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Baca Supporters Denounce Block Campaign at Downtown Rally

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The continuing political campaign for Sherman Block, who died Thursday of a brain hemorrhage, is creating a “macabre spectacle” and “cheapening” the selection of a new sheriff for Los Angeles County, supporters of challenger Lee Baca said at a rally Saturday.

Five elected officials--two congressmen, two assemblymen and a state senator--urged the public to vote Tuesday for Baca and not, by electing the dead incumbent, grant the county Board of Supervisors the right to choose the next sheriff.

Even Baca--who once seemed ambivalent about replacing his one-time mentor and boss--spoke forcefully against throwing the sheriff’s race to the supervisors.

“This election is about public safety, not a back-door deal,” Baca proclaimed to about 250 cheering supporters at the morning rally outside the county Hall of Administration in downtown Los Angeles.

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The climax of one of the most peculiar local elections in memory seemed to leave both campaigns hesitant about how to proceed, even as preparations were made for Block’s funeral at 11 a.m. today at the Hollywood Bowl. Public viewing of the body will be from 9:30 until 11. The burial at Hillside Memorial Park in Culver City will not be open to the public.

Both sides in the race wanted to appear respectful of the late sheriff, who was still popular after serving for nearly 17 years. They said they would not campaign at all today and do little before the election.

But both sides also felt compelled to reassert their positions--Baca that his 32 years in the Sheriff’s Department had earned him a shot at the top job; Block’s campaign that voters will eventually have a better field to choose from if they first let the elected supervisors pick an interim replacement.

“We are not going to change our position now,” said Joseph Scott, the Block campaign’s spokesman. “Voters still have a choice. We respect the voters and think they will make the right choice.”

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Scott called the criticism from Baca’s camp “unfortunate and inappropriate.” He did not elaborate.

Meanwhile, one member of the Board of Supervisors--stepping delicately around the issue--suggested that if the lawmakers are forced to choose an interim sheriff, they could do so without usurping the public’s will.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said that if the electorate passes the decision to the board, he will only vote for an interim sheriff who pledges not to then run for the post. Yaroslavsky said that the supervisors could then order an early election for a successor.

But even if another public vote for the post must wait two years, as some believe the County Charter requires, Yaroslavsky said his formula would ensure that there was no incumbent with an undue advantage in the next election.

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“Then all the candidates could have a level playing field. And let them compete,” Yaroslavsky said. “That would give the public the opportunity--with Baca included--to have a much broader choice for sheriff.

“On the other hand,” Yaroslavsky added, “they have a choice now, and the majority may feel that Baca is a good choice for them.”

Yaroslavsky was careful to say he was just outlining the possibilities and not making an endorsement. He reiterated his earlier position that the public should “vote its conscience"--a stance also taken by Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke. Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe continued to urge a vote for Block, while Gloria Molina said she will vote for Baca.

But members of the loud and supportive crowd attending Saturday’s rally made it clear that they want the succession issue to be decided conclusively Tuesday.

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“How dare [the Block campaign] cheapen the political process on a very solemn occasion,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) told a crowd that repeatedly chanted, “Baca! Baca!” “We are here to say, ‘We will not vote for the unknown. . . . We have a man who has represented us. He is ready for the future: our chief, Lee Baca.’ ”

Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) said that throwing the vote to the supervisors would defy the intent of the state Constitution--to have sheriffs in all 58 California counties elected independently of county supervisors.

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) echoed that theme. “Let the people decide,” he said. “Let’s hold true to the promise of democracy. . . . Let the majority decide who will be their leader.”

Hertzberg said the Block campaign’s call for votes, on the day after the sheriff’s death, had created “a macabre spectacle” that “does not honor the memory of Sherman Block.”

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The vast majority of those attending the rally and waving green and yellow Baca placards seemed to be Sheriff’s Department employees, many of whom worked with the candidate during the years he rose from deputy to the rank of chief.

“I can’t think of another person with the leadership experience of Chief Baca,” said Sgt. Steve McLean of the East Los Angeles division. “The question voters have to ask is, ‘Why was he promoted all these times [by Block] and put in charge of a $100-million budget, if he couldn’t do the job?’ ”

Baca’s resolve Saturday was apparent, unlike earlier in the campaign. Shortly after forcing Block into a runoff in June, the challenger intimated that he might drop out and let the sheriff win his fifth term. Later, Baca first admitted and then denied reports that he had tried to induce Block to quit by offering him a sort of sheriff emeritus post, with numerous perquisites.

“I have 32 years’ experience,” Baca told the audience. “I have commanded jails. I have commanded patrol stations. I have commanded the court security system. I am ready to be the next sheriff of Los Angeles County.”

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Similar to his tactics throughout the campaign, though, Baca’s public appearance was kept brief. The candidate was shepherded into a waiting car as reporters pressed to ask questions.

Block’s camp said it was spending Saturday laying plans for today’s public service. Among those expected to attend are Gov. Pete Wilson and the two men competing to replace him--Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Dan Lungren.

Baca campaign officials said he will attend the service and sit with retired chiefs from the department.

Times staff writer Terry McDermott contributed to this story.

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