Monday, June 24, 2024

Column: George Gascón and Todd Spitzer are more alike than you think. Hubris unites them

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George Gascón won his race for Los Angeles County district attorney against an entrenched incumbent, in a surprising upset. He vowed to upend the office, which he decried as antiquated and out of tune in its approach to fighting crime.

But Gascón, formerly a high-ranking LAPD officer and San Francisco district attorney, immediately proved controversial, both inside and outside the courtroom.

Prosecutors began to file lawsuits against their boss, alleging professional incompetence and personal vendettas. Enemies launched a rhetorical barrage of well-funded fusillades. District attorneys across California shunned one of their own.

Instead of trying to make peace with opponents, Gascón refused to allow the possibility he was wrong until it was too late, when he was in a fight for his political life.

He’s facing a second recall attempt in as many years even though Gascón was just elected in 2020. The union for rank-and-file L.A. County prosecutors recently gave him an overwhelming vote of no confidence.

Now joining Gascón in the pantry of pilloried prosecutors is his polar opposite, Orange County D.A. Todd Spitzer.

Gascón and Spitzer represent two radically different world views. L.A.’s top prosecutor wants to reform what he sees as a broken culture of punitive punishment, while Spitzer would’ve made a great hanging judge in a John Wayne western.

The two unsurprisingly don’t like each other. Spitzer is running for reelection using the hashtag #NoLAinOC and claims all of Los Angeles’ current ills are the fault of Gascón’s allegedly soft-on-crime approach.

Gascón, for his part, has described Spitzer’s scorched-earth philosophy as “incredibly dangerous and entirely removed from reality.”

But being conservative hasn’t saved Spitzer from Gascón’s predicament. The longtime politician has had a February to forget.

Tracy Miller, a former O.C. senior assistant D.A., filed a claim alleging Spitzer made improper contact with someone tied to a high-profile murder case. She says she was recently pushed out of her job for standing up to an accused sexual harasser who just so happened to be Spitzer’s pal.

Ebrahim Baytieh, another former senior assistant D.A., whom Spitzer once described as his philosophical North Star, accuses Spitzer in a recently leaked memo of endangering a double murder prosecution.

Spitzer’s sin: opining during a closed-door meeting that Black men date white women to enhance their reputation in society.

Baytieh, whom Spitzer recently fired over alleged misconduct, argued that the racist comments should be disclosed to defense attorneys.

In a memo to the judge, a Newport Beach police lieutenant investigating the case accused Spitzer of a “cover-up” over the “unsolicited, derogatory and racist comment about Black men/persons.”

All of this was a prelude to what has strengthened calls for Spitzer’s resignation: a video in which Spitzer uses the N-word multiple times in front of a lawyers group while quoting hate speech.

O.C. prosecutors demanded an all-hands meeting with their boss, which was held Friday afternoon. The third query in a seven-page list of questions the prosecutors posed: “If a majority of your line [prosecutors] take a vote in favor of no confidence, will you step down?”

Gascón and Spitzer were always different sides of the same coin. Both have distinctive hoarse voices, great hair and a flair for self-aggrandizing themselves as the saviors of their profession.

Their approach to a job that’s supposed to be apolitical is bringing them possible political ruin, staff revolts — and distrust from a public that just wants district attorneys to make life safer for everyone.

I forecast a day of reckoning for both of them long ago. Gascón and Spitzer can be seen as Shakespearean characters who masterfully fend off opponents but have no answer for their worst enemy: themselves.

A sense of superiority repeatedly makes them step in it when they can least afford it.

Spitzer’s use of the N-word happened at a banquet for the Iranian American Bar Assn. in November 2019, with a video of the speech surfacing last week. He defended saying the N-word, as well as slurs against the LGBTQ and Middle Eastern communities, arguing that he needed to repeat the words of hate crime perpetrators to fully illustrate the evil of racism.

As someone who used to regularly cover white-power groups in Orange County, I understand his explanation and can even sympathize with it.

But the chutzpah of Spitzer to think he could get away with uttering the N-word in a society where it’s been effectively banished! Did he really think he was above everyone else and that he would get a pass? The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes.

It’s how Spitzer has carried himself throughout his career. When asked by the nonprofit publication Voice of OC to comment on the allegations by Miller and Baytieh, he accused them of being acolytes of former Orange County D.A. Tony Rackauckas, who allegedly taught them “how to cheat, seek revenge and eviscerate your enemies.”

If these prosecutors were so terrible, Todd, why didn’t you fire them upon assuming office? And what does it say that you instead kept them in your inner circle until they criticized you?

Gascón is smart enough not to let words come back to haunt him. His Achilles’ heels are his actions.

One of his first initiatives was a blanket ban on trying juveniles as adults.

For two years, he faced unrelenting criticism from victims, their family members and his own prosecutors for the stance, which Gascón justified with science and stats and vowed to never budge from.

This month, he budged, announcing that juveniles could be tried as adults on a case-by-case basis. The move came after a woman was caught bragging about the light sentence she received for a sexual assault she committed as a 17-year-old.

Gascón claimed he was merely refining his position. But no one buys that explanation when he is clearly trying to seem tough on crime in the face of a recall campaign that will paint him as anything but.

Gascón and Spitzer are banking on the voters who put them in office not too long ago to shrug about their current missteps and reelect them.

But they’ll never be able to escape their inherent flaws. The better fictional analogy isn’t Othello or Macbeth but Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, a self-righteous villain in the Batman universe who saw the world only in absolutes. That perspective eventually condemned him to a self-defeating doom.

What job did Two-Face hold in Gotham before his tragic turn? District attorney.

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