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Block Squares Off as a Formidable Political Force : Election: The three-term sheriff puts age and illness behind him, and is likely to do the same to five campaign rivals. His foes hope to force a runoff with claims that the department is poorly administered and suffering from low morale.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 69, Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block is beyond the usual retirement age.

But despite this, two bouts with cancer and the retirement or defeat in the last two years of numerous other veteran officeholders, Block appears to be on the road to reelection to a fourth term without a runoff in the June 7 primary.

If the sheriff’s five opponents can hold Block to less than a majority of votes cast, it will require a November runoff election between the top two finishers. But none of the five have widespread name identification, and it remains uncertain whether any of them will muster much of an advertising campaign against Block.

Four of the sheriff’s opponents are active-duty officers, three in the Sheriff’s Department and one with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. None of them are above the rank of sergeant, nor do they have appreciable political experience.

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Of the five, Tab Rhodes, 26, has spent the most money--$17,000, which is a pittance in a countywide race. Another, Sgt. John R. Stites II, has campaigned actively, but said he has virtually no funds for ads. An elaborate fund-raiser recently produced but $5,000, he said, and the gun lobby, while supportive, has contributed little in funds.

Neither of the ethnic-minority candidates in the race, Sheriff’s Deputy Gil Carrillo, a Latino, and MTA Sgt. Robert H. Lewis Jr., an African American, has sufficient funds to get a message out widely to potential voters.

The fifth Block opponent, Robert J. Irmas, a lawyer and businessman in private life and a reserve captain in the Sheriff’s Department, says he has personal resources to finance a costly campaign. With less than six weeks left before the primary, he promises to launch advertising on radio and television “later next month.”

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However, Irmas’ Virginia-based advertising consultant, Joe Trippi, said in an interview that he remains uncertain “if we ever can get on the air.”

“We haven’t got a handle on how much he (Irmas) can put together now, so we don’t know when he’s going on,” Trippi said. But, he said, a private poll taken for Irmas indicated that “if someone out there can get a message going . . . (Block) can be held under 50%.”

Block, by contrast, said in an interview that he has committed $300,000 to his campaign, using the slogan “Tough job, tough sheriff.” He has advertised on billboards and bus placards, has reserved spots on paid slate mailers and is considering buying time on cable television.

He is now in “very good health,” the sheriff said, and fully expects to serve out a new four-year term. He underwent chemotherapy last year for lymphatic cancer and earlier in his present term had surgery for prostate cancer.

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As for Irmas, Block displayed a letter Irmas wrote him last Aug. 20, in which Irmas vowed not to run against him.

“I have no desire to even attempt to unseat you, inasmuch as I feel that your stewardship of the department is and always has been outstanding,” Irmas told Block, adding that he was impressed by “the fine tradition that you have set as a high-water mark for anybody who may follow you.”

Asked about this, Irmas said that upon later reconsideration he had decided that “my particular personal agenda cannot be secondary to Sherm Block’s on when he wants to leave the department. My loyalty is to the Sheriff’s Department and the people of Los Angeles.”

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Ironically, Irmas’ father, Beverly Hills businessman and philanthropist Sydney Irmas, is a friend of Block. The senior Irmas’ charitable foundation, on which Robert Irmas serves as administrator, last year contributed $500,000 for a Sheriff’s Youth Activity Center.

Beyond that, it was Block who, when he was a sheriff’s captain teaching a class at Santa Monica City College more than 20 years ago, personally recruited Irmas, then only 20, to join the Sheriff’s Department.

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Block maintains that in a time of fiscal constraints, when the budget of the Sheriff’s Department is threatened with annual cuts, he has successfully kept the agency together and has set high standards of quality.

But his opponents characterize the department as poorly administered and say that staff morale is low.

Rhodes, for example, said he decided to run “to represent the line staff,” which he said has become so demoralized by internal Sheriff’s Department policies that many deputies are afraid to make arrests and lack respect for themselves.

Stites has been critical of reforms in the use of force, saying they have hobbled deputies in what he characterizes as a time of frequent gang and criminal confrontation. At a recent fund-raiser, he warned that budget cutbacks this year could devastate the department.

Lewis is supportive of the reforms that he claims could result in less litigation against the department and more justice for the African American and Latino communities. He added that he believes that “the administration of the department is out of touch with the needs of the employees” and “especially the community.”

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Carrillo remarks, “The critical issue is crime. . . . I believe people are looking for a change because of all the crime. Whatever we’re doing is not working and we need to try something different.”

Irmas agreed that crime is the key issue, and that new blood is needed in the department to fight it. Besides, he said, Block four years ago said the present term would be his last.

“I never said that,” responded Block, who has been sheriff since 1982.

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While Block is running for reelection, numerous Los Angeles officials have left public office. The city has changed its mayor, its police chief and several City Council members, and the county has a new district attorney and two new supervisors.

While Block’s opponents all claim the rank-and-file is disenchanted, the sheriff has said he does not believe that, and refers to hundreds of good wishes he received from deputies in his fight last year against cancer. He defends reforms designed to curtail excess use of force as necessary.

Although he said he has been told by many people that his opponents don’t have the resources to threaten him, the sheriff said he is taking nothing for granted in the campaign.

“I’m not pursuing this reelection as if there’s no contest,” he said. “I’d be making a terrible mistake if I didn’t tell people I’d appreciate their vote.”


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