Ducking Racism Scandal, Orange County DA Turns to Dog Whistles

This California election pits a prosecutor who is warning of crime outside his county to a challenger who blames him for deflecting from the OC’s own problems.

The ad, titled “Gotham,” is grim: homeless encampments in Downtown Los Angeles, grainy security camera footage of a robbery, a bullet falling to the ground in slow motion. A news anchor recites crime statistics as an LAPD siren wails in the background and the words LA was destroyed by radical policies flash across the screen.

You’d be forgiven for assuming that this was an ad for a Los Angeles-based candidate. In fact, it was made by Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer; the ad goes on to compare Spitzer’s reform-minded opponent, Pete Hardin, to the progressive Los Angeles DA, calling him a “[George] Gascón clone.” This focus has been central to Spitzer’s reelection strategy. From his rhetoric down to his campaign hashtag, #NoLAinOC, Spitzer’s narrative is consistent: he’s the only person who can stop Orange County from transforming into its neighbor to the north.

These references to LA are explicitly about crime and criminal justice policy, but they carry deep racial and economic undertones. Orange County politicians have long juxtaposed OC and LA, says LA Times columnist and former OC Weekly editor-in-chief Gustavo Arellano.“It’s always happened for decades,” he told Bolts, “ever since Orange County got its sense of being ‘Orange County,’ which is to say not urban, not Black, and not poor—and also not liberal.” But demographic changes over the last few decades have made OC more like LA, both racially and politically: the county, once reliably Republican, is moving to the left. 

Spitzer has made his campaign a proxy for the culture wars over Black Lives Matter and the national struggle over criminal justice, betting that this will galvanize rightwing stalwarts while seizing on more moderate voters’ fears of crime. Hardin, meanwhile, has focused outreach efforts on immigrant communities and communities of color in Orange County, going door-to-door with allies like the progressive Latinx organization Chispa. To critics like Hardin, Spitzer’s focus on the specter of Los Angeles—and everything that it invokes—is an attempt to distract from the economic and racial injustices and rising crime that undercut Orange County’s image as a pristine coastal paradise. Jodi Balma, a professor of political science at Fullerton College, calls his invocations “dog whistles.” 

Spitzer’s rhetoric comes in the wake of a scandal over racist comments the DA made last year. In February, the Voice of OC reported that Spitzer had brought up Black men’s dating practices, and what he described as their tendency to date white women to advance their social standing, in an October meeting where prosecutors were deciding whether to seek the death penalty against a Black male defendant.

Spitzer lost endorsements from a number of fellow California prosecutors, and the Orange County NAACP chapter called for his resignation, tying these statements to a broader pattern of racially disparate treatment documented by a recent study of the DA’s office. 

Undeterred, Spitzer is seeking a second term next month against three opponents. Although the election is technically nonpartisan, Spitzer is endorsed by the county Republican Party and the county Democratic Party has endorsed Hardin. Also running are Bryan Chehock, an attorney at the Drug Enforcement Administration, and Mike Jacobs, a retired prosecutor. If no one gets over 50 percent in the June 7 primary, the top two candidates will advance to a November general election. 

Spitzer is asking voters to indulge in seductive binaries: OC vs. LA, “woke” vs. law and order, us vs. them. But the election is also testing which vision of Orange County will win out: the old ‘Orange County’ that defines itself in opposition to liberal, diverse urbanity or the new Orange County, an increasingly multicultural place of shifting identities and affiliations where old-school dog whistles may no longer resonate.