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Amid Mourning, Votes for Block Are Urged

Election: His campaign wants county board to pick successor. Meanwhile, funeral is set for Hollywood Bowl.

October 31, 1998|SHARON BERNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the strangest electoral contests in local history took another dizzying step toward a crescendo of sorts Friday, as officials in the late Sheriff Sherman Block's reelection campaign told voters the only way to "preserve their right to choose" is to cast ballots for the dead incumbent, thereby delegating the decision to the county Board of Supervisors.

At the same time, deputies--many of whom have never worked for another sheriff--and other law enforcement officials spent the day in mourning. Flags flew at half-staff at police and sheriff's stations across the county, and Sheriff's Department employees wore black ribbons on their badges and nameplates.

"Employees are walking around in a state of bewilderment and sadness," said Undersheriff Jerry Harper, who is running the department until a new sheriff is elected or appointed. "They all want to stop and say how much it means to them. And they all have a story to tell about Block," who died Thursday evening.

But to the dismay of many county officials, it was difficult to escape the campaign--and the questions of power and succession.

Top campaign officials came and went from sheriff's headquarters Friday to discuss funeral arrangements and, sources said, Block's possible successor.

At least one member of the campaign staff expressed the hope that the media attention over the funeral, scheduled for 11 a.m. Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl, would increase support for the campaign. For his part, Lee Baca, Block's opponent in the race, has no plans to resume active campaigning, although his campaign chairman, Jorge Flores, said the candidate might make a public statement today.

Baca, a Mexican American who rose through the ranks to become one of Block's proteges, is a retired division chief whose base of support comes from outside the traditional political and fund-raising circles to which the deceased sheriff's major supporters belong.

When he decided to run against Block--a maverick decision in an institution that, like most law enforcement agencies, has a culture based on loyalty--he engendered ugly feelings not only in the sheriff, but among many in his command structure and in area politics.

In a poll conducted for the Block campaign last month, Baca had a slight lead, but because it fell within the margin of error, observers deemed the race too close to call.

In what has become a mantra in the hours since Block's death, the campaign said Friday that by assigning their proxy to the supervisors, voters would get their only chance to "select the best-qualified candidate."

"Sherman Block . . . wanted the voters to have a real choice on Tuesday," his longtime campaign chairman, Jay Grodin, said at a news conference just 16 hours after the sheriff's death. "To preserve that choice, let the Board of Supervisors choose a qualified interim successor to serve until you can vote in the next election."

That sentiment was echoed by two of the potential lawmaker-selectors, Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe.

But, sensitive to criticism, a majority of the board backed away from urging the electorate outright to vote for a dead man.

Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who was among those endorsing Block on Tuesday, issued a statement saying she would vote her conscience and urging voters to do the same.

And the two supervisors with the most to lose by potentially antagonizing the Latino community--Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina--were decidedly cool on the notion of voting for a dead candidate.

"I don't like being put in this situation right now," said Molina, who has switched her support from Block to Baca. "I don't think this is something that I should be discussing at a time when I should be in mourning."

Yaroslavsky, an old friend and longtime supporter of Block, described the situation as "surreal."

"I think the sheriff's campaign has made its point, and I think everybody has heard it more than once," he said. "And I think now is the time to lower the decibel level a little bit and let voters make their decision in the privacy of the voting booth on Tuesday."

Still, Yaroslavsky would not go so far as to say whom he would vote for. "People should vote their conscience," he said.

Molina and Yaroslavsky said that if Block wins, they would not wish to appoint someone for the full two years required by the county charter. However, Molina said research by county attorneys appears to show that the document expressly prohibits the board from holding an early election.

That means whoever the board appointed would probably serve two years and then face election from the strong position of an incumbent.

In a local radio interview, one of the candidates known to be favored by the supervisors--former Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Mark Kroeker--stopped short of asking voters to elect a dead man, but said he would be eager to serve if selected by the board.

Block's second-in-command, Harper, said he would not accept the position of sheriff if the board offered it to him.

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