Sheriff Baca's blunders open the door to challengers

In the 15 years that Lee Baca has been Los Angeles County's sheriff, he has never faced a serious challenger for reelection. This week he got two.

The first is Robert Olmstead, a retired sheriff’s commander who kicked off his campaign Wednesday, pledging to reform a department mired in scandal and mismanagement. And on Thursday, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka held a news conference at a helicopter pad in Griffith Park to announce he would run, touting his 30-year record of public service.

Two other candidates -- Lou Vince and Patrick Gomez -- are also seeking to unseat Baca.

Both Olmstead and Tanaka are credible challengers. And the sheriff’s near-monthly misadventures could help boost both candidates’ credibility, as well as their claims that he is an incompetent leader whose colossal mismanagement of the department has led to a federal probe of abuse in the jails, and a finding that deputies in the Antelope Valley harassed and intimidated blacks and Latinos.

And just this week, the Sheriff’s Department publicly admitted that an M-16 assault rifle had been missing since February. Huh? Even Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore, who seems to be doing a lot of talking on behalf of the sheriff’s campaign, had to admit that “it’s obviously an embarrassment, and it obviously just shouldn’t happen.” Glad we can agree on that.

Another embarrassing incident took last month when Baca presented comedian Edwin San Juan with an award after San Juan performed at a law enforcement luncheon. The problem was that San Juan’s stand-up routine was filled with racist and sexually explicit humor, and the sheriff presented him with a plaque that read: “Your ability to combine wisdom, leadership and humor serves as an inspiration to us all.”

Apparently, not everyone was inspired by the humor. As The Times’ Joel Rubin reported, one Sheriff’s Department official questioned why an agency that is fighting racism would turn around and present an award to a comedian who had just delivered a racist monologue. Good question. And once again, it’s Baca’s spokesman, Whitmore, who responded, this time saying the sheriff wanted to thank San Juan for volunteering to perform at the event -- but the sheriff also “wants to remind everyone this is a comedian. No one in the department would say this.”

I fully understand that since 1932 no living sheriff has been defeated, but I’m beginning to have some hope. I can’t help but think that Baca’s constant blunders will show up in a few campaign ads this election season.


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