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Election Day Newsreel: Dead Man Running

A year ago Wednesday--nearly a year to the day his friend Sherman Block would die--Mark Kroeker took off for Bosnia.

He was given a blue beret and a uniform with an American flag on one sleeve and a United Nations insignia patch on the other.

After 32 years in the Los Angeles Police Department, where he ranked as high as deputy chief, Kroeker was accustomed to being in charge of a large force of peace officers in a place where peace could be a difficult thing to keep.

So when the U.N. needed someone experienced in law enforcement and asked if he would accept a one-year mission in Bosnia with the title of deputy commissioner of operations--in charge of an international task force of 2,000 police officers--Kroeker was glad to go.

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He had breakfast with Sherm Block before he left.

“I said to him, ‘Sherm, when you get tired of being sheriff and just want to go to work in your workshop, why don’t you pass it on to me?’

“And he said, ‘You know what, Mark? If I don’t run, I might just do that.’ ”

*

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Sherman Block is a candidate for sheriff of Los Angeles County in this Tuesday’s election.

Sherman Block is a name known for dedicated law enforcement and an incumbent up for a fifth consecutive term in this important office.

Sherman Block is dead.

This would be seen as a setback in some political campaigns, but Block’s backers are still behind him 100%. They still want the sheriff’s supporters to give him their vote. They have no intention of withdrawing Block’s name from the campaign.

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Dead Man Running.

If the challenger, Lee Baca, wins instead, then that’s that. L.A. County will have a new sheriff.

But should a man who passed away last Thursday at 74 still get enough votes to stay in office, a county board of supervisors will appoint a new sheriff themselves.

Mark Kroeker is waiting and willing.

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“It depends entirely on the voters,” he said Friday from his Santa Clarita home, back in town a matter of days now. “Because if the voters decide to let Sherm Block’s legacy continue, I believe the Board of Supervisors will set up a situation whereby the voters are able to still get the kind of sheriff they want. But if they vote for Lee, they’re saying that’s the sheriff they want.

“It’s an amazing choice, isn’t it? Lee Baca vs. Sherm’s legacy.”

Kroeker, 54, has kept tabs on the situation from afar. He just never dreamed it would come to this.

“I made no secret of my interest in this as my life’s ambition. Hey, first and foremost, I support Sherm Block. I’m behind him all the way. If he wins--fine. But I also said if he chooses not to run, I’d like to follow him. Or, if he wins but chooses not to finish his term, I’d be proud to fill in for him.

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“Who would have foreseen the way all this has accelerated?”

A ghost of a chance is one thing, but this particular election rides on the chances of a ghost.

There is no guarantee that the supervisors would turn to Kroeker as the sheriff’s understudy. They might come up with someone else, although they will be hard-pressed to come up with a candidate more qualified.

It is Kroeker’s impression that the appointee would not serve a full four-year term, but would need to run again in the 2000 general election.

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Everybody knew the sheriff was in the fight of his life--literally. Having battled cancer and kidney failure, he had a blood clot removed Monday that was the result of a brain hemorrhage.

Virtually at the same time, Kroeker’s wife, Diane, was being hospitalized with a fibrous uterine tumor.

A week ago, Block telephoned.

“Did he talk about you going to the hospital?” Kroeker asked his wife Friday, having just taken her home.

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“Yes,” she said. “He offered every good sentiment.”

“What a guy,” Kroeker said.

*

What a week. Kroeker’s tour in Bosnia officially ended with a last U.N. assignment in Virginia for a NATO peacekeeping conference. Then he got home just as Diane was getting out of surgery. She’s doing fine.

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On the day Block called, she said, “he sounded healthy. There was vigor in his voice. I was so honored to be called, with everything he was dealing with.

“It just hit me, what his last words were.

“He said, ‘Goodbye, my friend.’ ”

Now that his friend is dead, there is nothing Mark Kroeker can say to him, nothing he can do. Except vote for him.

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Mike Downey’s column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or e-mail mike.downey@latimes.com.


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