The race for Orange County’s top prosecutor is kicking off – and heating up.

Peter Hardin, a former District Attorney prosecutor and Marine Corps attorney, announced Tuesday he’s running against DA Todd Spitzer in next year’s election.

It came at a news conference flanked by the chairwoman of the county Democratic Party and a victim of the 2011 Seal Beach mass shooting.

Hardin and his speakers said OC’s district attorney is a complete fraud who consistently puts himself above justice.

“I’m gravely concerned that our current district attorney fights more for headlines and TV appearances than he does for real, smart justice. His pursuit of the headline has been at the cost of the pursuit of justice,” Hardin said.

“Unfortunately what we have…is a district attorney who leverages the tremendous power of his office merely for his own personal and political gain,” he added.

He turned to an ongoing controversy in which four female prosecutors have filed legal claims saying Spitzer – who attended Hardin’s press conference – enabled sexual harassment by promoting his friends despite his aides urging him not to.

“This district attorney promoted his best friend – the best man at his wedding – even after becoming aware that that man had sexually harassed several of his female subordinates,” Hardin said.

“When those allegations came to light, our district attorney allowed his best friend to quietly retire, with top-flight taxpayer paid benefits. And now, as a result of our district attorney’s willful blindness, it’s no surprise that he faces no less than four lawsuits for sexual harassment,” he continued.

“Todd Spitzer is a walking scandal and an unfit leader.”

Spitzer didn’t take long to respond, going on the radio and issuing a statement saying his opponent was a pro-criminal “wannabe” of new LA County District Attorney George Gascón.

“As expected, criminal first candidates are targeting the Orange County District Attorney’s office –  just like they did in Los Angeles,” Spitzer said in a statement, while declining a request from Voice of OC to respond to the specific allegations against him.

“This particular candidate is a criminal attorney who has already hired some of the same individuals who orchestrated Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon’s campaign.  There is no doubt candidates like this will seek to usher in the same pro-criminal agenda that has become a complete and total disaster for Los Angeles residents,” he added.

“Orange County has no interest in becoming Los Angeles or having a wannabe George Gascon as its District Attorney.” 

The message resonated with hosts John and Ken of KFI radio, who followed up on a live appearance with Spitzer to tell their listeners Hardin is a “Gascón acolyte” and “Gascón guy.”

It’s a critique Hardin pre-empted – and pushed back on – at his earlier press conference.

“Todd Spitzer has built his career on tough-on-crime rhetoric, and using fear and intimidation as a tactic. That’s [how] he’s got to where he is today,” Hardin said.

“I know he wants to run against George Gascón, but my name is Peter Hardin. And we’re in Orange County, and not LA.”

It’s setting up an early – and contentious – battle for who will lead the prosecutors who handle thousands of criminal cases a year ranging from everything from assaults to murder to drug possession.

Spitzer, who ran against a former DA whom he called scandal-plagued, has come under criticism as turning his back on his campaign promises, such as promoting prosecutors involved in an informants scandal whom Spitzer harshly criticized during the campaign trail.

Paul Wilson, whose wife Christy was killed in the 2011 Seal Beach shooting, appeared in campaign ads for Spitzer’s 2018 run for DA when Spitzer was vowing to clean up an informants scandal that led to the DA’s office being kicked off the case.

Now, Wilson stands as Spitzer’s most vocal critic.

“Most of all, I wanted him to keep his promises he made in Christy’s name,” Wilson said of Spitzer at Tuesday’s news conference.

But Wilson says he later realized Spitzer had played him in a “con game,” when video emerged of Spitzer – a year into office – praising the snitch scandal prosecutors as “honorable men” who care deeply “about the ethics of our profession.” Spitzer also had promoted one of them.

“It was clear that Todd Spitzer was more interested in winning over prosecutors he had appropriately criticized on the campaign trail, than doing what was right,” Wilson said.

“Mr. Spitzer is a fraud. He will say whatever he needs to say in the moment to help Todd Spitzer.”

Hardin said he’s running to restore integrity to the DA’s office.

“We have turned to prisons and punishment, and turned our back on rehabilitation, support and redemption,” Hardin said of the current criminal justice system in OC and across the nation.

Hardin criticized mass incarceration as diverting money away from services that help prevent crime, like education and mental health counseling.

“We punish people time and time again for minor nonviolent offenses. This doesn’t fix the underlying issues, like drug and alcohol addiction or mental health issues or homelessness. It backfires,” Hardin said.

“And when it backfires, it eliminates housing and employment opportunities – creating a cycle that leads from the streets to the prison and right back out onto the streets, without ever giving people the tools they need to do better in life, to reintegrate into society in a positive and productive way.”

Hardin vowed to end the use of cash bail, stop prosecuting minors in adult court, and no longer pursue the death penalty.

Both sides acknowledge a change is needed in how addiction and mental health are dealt with. In interviews last month, Spitzer said arrested for drug use or mental illness should have the option of treatment instead of jail.

As the new candidate made his case in front of the county’s juvenile hall and family court complex, it wasn’t just his supporters who showed up.

Spitzer himself came to watch his opponent’s press conference.

That brought a rebuke from the new challenger.

“It’s no surprise that Mr. Spitzer is here,” Hardin said. “He’s built a career on having people fear him, and intimidating people. And we have several of his victims here today.”

“The [TV] cameras are here….He follows the cameras. But we’re not going to be intimidated.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at .