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LOCAL ELECTIONS DISTRICT ATTORNEY’S RACE : D.A. Capizzi’s 3 Opponents Stick Together

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When James G. Enright, Thomas Avdeef and Edgar A. Freeman make joint campaign appearances in their race for district attorney, they’re so friendly that the audience can hardly tell they are competing for votes. Actually, they aren’t.

Each of the three hopes his other two colleagues can garner enough votes in the June 5 election to force a runoff with the fourth candidate--their boss, newly appointed Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi.

The candidate who gets more than 50% of the vote will be elected to a four-year term, beginning in January. But if none receives more than 50%, then the top two vote-getters will face each other in a runoff in the November election.

It irritates Enright, Avdeef and Freeman to see the media touting Capizzi as the favorite. During their campaign speeches, they clearly make Capizzi their target. Capizzi calls their tactics “tag-team politics.”

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Capizzi, appointed to the post by the County Board of Supervisors in January when longtime Dist. Atty. Cecil Hicks took a judicial seat, has made a few appearances with the other candidates. He is mostly relying on his incumbency, his campaign coffers and a legion of impressive endorsements to carry his campaign.

“I’m confident I’m going to win,” Capizzi said early in the race. “I’m proud of the record of this office. And you can bet the other candidates will proudly list themselves as prosecutors in this office when their names are placed on the ballot.”

Avdeef, who is Capizzi’s chief critic among the challengers, said it is Capizzi who ought to be the one hoping to make it into a runoff.

“I’m out talking to voters every day. They don’t even know who Capizzi is,” said Avdeef, who has taken vacation time to walk precincts and meet voters.

But few political pundits, including most of the supporters for Capizzi’s three challengers, share Avdeef’s view of the race.

“I’m realistic enough to know he (Capizzi) is going to be tough to beat,” Enright said. “But we’ve got to stop this notion that just because he has money and the politicians behind him that he’s a shoo-in. I think if we can force this into a runoff, then a lot of support will start coming our way and we can make it a hell of a race.”

Capizzi’s strengths in the campaign are formidable. Traditionally in Orange County, incumbents in nonpartisan races are rarely defeated unless they are targeted by powerful interest groups or opponents have raised considerably more money. This hasn’t happened in the district attorney’s race.

Capizzi has been endorsed by all five members of the Board of Supervisors, almost every law enforcement organization in the county, and by a host of major political figures. He also had Hicks’ endorsement until Hicks took the bench--judicial ethics have precluded Hicks from speaking out on the district attorney’s race.

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By contrast, among the challengers only Enright has come up with any notable endorsements. He is backed by former Dist. Atty. Kenneth Williams.

Most pleasing to Capizzi was the overwhelming endorsement of the more than 200 deputy prosecutors in the office. He garnered 85% of their vote. The other three candidates between them got just 5%, with 10% declining to endorse anyone.

But as confident as Capizzi appears, some of his supporters privately say that a runoff is a possibility.

“When the voters get their ballots, they’re going to see four prosecutors listed with four different titles,” one loyal Capizzi follower said. “The confusion may be too much for them to sort out.”

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Capizzi is listed on the ballot as “appointed district attorney”; Enright is listed as “chief deputy district attorney”; Freeman as “assistant district attorney”; and Avdeef as “deputy district attorney.” How many voters, for example, would know that an assistant ranks higher in the office than a deputy, but lower than a chief deputy?

In addition, each of Capizzi’s opponents is campaigning hard in the final days before the election.

Avdeef has posted hundreds of campaign signs and has a network of unpaid volunteers. He said he believes that his door-to-door campaigning is effective. Freeman has bombarded the county with campaign signs along most major streets--all paid for out of his own pocket because he has not been asking for contributions. Enright plans to hit voters with heavy advertising the final weeks of the campaign.

Enright and Freeman have only a few thousand dollars each to spend. Avdeef said his campaign war chest will be under $50,000. Capizzi had topped $100,000 by January. He is expected to have plenty of money left over should a runoff be necessary.

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Capizzi is the only one of the four who can afford a countywide mailer, which many political consultants believe is the only effective way to reach a broad range of voters.

“We’ll have to see whether he (Capizzi) can buy enough name recognition to win the campaign,” Enright said.

Capizzi’s three opponents have keyed in on a major theme: that Capizzi is the “politicians’ candidate.” Capizzi will not respond, but his supporters scoff at the notion. They point out that Capizzi gathered more signatures than any candidate in the county--3,300--to have his name placed on the ballot, which they see as widespread support for his candidacy.

Capizzi has chosen not to discuss his three opponents publicly. Privately, however, he is extremely irritated at Avdeef’s tactics, sources said.

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For example, Avdeef hits hard during his talks that Hicks and Capizzi chose not to investigate Lincoln Savings & Loan, whose financial difficulties could affect more than 20,000 investors. Capizzi insists that is not true, that district attorney investigators are, in fact, cooperating with a federal probe of Lincoln.

Avdeef’s campaign literature is another source of irritation. Though Capizzi wwill not discuss it, his supporters are angry that Avdeef’s signs read: “The people’s district attorney.” His brochures state: “Tom Avdeef” followed by “Orange County district attorney.” They claim that Avdeef has skillfully tried to get voters to think he is the current district attorney.

Avdeef smiles at his critics’ comments. “They must be worried about me,” he said.

If there is one oddity about the district attorney’s race, it’s Freeman’s campaign. Freeman, highly popular within the office, apologizes to his audience during public appearances for having to talk about himself. And he winds up touting Enright’s candidacy more than his own.

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Freeman and Enright are not only longtime close friends but also longtime foes of Capizzi. Freeman wanted to support Enright, but when it appeared that Enright would not enter the race, Freeman jumped in. Enright, however, decided at the last minute to run, but by then it was too late for Freeman to withdraw because he had made a commitment to his supporters, he said.

In speaking engagements, it is obvious Freeman would be pleased to be the No. 2 man at Enright’s side.

“Under the leadership of Jim Enright, we have become the finest district attorney’s office in the state,” Freeman said.

All three Capizzi challengers emphasize to voters that they are not politicians, in contrast with Capizzi. Enright recently told an audience that he is more interested in what goes on in the courtroom than in what goes on in political circles, but then added, “That may have been my undoing.”

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