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DECISION '98 | L.A. SHERIFF'S RACE

Baca Appears Headed for Commanding Win

Win would reflect shift in power--away from Westside, toward Latino middle class.

November 04, 1998|SHARON BERNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lee Baca, the retired sheriff's division chief who rocked the county's political establishment by taking on four-time incumbent Sherman Block, appeared to be headed toward a commanding victory in the race for Los Angeles County sheriff Tuesday night.

A win would make Baca, whose opponent died during the campaign's last days, the first Latino sheriff elected in Los Angeles County during this century.

With 40% of the precincts reporting and with the absentee ballots tabulated at 11:30 p.m., Baca led with 62% of the 741,000 votes counted, compared with 38% for Block.

The early returns were enough to prompt Baca to claim victory before 10 p.m. "Los Angeles County has become an inclusive, glorious, wonderful place for everyone," Baca told chanting supporters gathered at his headquarters in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pasadena. "We all can take great pride in the fact that this has been a campaign about decency. This has been a campaign about fairness," he said.

If Baca's early lead holds, his election would mark a major shift of power in Los Angeles County away from the Westside/San Fernando Valley coalition that has dominated local politics since the 1960s.

"I intend to unify this county as sheriff," Baca said in an interview. "This is the dawning of a new age of law enforcement."

Baca, who holds a doctorate in public administration from USC and served 32 years in the department, said his first task would be to work on a smooth transition of power in a department that has been racked with division over the election.

By the time he is sworn in, Baca said, he hopes to have visited all 55 command posts in the department to determine the needs of each one.

Block's supporters, on the other hand, did not concede the race until about 11 p.m., when campaign Chairman Jay Grodin congratulated the new sheriff and pledged to work with him.

"We wish Mr. Baca well in his new position," Grodin said. "He has some very big shoes to fill."

County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who along with his board colleagues endorsed Block, also promised to support the new sheriff, pledging to argue for increased funding for the department.

"If Lee Baca is the choice of the voters, the Board of Supervisors will work with Lee in ensuring that the Sheriff's Department retains the professionalism established under Sheriff Sherman Block and previous sheriffs," Antonovich said.

Hostility Lingers

The nastiness that has characterized the campaign did not abate with a concession speech, however.

Grodin continued to argue that had his boss not died, Block would have won another term.

And at a Block campaign's gathering at the L.A. Mart, where Grodin has a part interest, guests booed and jeered at Baca when he made his victory speech on TV.

Guests at the party included former Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and former LAPD Deputy Chief Mark Kroeker, as well as members of Block's family.

As her grandchildren played among the guests in cocktail clothes, Alyce Block, the late sheriff's widow, said that whatever the results of the election, the evening was a testament to her husband.

"This is not a memorial to Sherman," she said. "It is a celebration of his life and legacy."

Tuesday's balloting capped a bitter, hard-fought race that began well over a year ago, when Baca began to address community groups as a preliminary to tossing his hat into the ring. In a portent of the ensuing campaign's tone, Block assigned one of his trusted aides to tail the then-potential challenger.

Now, it is clear that the elements that would turn a routine, even small, election into a multimillion-dollar blood feud were at work even then.

Part of the campaign's bitterness stemmed from the fact that it was fought out within the culture of a proud and byzantine police organization. In that context, Block viewed a contest with one of his once-trusted subordinates not simply as a political challenge, but as an act of insubordination and personal betrayal.

That reaction was amplified by the overlapping character of the incumbent's reelection effort, which included not only political supporters, but also members of the department's top brass who owed their jobs, salaries and political influence to Block. Some had subordinated their own ambitions to become sheriff when the boss decided to run again. Baca, many of them said privately, had betrayed them too.

Finally, the unusual runoff for the office, which has been passed on for most of this century in a kind of dynastic succession, was complicated by the shifting mix of political power in Los Angeles. Baca, a Mexican American, is not part of the circle of well-connected political insiders to which not only Block but also most of the members of the Board of Supervisors and many statewide politicians who endorsed him owe their jobs.

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