Former U.S. prosecutor announces bid to challenge first-term Orange County DA Todd Spitzer

Candidate Peter Hardin paints the incumbent as a showman who has accomplished nothing; Spitzer fires back that Hardin is a criminal-friendly progressive

A former federal prosecutor who briefly served in the Orange County District Attorney’s Office announced his candidacy Tuesday to challenge first-term D.A. Todd Spitzer in what could be a bruising election battle next year.

Peter Hardin is backed by some of Spitzer’s biggest critics — crime victims and former employees — and armed with such slogans as “leadership, not showmanship.” In an interview Monday, March 15, Hardin painted Spitzer as a politician who uses people and issues to get what he wants without really accomplishing anything.

“He’s stranded the office rudderless in a sea of scandals,” Hardin, 42, said the day before his official Tuesday campaign launch. No one else has announced an intention to challenge Spitzer in the June 7, 2022, primary election.

The size of Hardin’s war chest is still unclear, as well as his knowledge of the terrain he would represent. For instance, Hardin campaign adviser Maxwell Szabo also serves as a spokesman for Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon, a controversial progressive who is shaking things up in his new job. Gascon, who has brought some veteran prosecutors to tears — or early retirement — for what they consider criminal-friendly policies, is anathema to many in largely conservative Orange County.

Hardin has to know that and it is unclear whether Szabo will stay with the campaign past the launch stage.

‘Wannabe George Gascon’

Spitzer, a former member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, seized on Hardin’s link to Gascon.

“As district attorney, I have been fighting to keep Orange County residents safe from violent criminals while at the same time pursuing common-sense reforms to ensure accountability and transparency within our criminal justice system. As expected, criminal-first candidates are targeting the Orange County District Attorney’s Office — just like they did in Los Angeles,” Spitzer wrote in an email Monday.

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

Spitzer ‘a walking scandal’

Hardin counter-punched, “I’ve served for more years as a prosecutor than Todd Spitzer has. He promoted the best man at his wedding after learning he had sexually harassed several of his female subordinates, so if D.A. Spitzer thinks pointing to associations is a winning strategy, he may want to go ahead and get a jump on his job search now.  The only people I will put first are the people of this community that Todd Spitzer has ignored.”

Hardin was referring to four female prosecutors who allege they were harassed by a high-level official at the District Attorney’s Office who was Spitzer’s best man and roommate more than two decades ago. Hardin also chided Spitzer for slapping the wrist of sheriff’s deputies who pleaded guilty to lying on crime reports that they had booked evidence when they had not.

At his Tuesday news conference, Hardin added, “Todd Spitzer is a walking scandal and an unfit leader. He is an embarrassment to Orange County.”

Spitzer was in the audience and heard the criticism. In a later interview, he chided Hardin for inviting Orange County Democratic Party Chairwoman Ada Briceno to speak at the event. Hardin is a Democrat.

“This is a nonpartisan office and I have been very careful not to use the office for political purposes,” said Spitzer, a Republican. “This Democrat-Republican thing is shameful.”

Hardin responded that Briceno attended not as a Democratic official, but as a leader in the hotel workers union.

“These are not red state issues or blue state issues. These are fundamental moral and fiscal imperatives that Todd Spitzer is failing to address,” Hardin said.

Marine Corps captain

Hardin has served as a captain in the U.S Marine Corps, a judge advocate, a deputy in the Orange County District Attorney’s Office for about one year and a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office before entering private practice in 2017.

Aligning himself with Hardin is crime victims advocate Paul Wilson, whose wife, Christy, was one of eight people killed in a shooting rampage by Scott Dekraai at a Seal Beach hair salon. Wilson supported Spitzer in his election bid, but now feels betrayed by what he believes is Spitzer’s lack of action to fix a District Attorney’s Office where prosecutors inappropriately used jailhouse informants to win convictions.

“I’m seeking a change of culture in that D.A.’s Office. Spitzer has had a horrible two years. He hasn’t accomplished anything he ran his campaign on,” Wilson said in an interview.

Hardin fell short of saying he would move to block sentence enhancements, a major plank in Gascon’s reform initiatives. But he said such enhancements often result in sentences that are overly long.

Opposes death penalty, cash bail

Hardin also sets himself apart from Spitzer by opposing the death penalty.

“Given the moratorium on the death penalty in California, seeking the death penalty is a pointless and cruel exercise because it forces surviving victims to endure decades of appeals,” he said. “They are robbed of the finality of the process as they’re subjected to endless litigation with virtually zero chance that a death sentence will ever be carried out in this state.”

Hardin said he would support other reforms, such as ending the prosecution of juveniles as adults, something Spitzer also said he would do.

“I will work with law enforcement to prevent interrogation of kids absent the presence of counsel and their parents, advocate for diversion programs and specialized courts that address the needs of young adults, and seek alternatives to incarceration for teenagers where possible and appropriate,” Hardin said, again reminiscent of Spitzer’s position, except Hardin says he would finish the job.

He also is campaigning against the use of cash bail.

“Cash bail is unnecessary and unfair. The current money bail system allows defendants who are rich and dangerous to buy their freedom while poor defendants who pose no risk to public safety languish behind bars. Even short stints behind bars lead to employment and housing instability, which in turn exacerbates homelessness in our community,” Hardin said.

And, like Spitzer, he promised to end racism in the justice system

“We must confront the fact that systemic racism continues to plague our criminal justice system, resulting in stark racial disparities and the over-incarceration of communities of color. As district attorney, I will embrace the tough conversations we must have about race and the criminal justice system and the reforms we must institute to ensure more equitable administration of criminal justice.”

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