believes Rackauckas is inept and corrupt.
"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."
There's no indication that Spitzer—who declined to comment for this story—has changed his opinion of the DA. However, Spitzer allies say the assemblyman re-evaluated his plans after Rackauckas' 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 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 the usually hard-charging Spitzer, who has a $1 million election war chest, sharp campaign skills and a knack for generating favorable media attention. As a signal of his 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. And don't forget: Rackauckas was forced to help fund a previous campaign using his personal credit cards.
But Rackauckas' strategists concluded that Spitzer is easily intimidated. They confidently predicted as early as January the assemblyman would find a reason to drop out of the race by March.
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.
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The bait apparently worked. That same day, the assemblyman told reporters at The Orange County Register and Los Angeles Times that the news had prompted him to re-evaluate his plans. Tellingly, he noted that he had no desire to cause a civil war within the local GOP. That looked to some 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.
A veteran prosecutor who has no faith in Rackauckas called Spitzer's expected 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 fan's, 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 four years."