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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON THE SHERIFF'S RACE

It's Baca Against Back Room

The political establishment lacked the courage to force Block to step down. That was left to Baca.

November 01, 1998|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times and a regular columnist

But this race isn't just about saying yes to Sherman Block. It's about saying no to Lee Baca.

--John Shallman, Block's campaign manager.

****

I had not decided to vote for Lee Baca until I read that tactless quote from a spokesman for his opponent's campaign in Wednesday's edition of The Times. And despite Sherman Block's untimely death the very next day, I have not changed my mind.

For Block's passing, while tragic, was not unexpected. In fact, it has thrown into stark relief the rank hypocrisy of this year's campaign for Los Angeles County Sheriff. And if we voters want to send the county's political establishment a message that such gamesmanship is unacceptable, the way to do it is to vote for Baca.

Block's death was no surprise because for the last several weeks of the campaign virtually the only issue being talked about was the incumbent's failing health, after two bouts with cancer and kidney failure. It was painfully clear that the 74-year-old Block could not serve another four-year term, even if he won reelection.

Then last week Block suffered a serious head injury after falling in his home and was forced to undergo surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain. Even if the sheriff had lived, medical sources told The Times, he faced permanent impairment.

What a tragic denouement to a long and honorable career in public service.

When the county Board of Supervisors selected Block as sheriff in 1972, he brought a breath of fresh air to law enforcement in Los Angeles. His thoughtful, soft-spoken style was a refreshing contrast not only to his imperious predecessor, Peter Pitchess, but also a hopeful counterpoint to the insular and arrogant culture of the Los Angeles Police Department. Even then, the LAPD was showing the first signs of the internal rot that would lead to the Rodney King incident, its terrible aftermath and the Christopher Commission's call for police reform.

But after a solid decade on the job, Block's tenure was marred by a numbing series of scandals in the Sheriff's Department: the theft of drug money by detectives in an elite anti-narcotics unit; several cases of more mundane financial mismanagement; and the inappropriate use of force by deputies on the streets and in the county's jails.

The Sheriff's Department problems became so numerous that Block had to face a citizens' reform panel of his own, the Kolts Commission. And anyone with an open mind concluded long ago that the biggest Sheriff's Department in the country needed some fresh leadership.

Which brings us back to Lee Baca, the well-meaning 32-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department who had the temerity to challenge Block in last June's primary election, and then surprised everyone by forcing the incumbent into a runoff.

For all his effort, the challenger now is being bad-mouthed by everybody who's anybody in the Los Angeles political establishment.

That is why Block's campaign manager felt free to say what he did about Baca last Wednesday. And it is why I now feel some sympathy for Baca even while I still harbor serious doubts that any insider can fix what's broken in the Sheriff's Department.

If Block's supporters, like Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, really had any courage, they would have forgotten about Baca and bluntly told Block that it was time for him to groom a successor and step gracefully aside.

The biggest hypocrites are the five current county supervisors. They could have mustered the clout to simply force Block out, if they had put their egos and rivalries aside long enough to work together. Instead, they are now working together in an unseemly campaign to urge voters to reelect a dead man.

For if Block wins, the supervisors get to exercise the worst form of political leadership. They can meet in a back room somewhere to handpick his successor. And that is the real reason they are now all ganging up on Baca in a semipanic.

A former regional chief in the Sheriff's Department and professor of police science, Baca has for years tried to cultivate support to run for sheriff, both among law enforcement professionals and local political activists, especially in the Latino community.

And while relatively few of Baca's fellow cops stepped forward to support him, he did succeed in becoming well-known among Latinos.

If Baca wins, which is still a possibility despite all the verbal hits he is taking from the power brokers, it will be because Latinos support him in big numbers. And if that happens, it will serve Los Angeles' political establishment right.

Not because they underestimated the Latino vote, but because they ganged up on a fundamentally decent man whose only sin was challenging an incumbent that nobody else had the guts to take on.

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