Sheriff Lee Baca is “both popular and vulnerable,” political… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
Days ago, critics of Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca openly fretted that he was going to cruise to a fifth term in office.
But on Wednesday, the field of potential challengers suddenly grew. A retired commander who made a name for himself by publicly exposing abuses inside the agency's jails declared his candidacy. Hours later, a source confirmed that Baca's ousted undersheriff planned an announcement Thursday of his bid to unseat the sheriff.
Then, another source close to Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino said the former LAPD senior lead officer has been approached about running, but has not made a decision.
Those names are thrown into the mix with two lesser-known candidates who had announced plans to run in recent months.
The race is shaping up to be Baca's toughest since he was elected to run the nation's largest sheriff's department in 1998.
"There is little doubt that Sheriff Baca is very much wounded," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP strategist and publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which handicaps legislative races. "He's a formidable fundraiser and a formidable campaigner, but he has some very powerful groups in the county who think there should be change."
That's a notable shift compared to his past campaigns. After incumbent Sheriff Sherman Block died during the 1998 campaign and Baca won his first term, he has easily won reelection three times. The most recent, in 2010, he ran unopposed.
But Baca, 71, has faced a string of scandals since then. The FBI has been investigating abuse and other deputy misconduct in his jails. In a separate investigation, federal authorities found that Baca's deputies in the Antelope Valley harassed and intimidated blacks and Latinos. In addition to the federal investigations, Baca had been under fire for questionable hires, giving special treatment to friends and supporters, and the existence of aggressive, unsanctioned deputy cliques within the agency's ranks.
Over the weekend, a letter by Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina was published in The Times blasting Baca and expressing disappointment that "not one challenger has stepped forward to rescue" the Sheriff's Department. Molina's disdain for the sheriff is palpable during the Board of Supervisors' weekly meetings.
Defeating an incumbent is an immense challenge in a county of 10 million residents. Baca has enormous name identification and has already raised $297,000 for his reelection effort through June 30.
But Baca is a paradox, said Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.
"He's both popular and vulnerable," Sonenshein said. "On the one hand, he's a very skilled politician, very popular in many of the communities in the county and a known reformer and progressive. At the same time, he has tremendous flaws in managerial areas that have caused all kinds of headaches in the department.
"He's not a cartoon figure sheriff that everybody dislikes and wants to get rid of," he continued. "He's always shown great promise in areas and been a great disappointment in a lot of areas."
Hoffenblum said Baca's chances of winning a fifth term depend in part on whether a big name who is already known to voters is among them.
On Wednesday, Bob Olmsted, a retired sheriff's commander who played a role in exposing abuses inside the agency's jails, announced that he would challenge Baca.
"Voters deserve a Sheriff's Department they can be proud of. I'm running for sheriff to restore integrity," Olmsted said in a press release.
Two sources close to Paul Tanaka said that the former Los Angeles County undersheriff who was ousted by Baca is expected to announce Thursday that he's going to challenge his old boss.
"What Paul is going to talk about tomorrow is going to be his vision for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, what the department needs to be the best department it can be, so ultimately it can do the best job it can do for the citizens of Los Angeles County," a senior advisor to Tanaka said.
Tanaka is controversial in some quarters. Amid the department's jails scandal, Tanaka was accused of fostering a climate in which aggression was prized, loyalty was placed above merit and discipline was discouraged. Tanaka has countered that he was scapegoated by sheriff's officials who were upset that he was holding lazy supervisors accountable.
Also running against Baca are Lou Vince, an LAPD detective, and Patrick Gomez, a retired sheriff's lieutenant who has run two failed campaigns.
A spokesman for Baca said the competition offers an opportunity.
"This, in a way, is a blessing because it's going to crystallize the sheriff's record," said Steve Whitmore, Baca's spokesman. "He's been doing the job every day, day in and day out."
Times staff writer Jack Leonard contributed to this report.