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Critics see bias in O.C. sheriff vote

Some commentators say Sandra Hutchens got the appointment because she's a woman, not because of ability.

June 12, 2008|Christian Berthelsen, Christine Hanley and H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writers

Just after Orange County supervisors selected Sandra Hutchens as the first woman ever to lead the county's troubled Sheriff's Department, Santa Ana City Councilman Carlos Bustamante sidled up to a conservative blogger with a joke.

"I kept telling the chief," he said, referring to Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters, who narrowly lost the sheriff's job, " 'Maybe we should get you some implants. Or a water bra.' "

In the immediate aftermath of Hutchens' selection Tuesday, some of Orange County's politicos and commentators -- particularly Republican men -- have openly asserted that Hutchens was chosen on the basis of gender over qualification. The conservative Red County blog said it was a "gender-driven appointment." The editorial page of the Orange County Register called her selection "an affirmative-action hire."

Their positions are based in part on the fact that two of the supervisors who voted for Hutchens are women and that members of a Republican women's group with ties to the two female board members launched an aggressive -- and ultimately successful -- lobbying effort to get Hutchens appointed.

Despite Orange County's reputation as a conservative stronghold, Hillary Clinton was the top vote-getter in the county in the presidential primary this year. But to some, the comments about the new sheriff dredged up stereotypes of what they thought was a bygone era of Orange County politics, in which Republican men called the shots and were loath to share power.

"You'll always find a few die hards out there," said Marian Bergeson, a former county supervisor, state legislator and education secretary under Gov. Pete Wilson.

Joan Irvine Smith, the heiress to the James Irvine land fortune and one of the most powerful women in Orange County, said, "Well, you do have people that are averse to women holding responsible jobs."

Steve Wilkinson, a 26-year veteran sheriff's deputy in Los Angeles County who once worked for Hutchens, said he was surprised by the comments. "It's time for Orange County to get away from this good-old-boy syndrome," he said.

Bustamante, contacted Wednesday, denied making the joke about Walters needing implants, though the remark was clearly heard by a Times reporter during Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting.

Orange County's sheriff is normally selected by voters, but supervisors found themselves in the unprecedented position of appointing a sheriff after the resignation of Michael S. Carona following his indictment on corruption charges last year. After reviewing nearly 50 candidates, the board narrowed the field to two last week -- Hutchens and Walters -- and selected Hutchens on Tuesday.

Hutchens, 53, who retired last year from one of the most senior positions in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, impressed supervisors with her credentials from climbing the ranks of the nation's largest sheriff's department.

They were also swayed by the fact that she was an outsider with no ties to the power structure that put Carona into office. After her appointment, she pledged to be a "change agent" who would reform the scandal-torn department.

Critics said the issue was not that Hutchens, as a woman, would not be as qualified as a man to run the department. Rather, they said the point was that they believed her appointment was more the product of political persuasion than experience.

"There's this segment of people pretending that gender played no role in this election," said Matt Cunningham, the editor of Red County. "I think that just flies in the face of reality."

He and others said they saw Hutchens' victory as the handiwork of the California Women's Leadership Assn., a group of south Orange County Republican women whose goal is to increase the presence of women in office.

Although the group itself did not officially endorse Hutchens or lobby for her, several of its members, particularly its president, Julie Vandermost, championed her candidacy.

Vandermost said Wednesday that she was impressed with Hutchens and encouraged members to support her.

Last week Vandermost held a reception for Hutchens at her Laguna Niguel home, where she was introduced to about 100 mayors, council members, community leaders and members of Republican activist groups. Vandermost urged them to contact the supervisors and express their support for Hutchens.

She suggested that the backlash was a result of surprise.

"I think that is why you see some of these silly comments and blogging going on, but they're not going to stick," Vandermost said.

The women's group was co-founded by Supervisor Patricia Bates, who voted for Hutchens, along with Supervisor Janet Nguyen and board Chairman John M.W. Moorlach.

Bates said Wednesday that the association's support did not influence her decision and that she received equal -- if not greater -- lobbying pressure in support of Walters from the traditional, male-dominated bastions of Orange County political power, including the O.C. GOP and the Lincoln Club.

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