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It’s ‘All or Nothing’ for Baca in Runoff Race for Sheriff

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles County sheriff’s candidate and 32-year department veteran Lee Baca will announce his retirement from the department today to pursue the race full time, his campaign manager said Thursday.

“It’s all or nothing,” said Jorge Flores, Baca’s campaign manager. “Either he’ll come back to the department as sheriff or he won’t come back at all.”

Baca’s retirement plans come two days after his strong showing in Tuesday’s election in which he forced Sheriff Sherman Block into a runoff race. It is the first time in decades that an incumbent sheriff in the county has had to face a runoff.

Flores said Baca will elaborate on his reasons for retiring in a statement that is expected to be released today. Baca could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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“He’s going to distinguish himself from the sheriff,” Flores said. “It’s very difficult for him to go to work and focus on the campaign. . . . This raises the stakes.”

Baca, who works on the same floor as the sheriff, did not inform Block of his pending retirement.

“The issues in this campaign are experience, effectiveness, integrity and judgment,” Block said in a prepared statement. “Chief Baca’s decision to retire is his prerogative.”

Baca, a 56-year-old sheriff’s division chief, intermittently has taken vacation time to run his campaign during the primary.

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Some political observers questioned Baca’s commitment to his runoff campaign after seeing comments he made during an interview with The Times on Wednesday. In that conversation, Baca praised Block’s management of the agency, expressed his concern over the divisiveness of the primary, and said he needed time to reflect on the direction and future of his campaign.

When asked where his campaign was headed after Tuesday’s vote, Baca had said: “I don’t know. I need to take a period of time and think about all this. . . . I didn’t enjoy the divisiveness at all.”

Flores said Baca’s retirement sends a strong signal that the candidate is seriously committed to the race, adding that there was “never a question in Lee’s mind” that he was anything but “100% committed.”

By his own admission, Baca is not an eager politician, nor does he relish the political spotlight. Sources close to Baca say that he does not like the mudslinging and name-calling that often occurs during a campaign.

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At one point during the race, Baca tried to persuade Block to step down before the election by offering him a position that would have been called “sheriff emeritus.” The offer was denounced by Block as an improper bribe for him to get out of the race.

The Los Angeles County sheriff, the nation’s highest-paid elective office at $234,016 a year, oversees the country’s largest sheriff’s department, with about 13,000 employees, provides law enforcement to almost half of the county’s 88 cities, runs the jails and safeguards the courts.

In Tuesday’s four-candidate race, Block finished with 36% of the vote followed by Baca with 32%.

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Some political consultants following the sheriff’s race said they believe that the contest may get nasty before it is over. Several said they believe that Baca--if he is to be successful--needs to hammer the 73-year-old sheriff on issues of his health and recent disclosures of mismanagement at the jails. Block, they said, should be expected to press Baca on his attempts to entice him out of office.


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