Leroy (Lee) Baca, the 71-year-old sheriff of Los Angeles County, is facing a rocky road to re-election in 2014. The Los Angeles Times has called on him to retire, as has L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina. A citizens’ commission on jail violence issued a blistering report on his leadership. Meanwhile, two significant challengers have emerged, with more possibly in the wings. A look at Baca’s career as sheriff indicates both the reasons for his durability and his problems. It’s hard to imagine a more skilled politician and a sheriff with less effective control of his department. He is, as a result, both well liked and vulnerable.
Until 1998, the office of Los Angeles County sheriff was the ultimate insider post. Sheriffs served for long periods and often passed the job off to their chosen successors. In 1998, the 74-year-old Sherman Block, a son of Jewish immigrants whose first job in Los Angeles was working at Canter’s Deli, was nearing the end of his fourth term as the county’s first and only Jewish sheriff.
Block had strong support from organized labor, and on the Westside and in the Valley, where most of the votes came from in county elections.
He mentored his top aide, Chief Deputy Sheriff Lee Baca, and then faced a challenge from Baca in 1998.
Baca’s mother was an immigrant from Mexico, and he had the potential to break up the comfortable political establishment of the sheriff’s office. Most of the county supervisors both liked and trusted Block, and they resented the upstart Baca for his challenge. In the primary, Baca ran even with Block and finished with 32 percent of the vote to Block’s 36 percent, enough to force a runoff. Even with Baca’s strong challenge, though, the incumbent seemed likely to win.
But just before the runoff election, Block suddenly died. Even so, in those last days before the election, Block’s campaign continued, with the quiet support of much of the political establishment. Had the deceased Block won, the board of supervisors planned to choose a successor who would serve until the next election. Among the county supervisors, only Gloria Molina, the first Latino member of the board, endorsed Baca in the runoff, and a number of Latino elected officials also supported the challenger. Baca won easily, with more than 61 percent of the vote and became the first countywide Latino elected official in modern times.
Despite the ill will that accompanied Baca’s election in 1998, he showed himself to be a skilled politician, reaching out to the county’s diverse communities in a way that no previous sheriff had done. He also effectively protected the political role of the sheriff, winning a lawsuit against a county ballot measure to impose term limits on the L.A. County sheriff. He argued successfully that they are agents of state law and therefore exempt from term-limit measures.
Baca became a constant presence at community events great and small, in the county’s diverse communities, and he also made a name for himself across the state and nation as a forward-looking sheriff. A moderate Republican, he became a familiar figure in the Latino, Jewish, Asian-American and African-American communities. He also became well known outside Los Angeles for championing religious diversity among Christians, Jews and Muslims, and for emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment. He coasted to three re-elections without ever facing a runoff.
But at the same time, his department developed serious, profound problems, most noticeably in the county jails, where violence by guards flourished without oversight, and less visibly in charges of favoritism toward celebrities and the politically connected. The mystery, of course, is how such a skilled politician could be so indifferent about running his own department, turning much of the work over to a deputy, Paul Tanaka, who, according to the citizens’ commission, was a major obstacle to reform. Baca complained that his aides had kept him out of the loop on key decisions.
This puzzling contradiction helped create the irony that even as this same sheriff was blasted locally for a dismal record on jail reform, he received a national award as sheriff of the year in 2013.
Can Baca survive, if he decides to seek a fifth term? He removed Tanaka, which was crucial to Baca’s chances because it indicated a commitment to change. That was a good first step, but there will have to be more. Baca has until the June 2014 primary (and a November runoff, if no candidate wins a majority) to persuade voters of his ability to run the department and that he can take responsibility for the changes that need to be made. He has a pool of goodwill to draw upon, but it is not bottomless. Sheriffs are hard to dislodge, but with elite opinion shaky for Baca, it is not impossible.
Tanaka can make an insider’s case against the sheriff better than anyone. Retired sheriff commander Bob Olmstead can hurt Baca by charging that the sheriff ignored his warnings of misconduct. On the other hand, if Tanaka forces Baca into a runoff against himself, he may lead disappointed reformers to prefer the incumbent as the least objectionable alternative.
The biggest challenge to Baca will be if another candidate well known to the vast county electorate and without Tanaka’s liabilities enters the race. In that case, Baca will need every ounce of his political skill and community ties to prevail.
Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.