Jim McDonnell stayed up past 3 a.m. election night, hoping the number beside his name would inch up from 49% to more than 50%.
The Long Beach police chief was dominating his six competitors in Tuesday's primary for Los Angeles County sheriff. He had more than three votes to every one for retired undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who was in second place with 15%.
The tally did not swing McDonnell's way. With more than 150,000 absentee and provisional ballots yet to be counted, there is still a chance he could win the election outright. But for now, he appears headed for a runoff against Tanaka on Nov. 4 in a battle of an outside change agent versus a consummate insider.
McDonnell is poised to make history as the first sheriff in a century to be elected from outside the department, after a series of scandals tarnished Tanaka's reputation and forced the previous sheriff, Lee Baca, into a sudden retirement.
Considering McDonnell's wide margin of victory in the primary, some analysts give Tanaka little chance. Several of the losing candidates have thrown their support behind McDonnell, saying they accept the voters' judgment that an outsider is the best person to clean up the department.
Still, Tanaka plans to put up a fight.
"Everything resets now. We've got a long summer ahead of us, and the voters will probably start tuning in hopefully sometime around Labor Day," said Reed Galen, a Tanaka campaign consultant. "Between now and then, we'll be working our tails off."
Tanaka was damaged by the news last month that he is under investigation for obstruction of justice, said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP strategist and publisher of the California Target Book, which handicaps legislative races.
"I think it's all but over," Hoffenblum said of the runoff.
For years, Tanaka's name has been closely associated with the county jails, where deputies allegedly brutalized inmates and where a federal investigation led to criminal charges against 21 sheriff's employees. A blue-ribbon jail commission found Tanaka partly at fault for the problems, and he was dogged by allegations that as Baca's No. 2, he ran a cliquish operation that prized overly aggressive policing.
By 2013, Baca had had enough and asked Tanaka to retire.
Last month, as the primary drew closer, Tanaka took the witness stand in the trial of a sheriff's deputy accused of hiding an inmate informant from the FBI. Questioned by a prosecutor, Tanaka admitted that he is a subject of an investigation into whether higher-level officials should also be charged with obstruction. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Fernando Guerra, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University, predicted that donors and endorsers would flock to McDonnell after his lopsided victory, calling Tanaka "a very lonely candidate."
"It's obviously a slam-dunk for McDonnell in the runoff," Guerra said. "He'll still have to run a campaign, and some crazy thing can happen, but without any great revelations, McDonnell should win and probably win two to one."
Tanaka won a slim majority in Gardena, where he serves as mayor, but found little support elsewhere. McDonnell earned solid support from voters countywide, padding his victory with large majorities in Long Beach and affluent Westside neighborhoods such as Pacific Palisades, Bel-Air and Brentwood, according to a Times analysis of county precinct results.
Galen, the Tanaka consultant, said Tuesday's low turnout of 13% means that there are many voters who could be persuaded to side with Tanaka in the general election. Tanaka's insider status is an asset, not a hindrance, Galen said, in leading a department with a $2.9-billion annual budget, more than 9,000 deputies and the nation's largest county jail system.
"He has a real depth of understanding, not just of law enforcement, but of the Sheriff's Department — the things it does well, the things where it needs help," Galen said. "That knowledge will come through, and the voters will say, 'This is the person we need to lead this department.'"
Tanaka was the top fundraiser in the primary season, netting more than $900,000 through May 17, compared with McDonnell's $760,000. Many sheriff's deputies were among his donors, but Galen said Tanaka would not be doling out any favors as sheriff.
An independent expenditure committee called Safety First: A Committee Supporting Paul Tanaka for L.A. Sheriff has raised $60,000 from the gambling industry and $25,000 from Navarro's Towing, campaign filings show.
McDonnell, a Los Angeles Police Department veteran, has been chief in Long Beach since 2010. He served on the blue-ribbon jail commission that blamed Baca, Tanaka and other top managers for a culture in which deputies beat and humiliated inmates, covered up misconduct and formed aggressive cliques.
As Chief William Bratton's second-in-command at the LAPD, McDonnell helped implement a federal consent decree that resulted largely from the Rampart scandal. With his low-key demeanor and technocratic delivery, he is generally respected by his subordinates but has drawn criticism in Long Beach for an increase in officer-involved shootings.
After Baca's retirement in January, McDonnell entered the race as the leading candidate from outside the department. He racked up prestigious endorsements and was able to raise campaign cash despite his late entry.
"Paul was No. 2 in the organization for a number of years and is part of the past," McDonnell said of Tanaka. "He was recently named as a subject in a federal corruption probe, and that's part of the past as well. We need to move beyond where we were and focus on the future."
Times staff writer Ben Welsh contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times