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Block Headed for a Runoff With Baca

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, embroiled in the toughest battle of his long political career, was headed late Tuesday for a runoff election with sheriff’s division Chief Lee Baca.

Based on absentee ballots and reports from nearly two-thirds of the precincts, Block and his leading challenger were separated by about 3%, with the sheriff garnering less than 40% of the votes. That is far short of the 51% required for outright victory in the primary.

Baca, 56, was a decisive second with more than 30% of the vote, a greater total than the other two challengers combined. Just over a third of Los Angeles County’s registered voters participated in the state’s first blanket primary.

Both Block and Baca, a 32-year veteran of the department, were cautious in discussing the returns. However, Block said that if he is forced into a runoff, he will launch a much more forceful campaign.

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“Whoever my opponent is, if they come up with the same kind of negative campaigning or claims of accomplishment that they never accomplished, I’ll come back much quicker and more aggressively,” said Block, 73, who mingled with about 200 supporters at a somewhat subdued gathering at the Los Angeles Mart on South Broadway.

Across town at the Brave Bull & Cantina in San Gabriel, Baca was joined by about 100 supporters who were chanting, “Viva Baca!”

“If there is a runoff, obviously my supporters and I will have to discuss the results,” he said.

In addition to Baca, Block’s challengers included 60-year-old Bill Baker, who retired as a chief after 35 years with the agency; and Patrick L. Gomez, 40, who has been a sheriff’s deputy for 17 years.

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With their claims that Block was too out of touch to continue running the massive law enforcement agency, the challengers caused deep divisions within the department, shattering old loyalties as deputies and supervisors were asked to choose sides.

Baca focused his campaign on the sheriff’s health, saying he believed that Block--who has overcome two bouts of cancer and now suffers from kidney failure--was too sick to serve another four-year term. In radio ads aired over the past two weeks, Baca portrayed the sheriff as a man who could not keep up with his duties because he undergoes dialysis three times a week.

Baker and Gomez, meanwhile, accused Block of failing to adequately manage the department, a shortcoming that they say has hurt morale and led to a variety of embarrassing snafus in the county jail system, which the Sheriff’s Department runs.

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Over the past few years, the department has mistakenly released six murder suspects while keeping hundreds of inmates behind bars too long because of paperwork mix-ups in the bustling Inmate Reception Center. Just two weeks ago, the department revealed that it had mistakenly held one inmate for nine months past his court-ordered release date.

In addition to the inmate paperwork woes, the department is also investigating allegations that deputies provoked assaults on suspected child molesters at the downtown Men’s Central Jail. One alleged victim of such an attack died.

Block acknowledges that there are problems in the jails, but he said the department is taking steps to fix them.

As for his health, the sheriff released a letter from his doctor saying he is fit to serve. Block said his prostate cancer is gone and his lymphoma is in remission. He said he is able to work by telephone during his dialysis sessions.

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Lobbing a few barbs of his own at the challengers, the sheriff said they lacked the leadership ability to run the department, which he says has become one of the country’s premier law enforcement agencies under his command.

In an effort to further win over voters, Block cited his wide base of support from dozens of federal, state and local officials, including all five county supervisors and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

Despite the endorsements, however, polling early in the campaign indicated that the sheriff was politically vulnerable.

In a survey commissioned by Baca in March, pollster John Fairbank found that 58% of the 600 people questioned believed that Block was too sick to continue running the department. The voters also indicated that they would be less likely to vote for Block because of management problems and scandals in the department, including allegations of wasteful spending.

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Fairbank said he found a very strong “anybody but Sherman Block” vote, leaving the door open for the sheriff’s three challengers.

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From the start, Baca was widely viewed as the strongest opponent. But then Block accused Baca of offering him inducements--including a county car, an office and a driver--if he dropped out of the race, a move that may have violated the state Elections Code.

Baca reacted by first confirming that he had offered Block a deal to step down, then calling a news conference to deny it. Baca now says he offered to make Block sheriff emeritus out of “compassion.”

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In other countywide elections, Supervisor Gloria Molina was unopposed in her bid for a third term.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky was leading by a commanding margin in a race against three opponents--Shane McLoud, a former deputy to retired Supervisor Deane Dana; C.J. McDonald, a resident of the 3rd District, which covers the Westside and parts of the San Fernando Valley; and Casey Peters, a Peace and Freedom Party candidate.

County Assessor Kenneth Hahn also appeared to be headed for easy victory over two deputy assessors, John E. Hasley and D.C. “Dan” Kumaus, and mortgage broker Richard Kenneth Maguire.


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