Only hours after FBI agents swept up 18 deputies and supervisors in a jail abuse and corruption case, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was being lauded at a $1,500-a-head downtown campaign fundraiser co-hosted by a former governor and a former L.A. city attorney.
The contrasting images Monday — Baca somberly telling a crowded news conference it was a "sad day" for the agency he's led for 15 years and later celebrating his chances of winning a fifth term — captured both the increased vulnerability and time-tested resiliency of the county's top lawman at the threshold of another run for office.
Baca, 71, has faced a drumbeat of investigations and a blue-ribbon commission report attacking his management of the nation's largest sheriff's department. But analysts say the sheriff's political baggage grew heavier with Monday's charges against current and former members of his department for allegedly abusing jail inmates and obstructing justice. The U.S. attorney pointedly declared that the problems had become "institutionalized" at the agency.
"There is no coronation in his future," said veteran Democratic political consultant Darry Sragow.
Baca may well recover. He remains in effect the police chief in dozens of communities his department patrols and can point to sharp drops in serious crime. And, as Monday's fundraiser demonstrated, he's still a draw in the political establishment. In the end, campaign strategists say, the election may hinge on how much voters care about alleged mistreatment of jail inmates.
Nonetheless, the risk confronting Baca this political season is a dramatic change for one of Southern California's most enduring elected leaders. He won office fortuitously in 1998 when his rival, incumbent Sheriff Sherman Block, died days before the election.
In the next three elections, he easily won in primaries against fields of lesser-known candidates, avoiding head-to-head runoff elections. By 2010, no one bothered to challenge him.
This election was going to be different, even before the news broke that federal charges were filed against 13 current and former deputies, three sergeants and two lieutenants. Among the allegations were the beating of prisoners and visitors, filing false reports to cover up misconduct and attempting to block FBI access to a jail informant.
Baca already was coping not just with the FBI probe but criticism of his leadership from members of the county Board of Supervisors and a special commission on jail violence. The Times also reported that the department had hired dozens of officers in 2010 despite background investigations that found significant misconduct.
The only political consolation for Baca as he gears up for the June election may be that two of his rivals — former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and former Sheriff's Cmdr. Bob Olmsted — also could be put on the defensive by the continuing criminal probe of alleged misconduct in the department.
Baca forced out Tanaka earlier this year amid criticism over the jail abuse scandal. And the special county commission tasked with examining inmate abuse in the jails found that Tanaka helped foster a culture of abuse through his management style, as well as through remarks he made to rank-and-file deputies. Though he was not directly responsible for overseeing the jails, the commission concluded he did influence their operation.
Tanaka says he was focused on reducing crime and the department's budget and wasn't in the jail system chain of command during the period of alleged problems.
Olmsted oversaw the sheriff's most troubled lockups at one time, and Baca has asserted that he should have done more to correct problems.
But Olmsted insists he was a "whistleblower," commissioning internal audits of deputies' use of force, trying to alert top brass to abuse and eventually taking his concerns to the media and FBI.
Tanaka has declined to comment. However, Olmsted has pounded Baca and Tanaka since Monday, garnering the most media attention of his campaign.
"Today's arrests underscore the high level of corruption that has plagued the Sheriff's Department under the failed leadership of Sheriff Lee Baca and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka," he said in a statement immediately after the arrests were announced.
"This correlates directly to the race, and that's the reason I'm in it — because it's your duty to report all this stuff and have this out in the open," he added in an interview.
John Shallman, Olmsted's political advisor, is drawing parallels to another county election in the wake of a law enforcement abuse scandal. In 2000, underdog Steve Cooley handily defeated incumbent Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti after the LAPD's Rampart corruption case. Cooley, a Shallman client, hammered Garcetti for not doing enough to investigate cops and prevent the alleged abuse of suspects in the police division west of downtown.
But another campaign reality could limit the damage for Baca, said Sragow, the political consultant. Polls show that many voters, he said, place a low priority on the treatment of jail inmates.
Indeed, unseating a well-established incumbent in a county of 10 million residents is an immense challenge, experts note. Baca has strong name recognition and a reported $240,000 in 2014 campaign cash available as of June 30, the most recent report available. Tanaka and Olmsted haven't had to file financial disclosure reports yet.
Baca's war chest has grown since June, including what appeared to be thousands raised Monday evening alone. Former Gov. Gray Davis, former L.A. City Atty. Carmen Trutanich and high-profile defense attorney Mark Geragos co-hosted the event at Geragos' Engine Co. No 28 restaurant in the financial district.
Baca entered the restaurant through a rear alley, away from news cameras. Davis didn't attend because of a previous commitment but remains committed to Baca's reelection and plans to host another fundraiser for him next year, a spokesman said.
Trutanich and Geragos acknowledged the difficulties facing Baca but praised his handling of the scandal.
"The buck does stop with him.... He's the one who I think has taken control of it," Geragos said. "I don't see him running away from any of these things, I don't see him making excuses."
Baca also has nurtured ties with diverse communities across the county, work that could pay dividends in a tight race.
"Sweet" Alice Harris, a Watts-based community organizer and supporter of Baca, said she believed subordinates kept many of the issues in the jails from reaching Baca's ears. "The majority of stuff that happens never gets to the top because you don't tell on family," she said.
Baca's support of job training programs for young people and openness to input from community organizations are likely to be remembered, she said.
"We need that good man," she said. Critics are "so worried about the sheriff, but ain't nobody worried about these young men with no jobs."
Political analysts expect the sheriff's campaign to be defined by two questions: how Baca reacts to the scandal going forward and how effectively his opponents can capitalize on it to boost their appeal to voters.
"This type of thing can hurt — I don't see how it can't," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP strategist and publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book. "The question is: Will one of his opponents be able to credibly position themselves to do something about it?"
Times staff writers Steve Lopez, Abby Sewell and Robert Faturechi contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times