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Ex-Nixon Trickster Segretti Won’t Seek O.C. Judgeship : Politics: The convicted Watergate figure quits campaign, citing negative publicity about his candidacy.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Donald Segretti, convicted political prankster and would-be candidate for judge, found out just how large Watergate still looms among local voters.

On Monday, he quit the race.

Segretti, who declared himself a candidate for Superior Court judge last week, said the reaction was so negative that he decided to drop out. He said he didn’t need the job and didn’t want to drag his family through another public retelling of his old misdeeds.

“They all wanted to talk about Nixon and Watergate,” Segretti said. “It really hit a raw nerve.”

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Segretti took out nominating papers last week to run for the Superior Court judgeship being vacated by Floyd H. Schenk. Segretti, a 53-year-old lawyer and former Nixon political operative, said he thought he would be an ideal candidate for the job: He has been a military prosecutor, a civil lawyer--and, of course, a defendant. Segretti said he had some solid ideas about what ails America’s judicial system.

“I have a wealth of life experience that would have served all parties before me,” Segretti said.

But it was his work as a notorious Nixon “dirty-trickster” that Segretti found difficult to overcome. During the 1972 presidential campaign, Segretti took part in a secret effort to discredit Nixon’s Democratic political opponents.

He is associated with an infamous letter written on Sen. Edmund Muskie’s stationery denigrating blacks and accusing other presidential candidates of sexual misconduct.

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In 1973, Segretti pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of distributing illegal campaign literature. He was sentenced to 6 months in prison, and served 4 1/2 months in the federal penitentiary at Lompoc. His law license was suspended for two years.

For the past 17 years, Segretti has practiced civil and business law from his office in Newport Beach. Married with one child, he has mostly kept out of the news, until last week.

Segretti’s announcement caused a sensation; it appeared in newspapers across the country and beyond. All of them--from the New York Times to the Ottawa Citizen--mentioned Segretti’s role in the Watergate scandal.

Even the conservative Washington Times ran a story with the headline: “Nixon Trickster Running for Judge.”

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Segretti said he couldn’t stand it.

“I failed to consider that the media will never forget that I was involved in the reelection campaign of Richard Nixon 23 years ago,” Segretti wrote in a statement he released Monday. “What I had hoped would be a low-key, dignified campaign for judicial office . . . has turned into something altogether different, sensationalizing the events of 23 years ago instead of focusing on the issues of today.

“My experience practicing law and my life in 1995,” Segretti continued, “have been completely ignored.”

In an interview, Segretti said some people took the attitude that, “anyone who worked for Nixon, or did what I did, should be crucified.”

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Appearing in a photo essay in Vanity Fair magazine three years ago, Segretti was quoted as saying his actions were “mostly nickel-dime stuff. Maybe fifteen cents or a quarter every once in a while.”

Many in Orange County political circles said they wished Segretti would have stayed in the fight.

“Don Segretti is not responsible for Watergate,” said William Mitchell, chairman of the Orange County chapter of Common Cause. “I’m not convinced that he couldn’t be a good judge.”

Doy Henley, president of the Lincoln Club, said Segretti’s misdeeds were exaggerated.

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“Who among us hasn’t done something foolish in their youth?” he asked. “Don is a man of integrity and character.”

Even one of Segretti’s potential opponents in the judicial race said he should have stayed in the race.

“I think he has the right to run,” said Nancy A. Pollard, a candidate for the Superior Court judge seat. “Let the people decide.”

Not everyone was so willing to forget Segretti’s transgressions. Mark Petracca, a UC Irvine political science professor, said Segretti got off easy.

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“Some people mistakenly see Segretti as some kind of folk hero,” Petracca said. “His activities ranged from the humorous to the cruel.”


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