Orange County voters on Tuesday appeared to oust longtime Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas in favor of challenger Todd Spitzer, a significant shift for an office that has been repeatedly rocked by scandals in recent years.
With all precincts reporting on Wednesday morning, Spitzer led Rackauckas in the race to become Orange County’s top prosecutor by nearly 6 percentage points, or more than 31,000 votes.
The bitter race included months of flame-throwing between Rackauckas, who has held the position for two decades, and Spitzer, his former protege. The winner will lead an office that handles more than 60,000 cases a year and wields an annual budget of about $145 million.
In other Orange County elections, Undersheriff Don Barnes received 57% of the vote in the race to take over the Sheriff’s Department, taking a strong lead over political newcomer Duke Nguyen with 100% of precincts reporting.
The district attorney’s race was among the ugliest in Southern California. Spitzer, an Orange County supervisor and former assemblyman, most recently accused Rackauckas of subverting the criminal justice system for political gain by waiting to file a high-profile rape case until just before the midterm elections.
His campaign also highlighted allegations that Rackauckas’ office illegally used jailhouse informants to obtain confessions. In 2015, a criminal court judge removed the district attorney’s office from the murder trial of Scott Dekraai, who shot and killed his ex-wife and seven others at a Seal Beach salon in 2011.
The so-called snitch scandal resulted in reduced or thrown-out charges in several other criminal cases and the retrial of several convicted killers. The district attorney’s office is now facing a civil lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Spitzer himself is no stranger to negative attention. Last year, the 57-year-old settled a lawsuit for $150,000 with a former member of his staff who alleged several labor law violations. And in 2015, Spitzer was admonished for carrying a loaded handgun into a Foothill Ranch taco hut and making a citizen’s arrest of a preacher he deemed suspicious. He argued that his time as an LAPD reserve officer spurred his reaction.
The face-off between Spitzer and Rackauckas was years in the making. Spitzer worked as a prosecutor under Rackauckas for a year, and at one point appeared to be the incumbent’s eventual successor. But the two had a public falling out in 2010 when Rackauckas accused Spitzer of misconduct and fired him.
Rackauckas won his first term as district attorney in 1998 and has since served five terms. When the 75-year-old last won reelection with 73.3% of the vote in 2014, he said he wouldn’t run again — but he gave it another go, in part to keep Spitzer from taking over the seat.
Spitzer signaled he was a serious threat when he garnered 35% of the vote to the incumbent’s 38% in the June primary. His campaign spent over $2.2 million, more than twice as much as Rackauckas’.
As a top prosecutor, Spitzer had more than 100 trials under his belt, and as a state lawmaker was closely tied to the victims' rights movement. He’s pledged that if elected, he will partner with nonprofits such as the American Civil Liberties Union to help reform the district attorney’s office, which is still being investigated by federal and state authorities following the informant controversy.
Rackauckas, appointed to the judiciary in 1990, gained a reputation for being lenient to nonviolent defendants facing lengthy jail terms under the state’s three-strikes law. He’s also been a leader in the use of DNA analysis to apprehend violent criminals.