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DECISION '98

Capizzi at Loss on What Happened and What's Next

June 04, 1998|SHELBY GRAD and JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The verdict is in on Dist. Atty. Mike Capizzi.

The veteran prosecutor, who enraged local Republicans with his high-profile political corruption cases and handling of the county bankruptcy, was trounced in his bid to become state attorney general--failing even to carry Orange County. Moreover, the deputy he backed to succeed him as district attorney lost by a wide margin.

The results are a huge political blow to Capizzi, who only a few years ago was considered a strong contender for higher office. His future is now very much up in the air, given that he is set to retire from county government in January after 34 years as a prosecutor.

But it remains a matter of debate whether Capizzi's poor showing was actually a public repudiation of his policies or a reflection of the GOP's unprecedented campaign to blackball one of its own.

Most county Republican leaders actively campaigned and raised money for his opponent, Dave Stirling, former chief assistant attorney general. The Republican Party's official animus toward Capizzi was on glaring display at the party's victory celebration Tuesday night at the Sutton Place Hotel in Newport Beach. Any mention of his name was greeted by a cacophony of hisses and boos; Stirling's name brought cheers and applause.

"Capizzi's dead," crowed Supervisor Todd Spitzer, a former deputy district attorney who served under Capizzi. "It has to do with the fact that he was a poor leader as the district attorney of Orange County, and the voters of California know that."

But Capizzi loyalists chalked up the loss to a political vendetta by GOP leaders angry for his prosecution of Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach) and other party operatives on charges of falsifying nominating papers.

"There's no question that the Republican element set out to destroy Capizzi for prosecuting one of their own," said Shirley Grindle, a longtime county political watchdog. "He has a long record of fighting political corruption. He's taken a lot of unfair heat and criticism."

Capizzi was more circumspect Wednesday, saying he was surprised by the results but was still analyzing exit polling.

"You can't dwell on the past. It's yesterday's news. I'm looking to the future," he said. "Every time you have an election, you have the Monday-morning yappers. I'm not going to join in on that."

The 58-year-old prosecutor said he hasn't decided what he will do when his term expires but wouldn't rule out seeking another political office. "I haven't given any consideration to what I will do," he said. "I plan to spend the next seven months being an effective district attorney.'

Capizzi made a name for himself in the mid-1970s for a series of political corruption investigations that led to the downfall of three county supervisors. Since then, two other supervisors have resigned amid investigations, including Don R. Roth, who in 1993 pleaded guilty to accepting gifts from people doing business with the county.

But some of Capizzi's more recent prosecutions have generated controversy.

He charged Baugh with filing false nominating paper as part of an effort to place a decoy on the ballot. The decoy candidate was meant to siphon Democratic votes from another candidate in the 1995 race to succeed recalled Assemblywoman Doris Allen.

Baugh's trial is pending, and critics claim Capizzi was being overzealous and attempted to gain statewide recognition with the case.

Capizzi also came under fire for his prosecutions of officials involved in the county bankruptcy. Of the six officials charged, only two spent time in jail. Civil misconduct charges filed against two supervisors and the county auditor-controller were tossed out by an appeals court.

Capizzi said the election results should not be viewed as a referendum on those cases. "I was not running for reelection," he said. "Had I been running for reelection, I'm comfortable I could have been elected to a third term based on our record."

Critics, however, take a different view.

"To win from a county office to a state office, you need a unified base of support, and he never had one," said Mike Schroeder, head of the California Republican Party. "People knew him in this county, and they didn't like what they saw."

Stirling's campaign began to pull away in the last two weeks of the race, Schroeder said, boosted by a television endorsement advertisement from former Gov. George Deukmejian, who was Stirling's campaign general chairman.

Polling of Republican voters showed Deukmejian as the most popular GOP figure in the state, Schroeder said.

"During a primary, voters tend to ask party activists who they're voting for because they know they have insights they don't have," he said. "The party activists don't like Capizzi, and the word of mouth spread. He badly underestimated that effect."

Profile: Mike Capizzi

Age: 58

Residence: Orange

Education: B.A., Eastern Michigan University, 1961; University of Michigan law school, 1964

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