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Lights, camera, Baca!

June 17, 2007|Robert Greene | ROBERT GREENE is an editorial writer for The Times.

WILL PARIS Hilton bring down Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca? Is her media cachet the missing ingredient that can focus public outrage on his early release of offenders and the special treatment that talk-show hosts and bloggers claim he gives Hollywood stars?

After all, without Hilton, there would be little chance for a fired county employee such as Andrew Ahlering to take his "Recall Baca" campaign to national television. There would be little chance that Baca's face would be plastered all over CNN; little chance, in fact, for any national scrutiny of Baca at all, even though he is the highest-paid and perhaps most powerful local elected official in the nation.

Until now, the sheriff's profile has remained relatively low, even in Los Angeles, despite the fact that he runs a massive law enforcement agency, with about 8,000 deputies, the nation's largest jail system and an annual budget of $2 billion. Unlike his city counterpart, LAPD Chief William J. Bratton, Baca has flown beneath the radar during most of his eight years as sheriff, except for the occasional fleeting charge that he cozies up to the latest Hollywood personality in his custody (as with Mel Gibson's drunk-driving arrest a year ago).

Now the Paris Hilton circus returns him to the limelight, at least for the moment. But he will survive. The recall campaign is a nonstarter, and despite the media blitz, Baca's political position is unassailable.

Still, if the jailing of a wealthy, 26-year-old media princess helps remind voters who their public officials are and what they do -- and that criminal sentences in Los Angeles County are seldom served in full -- that's probably a good thing.

Baca, after all, deserves some attention. He is a fascinating figure in California politics, bridging the postwar style of professional government -- low-key, barely partisan, fairly colorless, catering to middle-class taxpaying sensibilities -- with cutting-edge political savvy and an undeniable talent for building interethnic support. There's a little bit of iconoclastic 1970s Jerry Brown in him (critics in the department call him "Sheriff Moonbeam"), mixed with a bit of the high-tech 21st century police chief.

The 65-year-old native of East L.A. lacks the instant recognition of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, although -- with apologies to state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner -- he's the state's second-most-powerful elected Republican. He's got none of the personal magnetism of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, but his endorsement is second only to Villaraigosa's for L.A. political candidates. A nod from Baca is a sort of law enforcement seal of approval, leavened with a bit of his modern approach to rehabilitation and a dose of Latino credibility.

Baca ought to be good copy. There is one news story after another on turmoil in the overcrowded county jails he runs, which are governed by a federal consent decree monitored by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. There were stories, for instance, on the sheriff's controversial decision to release inmates early to ease jail overcrowding; some of those inmates went on to commit additional crimes (including, in a handful of cases, murder). There also have been stories about deaths, disease and riots in the jails, and about the official-looking law enforcement ID cards that Baca issued to political supporters and then revoked in the wake of criticism from the county Board of Supervisors.

Little seems to stick. Even when Baca coverage goes national because of some celebrity jailing, the sheriff remains a cipher and fundamentally unscathed. That's in part because this is Los Angeles, where politics is officially nonpartisan and has never become the contact sport it is in New York, Chicago or some other cities. And in part, it is because county government is structured in a way that keeps voters from caring too much about it or following it too closely.

Baca, after all, has a constituency of 10 million people, but those who are most likely to vote are not directly served by the sheriff. The city of Los Angeles and most of its larger neighbors, such as Pasadena, Long Beach and Glendale, are patrolled by their own police officers, not by Baca's deputies, who serve in the county's vast unincorporated rural stretches, in awkwardly shaped dense urban pockets, in the small cities that contract for deputy services and on Metro routes. Relatively few voters are likely to have been arrested by his deputies or to have spent time in his jails. Most encounter his personnel when serving jury duty.

The county provides services, like jails, that wealthier, better-educated citizens (who studies show are more likely to vote) know only from a distance. If the sheriff can neither help you nor hurt you, there is little need to know much about him.

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