In a bitter contest between two former friends, county Marshal Mike Carona led Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters by several points in the race to succeed longtime county fixture Brad Gates and become the first new Orange County sheriff in 24 years.
With about half the precincts reporting, the contest for the county's other vacant top law-enforcement post, district attorney, was more decisive.
Superior Court Judge Anthony J. Rackauckas appeared to be easily defeating Assistant Dist. Atty. Wallace J. Wade. Rackauckas, 54, would succeed Mike Capizzi, the county's top prosecutor since 1990.
The tight sheriff's race and Rackauckas' apparent victory indicated that, for the first time in decades, two of the county's most powerful posts would be taken over by department outsiders rather than hand-picked successors.
Both Gates and Capizzi were chosen by their predecessors to succeed them; Gates prevailed in 1974 among a field of eight candidates while Capizzi was appointed to the job in 1990 and won election later that year.
As they watched returns trickle in, Walters, Carona and Rackauckas spoke of new agendas for Orange County's largest law-enforcement agencies.
"The returns so far make it appear that I'm going to win the election," Rackauckas said. "I'm very gratified. A lot of people have put a lot of hard work in this and they felt their careers were at stake."
He continued, "I'm relieved and I can't wait to get started on the changes that we need to make."
Wade, obviously disappointed by the early results, said, "I hope as the other results come up that we move up. We're still very hopeful."
Carona, who watched returns intently as his lead expanded slightly shortly before midnight, said the race was too close to declare a victory.
"I'm absolutely ecstatic," Carona said. "This campaign was run picture-perfect."
"We had a very broad-based coalition from all kinds of groups and ethnic groups and that's what's winning this election," he continued.
Walters, meanwhile, was joined by more than 500 supporters who jammed into the Revere House in Tustin.
"We think we'll win," Walters said after noting his surprisingly good showing among absentee voters. "It's going to be close, but we feel confident."
But Walters was already thinking ahead, just in case. "If for some reason their Republican machine pulls it off, we'll be back in four years. We'll get this done one way or the other."
With the campaign now over, Walters reflected: "It's been extremely positive. We've met a lot of great people, they believe in us, they want the same things we want for the department and the community.
The Walters-Carona race to lead the 2,500-member Orange County Sheriff's Department remained tight. Before the election, it was a dead heat in voter polls.
Walters, 52, received strong support from rank-and-file officers who worked diligently to get him elected.
The Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs spent about $150,000 on the campaign in the final stretch and conducted a grass-roots, door-to-door campaign.
The deputies' union had charged that Carona was not a "real cop" because the marshal's office does not patrol the streets and is only responsible for courthouse security and serving warrants.
Walters said his biggest priority would be to make Santa Ana's nationally recognized community policing effort a countywide program.
Walters joined the Santa Ana Police Department in 1971 as a patrol officer and steadily rose through the ranks to become chief in 1988.
Carona, 43, who was backed by Republican Party leaders, would be stepping into a job where a strong majority of deputy sheriffs did not support his candidacy.
He has said that if he won, he would work to earn their support and that he has the best credentials for the job since he runs the only other countywide law enforcement agency and has experience working with the Board of Supervisors.
During the campaign, Carona compared the sheriff's job to that of a CEO while Walters likened it to being more of a "top cop."