Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer on Wednesday appeared poised to win reelection and avoid a November runoff in a race that was in many ways a test of the county’s appetite for criminal justice reform.
Early results Wednesday showed Spitzer in a significant 45-percentage-point lead against second-place contender Pete Hardin, a former Orange County prosecutor and Marine veteran.
“In our opinion, this race was a landslide,” Spitzer campaign spokesman Tim Lineberger said Wednesday. “Orange County voters clearly rejected the policies of Los Angeles and San Francisco on public safety. … It was a referendum on that, if not anything else.”
Also seeking the county’s top prosecutor job were Mike Jacobs, who spent nearly three decades as a prosecutor in the county, and Bryan Chehock, an attorney for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The race largely centered on the stark ideological divide between Spitzer and Hardin, the only Democratic candidate.
Though votes were still being counted, Hardin said in a statement Wednesday that “it appears our effort to bring reform to the Orange County district attorney’s office will not be successful.”
“As a first-time candidate in one of the most populous counties in the country, I always knew that this was going to be an uphill battle,” he said. “I am forever grateful to our staff, volunteers and supporters, all of whom were undeterred by the odds and welcomed the opportunity to offer Orange County a modern approach based on facts rather than fear.”
Spitzer branded himself as a law-and-order candidate, focusing his messaging around punishing criminals to prevent Orange County from becoming like Los Angeles.
“This election is about one thing: ensuring Orange County remains the safest major county in California, instead of being overrun by the same pro-criminal ideology that has destroyed Los Angeles and San Francisco,” Spitzer said in a statement. “Orange County voters are sending a loud and clear message that they do not want a George Gascón clone as their D.A.”
“I will continue to prioritize the prosecution of violent criminals and hate crimes, while pursuing common-sense criminal justice reforms that do not jeopardize public safety,” Spitzer added.
Hardin had said that, if elected, he would not seek the death penalty in any prosecutions. He also promised to replace cash bail with a risk-based system and to pull back on charging juveniles as adults. Hardin’s ideas align him with some of the more progressive district attorneys in the nation, including Gascón in Los Angeles County.
“We may have been unsuccessful at the ballot box, but our movement for reform and integrity very successfully injected commonsense and dignity into difficult conversations that transcend crime, victimization, race, and justice,” Hardin’s statement read.
Jacobs billed himself as a steady hand who could bring reform. Chehock, the only candidate with no connection to the Orange County district attorney’s office, pledged to “remove politics from the office.”
Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College, said Wednesday the results were not too surprising and noted that Spitzer “made it very clear he fights hard.”
“Todd Spitzer has been on the ballot in Orange County since 1992, and he’s never lost an election,” she said. “He understands Orange County voters really well, and he came out very early to define his opponent, Pete Hardin, and Pete Hardin kind of never really recovered in the eyes of the voters.”
Balma said Spitzer’s “No L.A. in O.C.” hashtag spoke to voters who believe Orange County is different from its neighbor and inured to some of its problems.
“It’s hard to go wrong with Orange County exceptionalism,” she said.
Spitzer’s campaign was not without challenges, however. A former county supervisor, he was elected four years ago on a vow to bring a new era of reform after a scandal involving the use of jailhouse informants.
But his opponents say that he has fallen short on his promises and that his missteps show poor judgment.
Spitzer faced criticism after racist comments he made while discussing the case of a Black defendant surfaced in February. Spitzer apologized for the comments, but some political groups and fellow district attorneys withdrew their endorsements.
On Friday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregg Prickett determined that the comments violated the Racial Justice Act.
Balma said a new district attorney who had never been elected “likely wouldn’t have been able to survive the scandals and the headlines, but Orange County voters — this is a guy they know.”
Though all the votes had yet to be counted, she didn’t see any clear path for the outcome to change.
“With this low voter turnout, I can’t figure out any reason that late votes would be fundamentally different. … I think if anything, the late voters are more likely to be Republican and therefore for Spitzer,” she said.
Orange County voters were also deciding who should fill three seats on the Board of Supervisors, including who should represent the county’s first Latino majority district.
Wednesday returns in the race for District 2, which includes a slice of central Orange County, showed Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento ahead of Garden Grove Councilwoman Kim Bernice Nguyen. Three other candidates are also vying for the seat.
Buena Park Mayor Sunny Park was narrowly ahead of incumbent Supervisor Doug Chaffee in District 4, which includes several northern cities. The county’s Democratic Party endorsed Park instead of Chaffee, who is also a Democrat. Brea City Councilman Steve Vargas, a Republican, is also running.
In District 5, encompassing much of south Orange County, incumbent Supervisor Katrina Foley, a Democrat, held a significant lead over her three Republican challengers. Among them, state Sen. Pat Bates had a slight lead over former Assemblywoman Diane Harkey. Newport Beach Councilman Kevin Muldoon is also a candidate. The winner could determine which political party controls the five-member board, which has been majority Republican for years.