Is the DA's Office Race a One-Man Show?

Given that the district attorney's job is the most powerful public office in Orange County, a place with a population greater than about 20 U.S. states, you might guess the competition for the elected position would be fierce. Police and deputies can arrest anyone they want, but the DA decides who gets prosecuted and who doesn't. He—there's never been a female occupant in the seat—even controls secret grand juries that can ignore or expose politically sensitive shenanigans. Did you know the DA also is protected by a frown-frozen, armed security detail that lends visual stature to the government job?

Yet as I write this column, the 5 p.m. March 7 candidate filing deadline for this year's local elections is looming, and only one person, at least on official paper, wants to be DA: Tony Rackauckas. The Republican incumbent since 1999, Rackauckas might not remember the thrill of campaign combat. He last faced an opponent 12 years ago. Nevertheless, despite his advanced age of 71, the DA, who also loves fishing in the Pacific Ocean with friends, insists he's ready and willing—even eager—to serve a fifth, four-year term.

We reported on our news blog, Navel Gazing, last week that Brea's Greg Diamond, a member of the Orange County Democratic Party, an employment lawyer, political blogger and fiery Occupy Wall Street activist, announced he intends to challenge Rackauckas. Diamond, who is hoping to raise about $30,000 for the necessary filing fees, sees the present DA as both incompetent and corrupt. He is motivated to run by the thought that he wouldn't be able to vote against Rackauckas—a former homicide prosecutor and county judge who won the unanimous endorsement of the local GOP in February—unless there is another name on the ballot.

But it's a certainty the one person on the planet who wants to be DA more than anyone else—including Rackauckas—is Supervisor Todd Spitzer, a former prosecutor and Republican state Assemblyman. When Spitzer faced term limits in Sacramento after 2008, the DA brought him back to the office in a teacher-pupil, grooming arrangement that by all accounts was supposed to lead Spitzer into the DA's job after this year's election. By August 2010, however, the deal crashed with dueling press conferences: Spitzer labeled Rackauckas a crook and liar, and the DA described him as an emotionally unhinged egomaniac.

Though the public name-calling receded long ago, don't think for a second the animus between the men has diminished. They truly don't like each other. Indeed, it's not beyond reason to believe Rackauckas—who abhors campaigning—is running for re-election this time to block a better-financed, always-campaign-ready Spitzer, more than 17 years his junior, from taking the post.

The Rackauckas camp is amused after learning in recent weeks Spitzer quietly commissioned what they claim was a $35,000 poll to test the waters to challenge the DA this year. According to Mike Schroeder, Rackauckas' longtime pal and informal but potent campaign adviser, the supervisor at least tentatively planned to renege on his 2012 supervisor's race pledge to serve his entire, four-year term by filing candidacy papers at the last hour. The poll allegedly prodded voters for name recognition and perceptions about Spitzer, Rackauckas, ex-state Senator Dick Ackerman, as well as Schroeder's ex-wife and Rackauckas' chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder. The last-minute, sneak-attack idea may have crumbled—if it really has—in part because two consultants Spitzer hired for the task left their jobs, according to Schroeder.

Rumors persist that the DA hopes to block Spitzer from grabbing the office in 2018 as well by retiring before his next term ends and allowing a majority of the Board of Supervisors to hand-pick his interim replacement: Susan Kang Schroeder. If such a plot exists, a Michelle Steel victory over Alan Mansoor to replace John Moorlach on the board increases chances for success. Steel and Schroeder, both Korean Americans, are close.

Spitzer did not respond to requests for comment.

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An Orange County judge continues to ponder a January request by lawyers for the Costa Mesa Police Association, a cop-union law firm and the firm's private detective to kill a lawsuit filed by Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer, the Republican who says he was the target of a 2012 conspiracy to intimidate him for opposing police pay and benefit hikes.

Inside the county's Central Courthouse, the case is at a literal standstill—no depositions, no discovery—until Superior Court Judge Gail A. Andler rules on a defense motion declaring that even if Righeimer is correct in all of his factual assertions the defendants were engaged in constitutionally protected activities.

Christopher Lanzillo, the PI for Upland-based Lackie Dammeier McGill & Ethir, tailed Righeimer home from a bar, called 911 and reported the mayor had been swerving on the road. A Costa Mesa cop went to Righeimer's home and gave him a sobriety test, which he easily passed because he'd consumed two Diet Cokes at Skosh Monahans.

Jerrold Abeles, an attorney for the firm, labels Righeimer's lawsuit “patently frivolous” and a publicity stunt because the controversial 911 call is “absolutely protected” from liability. “The law has taken a back seat to political showmanship,” Abeles maintains. “The plaintiffs' grandstanding pleadings contain pages of irrelevant, media-ready theater that are not only patently protected by the First Amendment, but that the plaintiffs never connect to any particular cause of action.”

John C. Manly, Righeimer's lawyer and the attorney who has for years won lawsuits against pedophile priests and their defenders in the Catholic Church hierarchy, says he expects Andler's crucial ruling “any day.”

[Update: At a March 5 hearing, the judge granted a Righeimer demand for Lanzillo to sit for a four-hour deposition in coming weeks.]

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California's Democrats enjoy total control of the state and are scheduled to party March 7 through 9 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The theme is “Renewing California By Advancing Our Values,” but the biggest focus will be how to retain the governor's mansion and supermajorities in the legislature.

The party's elected officials and activists will meet in workshops and training sessions, plus hear from San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and Congresswoman Barbara Lee, both of whom will be keynote speakers on Saturday. Others who plan to attend include Nancy Pelosi, Jerry Brown, Kamala Harris and Gavin Newson.

It's not clear what role Orange County Democrats will play in the convention, although Sharon Quirk-Silva's Fullerton Assembly seat is expected to be one of the hottest contested in the state this year. GOP strategists believe they underestimated Quirk-Silva, a teacher by profession, in 2012 and don't plan to repeat the mistake. In a huge upset, she toppled incumbent Republican Chris Norby by more than 5,500 votes. During her stint in Sacramento, she has worked to create a moderate voting record.

Republicans hope self-styled “very conservative” Young Kim can block Quirk-Silva's second term in the 65th Assembly district seat and, in the process, derail Democratic Party hopes for continued supermajority status that renders the GOP powerless. Last year, Kim raised $382,000—about $50,000 less than her opponent—but she isn't lacking chutzpah. She has predicted victory over the Democrat, saying, “I'll kick her butt.”

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