Six candidates running for Los Angeles County sheriff squared off in the latest election debate late Tuesday but found common ground in both praising retired Sheriff Lee Baca as well as criticizing his response to department scandals.
The complex view of the department's former leader underscores the balancing act candidates must make to avoid alienating voters among whom Baca remained a likable figure while distancing themselves from the man heavily criticized for failing to prevent deputy abuse of inmates and other problems.
Paul Tanaka, the department's retired undersheriff who previously accused Baca of forcing him out of the agency, credited his former boss with introducing programs to help the homeless and the mentally ill.
"He was perhaps one of the most kind, caring and compassionate human beings I've met in my life," Tanaka said.
Other candidates described Baca as a visionary and pointed to his success in reaching out to ethnic and religious groups that traditionally felt ignored or treated poorly by law enforcement.
But Tanaka and other candidates who attended the debate at Loyola Marymount University faulted Baca for losing focus on the core mission of his job.
Some criticized Baca for putting his trust in the wrong managers and for failing to hold subordinates accountable for mounting problems. In the last few months, 20 current or former sheriff's officials have been charged by federal prosecutors, and the department admitted hiring dozens of deputies with histories of serious misconduct.
"He wasn't a leader," said retired Lt. Patrick Gomez, who unsuccessfully challenged Baca's 2004 reelection. "When you're told about the corrupt acts ... you need to take steps to prevent that or end it."
All of the candidates agreed that Baca -- who served nearly four full terms -- stayed in the job too long before he abruptly stepped down in January rather than seek reelection.
The debate was the latest in a series of candidate forums before the June 3 primary. If no one wins a majority of votes in the primary, the two top vote-getters will face each other in a November runoff.
Tuesday's event saw the candidates find common ground on many of the important issues facing whoever wins the election.
They agreed on the importance of some sort of civilian oversight of the department, though disagreed on whether a citizens commission would be the best way to accomplish it. Term limits for the position of sheriff was also popular, with most candidates suggesting a cap of 12 years.
And they generally expressed support for limiting the department's cooperation with federal immigration authorities so that people brought to the jail for low-level crimes would not be deported if they are in the country illegally. Jim Hellmold, an assistant sheriff, said his years on the job showed him how fear of deportation deters some immigrants from calling police.
"That is just terrible," he said. "Local law enforcement should be there for the protection of everybody."
All but one of the candidates taking part in Tuesday's debate were career deputies. The exception, Jim McDonnell, touted his work as the LAPD's No. 2 during the department's period of reform under former Chief William J. Bratton. McDonnell now runs the Long Beach Police Department.
A seventh candidate, LAPD Det. Lou Vince, did not attend the debate.
Despite the consensus on many issues, some of the candidates stepped up attacks on Tanaka.
Asked what he considered to be the department's worst scandal, Todd Rogers, an assistant sheriff, pointed to the indictment of sheriff's officials for allegedly hiding an inmate working as an FBI informant from federal agents.
"I'm told that the previous occupant of my office [Tanaka] was giving the direction to hide this inmate from the FBI," Rogers said. "The people who gave them the orders, who gave them the direction, who are the most corrupt of them all, are still walking around free."
Tanaka, who has said he had a minimal role in dealing with the inmate, has not been accused of wrongdoing by federal authorities.
While addressing the issue of deputy cliques, Bob Olmsted, a retired jails commander, waved a photograph of a young Tanaka in a group of sheriff's deputies throwing hand signs.
"It's unacceptable," he said. "The internal culture has to change."
After the debate, Tanaka said he had run five successful campaigns for office in Gardena, where he serves as mayor, without engaging in "political attacks." He said his rivals would not be attacking him if they didn't consider him a threat in the election.