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Orange County | DANA PARSONS

Rackauckas Challenger's Greatest Ally? Rackauckas

January 02, 2002|DANA PARSONS

Other than the Orange County Grand Jury taking a look at how he runs his office, it was a good week for Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas. A few more good weeks like that, and he'll be looking for a new job by spring.

Challenger Wally Wade must be living right. The way things are breaking for him so far, his best campaign strategy might be to say nothing and just wait for the next shoe to drop on Rackauckas.

Wade is the veteran prosecutor Rackauckas soundly whipped in 1998 when both ran for the open seat. For lots of reasons, it's no easy task in Orange County to unseat an incumbent district attorney, and Wade has to make up more than 80,000 votes, the margin he lost by four years ago.

Under normal circumstances, he could forget it.

Rackauckas, however, has shown an uncanny knack for drumming up controversy. A district attorney generally flies below the radar screen; Rackauckas has painted a bright red target on himself.

A grand jury taking testimony about the district attorney's office? You think Wade maybe, just maybe, could find a way to make that a campaign issue?

Rackauckas was lying low last week when the grand jury story came out. A supervisor in his office played it down, saying it was just a routine examination.

Not likely.

Beyond that, it's a lose-lose proposition for Rackauckas.

If nothing comes of the grand jury's inquiry, Wade still makes political hay out of why it was undertaken in the first place. And if any admonishment comes from the panel, it could be lights out for Rackauckas.

Now, if the grand jury were Rackauckas' only irritant. . . .

Rather, earlier last month, the association representing the deputy attorneys in the district attorney's office endorsed Wade. That followed an earlier endorsement from the Orange County Attorneys Assn.

Most voters probably didn't know either association existed, but Wade will be sure to alert them. You don't have to be a marketing genius to picture a TV ad or mailer touting both votes.

Again, Rackauckas is snookered. The truth is that the vote totals weren't released from either poll, so we don't know whether Wade won the endorsements by one vote or 100. Or even if 100 people voted.

But Wade can legitimately note, as he already has, that it's the first time neither association endorsed the incumbent district attorney.

A retired deputy district attorney, who says he supports neither candidate, agrees that Rackauckas could be hurt by perception. He was answering my question about how voters could make an informed decision in a race that doesn't get a lot of publicity.

"They can't, unless they take a couple weeks off from their jobs and start investigating it themselves," he says. "Even then, they're going to have to talk to a lot of people."

Conceding that most people won't do that, they'll likely pay attention to endorsements from people supposedly in the know, he says.

With the March 5 election in sight, Rackauckas needs an offense. For an incumbent with history on his side, he has played nothing but defense.

In fact, the only person off to a slower start in the campaign is me: I wrote last month that, after winning the 1998 election, Rackauckas put Wade in charge of the consumer fraud division in the office.

Elementary logic should have told me a victor wouldn't give the vanquished such a job. The truth is that Wade was assigned to the welfare fraud division and has never headed consumer fraud. He was among many who alerted me to my blunder. "Thanks for the promotion," he said, wryly.

The point is, goof-ups happen.

Although I'd like the grand jury to investigate how I made my blunder, they aren't.

No, the only person who has a grand jury on his back is the incumbent district attorney.

All the while, Wally Wade continues smiling like the Cheshire cat and wondering how long his good luck will hold.

*

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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