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Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer showed up to our meeting last week with a busted upper lip. A razor cut from shaving, he sheepishly admitted, a deep one that had crusted up enough so Spitzer winced just a little bit while sipping coffee.
That wasn’t the self-inflicted wound I was curious about, though.
Before us was a folder with a press release for Spitzer's reelection campaign that featured a hashtag he coined: #NoLAinOC.
“Look how good it looks in the banner,” the 61-year-old father of two said with pride at one point in our hour-plus conversation. His finger swept over the last three letters of his last name, where the slogan rested.
Spitzer didn’t like it when I called it juvenile.
“I'm not a ‘caveman’ prosecutor,” he insisted, referring to the self-anointed nickname of the ‘90s-era O.C. GOP members who continue to define the county's peculiar politics. “Well, it's probably how I was trained. Yeah, but I have evolved.”
I allowed that he’s at least better than his predecessor, Tony Rackauckas, whom Spitzer defeated in 2018 in the wake of a jailhouse snitch scandal that overturned dozens of criminal convictions and which the U.S. Department of Justice is still investigating.
But Spitzer’s weak-salsa hashtag, I continued, was the latest entry in a decades-long obsession by Orange County residents to slam L.A. as Sodom while holding up O.C. as a perpetual Eden.
It was a line used in 1936, when then-Orange County Sheriff Logan Jackson blamed Angeleno “agitators” for inspiring Mexican orange pickers to go on a strike that he ruthlessly crushed. It was a tactic used in the 1950s, when middle-class Mexican American families were trying to integrate schools only to see white parents fight them all the way to the courts.
The spirit of #NoLAinOC is something Orange County politicians have inveighed during the Watts rebellion, during the 1992 L.A. riots, and in recent years as homelessness has exploded across Southern California. The civic slur even recently popped up in Anaheim, when the city cracked down on streetside taco vendors after responding to public complaints that included “please don’t let Anaheim become East Los Angeles or Compton.”
Your campaign slogan sounds like a racist dog whistle, I told Spitzer. He immediately objected.
“It's about educating people,” the first-term D.A. shot back.
And the lessons he wants us to know? That Los Angeles is less safe than Orange County because of the leftist policies of L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón. Spitzer’s opponent in this year’s D.A. race, Pete Hardin, is a Gascón clone whose main advisor was Gascón’s spokesperson in San Francisco. A Hardin win, in Spitzer's world, would destroy the Orange County paradise he has so assiduously defended in his 30 years as a politician.
Oh, and he insists that #NoLAinOC isn’t an insult against Los Angeles.
“I love L.A.!” Spitzer said with a genuine grin. It was a sentiment the Montebello native stated in some form or another at least three other times during our talk. “I was educated there. I went to UCLA. I was a cop there. … It's got culture and great food and tremendous diversity and the right culture, museums and libraries and just great stuff.
“But I can't stand what's happening there,” he continued. “I don't want it to happen here.”
#NoLAinOC has caused rolled eyes across O.C. and beyond, and sparked the same response: How asinine. How aggro.
“Why isn’t he talking about the problems he’s facing in O.C.?” said Hardin, a former Orange County prosecutor. He pointed out how Spitzer’s office is facing multiple lawsuits filed by his own prosecutors who allege a senior manager sexually harassed them, and Spitzer did little to stop the abuse. “He's instead talking about crime in L.A. Maybe he should move to L.A. and run there.”
Square-jawed, well-coiffed, charming and indefatigable, Spitzer — who has never lost an election in a career that has included stints as a school board trustee, an O.C. supervisor, a state Assembly member and now the D.A. — is one of the most frustrating politicians in Southern California. As someone who has covered him on and off for 20 years, he has always struck me as a middle-aged Eagle Scout who truly wants to do good, but just can’t earn all his badges — because he keeps having to put out his own fires.
He’s a conservative who has long antagonized local Republicans by blasting unethical party members and who told me the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol insurrection last year left him “disgusted about what my party has become, just like how people try to explain away” — yet he remains in the GOP.
He’s a top prosecutor who released a statement last year that stated, “we as a society have prosecuted people of color differently” and admits that his office “may have consumed” a glass of the social justice Kool-Aid now on tap across D.A. offices nationwide. But when I said that some of his policies — hire more women and minority prosecutors, go after neo-Nazis, create mental health and recidivism reduction units — make him sound like a progressive D.A., Spitzer cracked that people like that should be called “regressives,” then took credit for coining that bad pun.
He has appeared on Fox News and other right-wing news outlets to blast Gascón, but then joined the L.A. D.A.’s reformist alliance of California progressive district attorneys and said he’d have lunch with Gascón “in two seconds” because “I'd love to see that guy be successful.”
Spitzer’s the same guy who speaks fondly of his time as an English teacher at Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights and Schurr High in Montebello, then says in the same breath, “I'm trying to say there's a very clear line between what's happening in Orange County, and what's happening in L.A.”
Spitzer wants to pass himself off as an enlightened truthteller, but he’s really a believer in Orange County exceptionalism, as preposterous a cult as there remains in Southern California. We’ve never been better than our neighbors to the north, especially in an era where the same issues that plague L.A. are very much in O.C.
We’re a county that believes homelessness — up 41% since Spitzer took office — only exists in Santa Ana, where cities dumped their unhoused for decades until a federal judge told them to knock it off. U.S. Department of Justice stats show aggravated assault, car thefts and burglaries in Orange County increased markedly from 2019 to 2020, the last year for which the feds have complete stats on.
Spitzer claimed Los Angeles and San Francisco saw the largest net migration of any cities in California right now in large part because of progressive D.A.s, and that Orange County has the lowest rate of any county. “People appreciate what I'm fighting for,” he said. “That's why they want to live here.”
Yet a December study by the UC-based California Policy Lab showed Orange County lost more residents in net migration than Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. California Department of Finance stats show that the percentage of people who left L.A. County from 2020 to 2021 — 0.9% — is just a tenth of a percentage point higher than Orange County. And Irvine — where Spitzer said L.A. residents are “all freaking coming here from there” — lost a larger percentage of its population in that same time period than the City of Angels.
Near the end of our chat, Spitzer dabbed his injured lip for the umpteenth time (it never bled) and looked at me with another grin. He really, truly wasn’t an Orange County crazy. Why, his liberal family even stopped buying grapes during the UFW boycott!
“You're going to have a very hard time putting me in that box,” Spitzer said with a laugh, “because I'm not that person.”
Well, I don't have to put anyone in a box when they so routinely do it themselves. Unnecessarily.
Like a person who lets another person rent so much real estate in their mind — like obsessed Orange County pols do with L.A. again and again and again.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.