Ready for a female sheriff?
Is there any chance in the world that Orange County’s next sheriff will be a woman?
Just doesn’t sound right, does it, for this traditionally conservative, good-ol'-boys county government? Let’s just say the airport wasn’t named after John Wayne by pulling a name out of a hat.
But here Sandra Hutchens is, one of two candidates still standing, and needing only three votes -- not tens of thousands -- to get the job.
Modern-day Orange County certainly isn’t the caveman’s hide-out of a generation ago. As recently as 2000, the county’s chief executive was a woman.
But we’re talking sheriff now, and it wasn’t all that long ago that Sheriff Brad Gates was saddling up in South County and heading out of town on the Portola Ride, the ultimate Boys Night Out for the well-connected. Or that Sheriff Mike Carona was on TV and talking muy macho to Larry King about finding a killer.
Until Carona was brought down by corruption charges and resigned in January, sheriffs in these parts tended to serve a long time and be quite male.
Can Hutchens crack that chain-of-command culture?
You could say she’s got a 50-50 chance, but some other numbers apply too.
Of the 3,084 sheriffs in the United States, only 42 are women, says Fred Wilson, director of operations for the National Sheriffs’ Assn. And that number is nearly twice what it was just seven years ago, he says.
The reasons for the small numbers aren’t mysterious.
In a historically male-dominated profession, women didn’t rise to the upper ranks of sheriff’s departments from which they could legitimately make a run at the top spot.
Not until the 1970s and ‘80s, Wilson says, did women start entering the profession in significant numbers and begin what have become lengthy careers in the last decade or so.
Beyond that, it’s probably not a stretch to surmise that voters -- almost all sheriffs are elected -- have continued to see the job as a male domain. Sort of like, uh, the presidency.
So, I find myself wondering if Orange County is ready for a female sheriff.
Or, frankly, whether the question is even relevant.
One close-up observer, Sgt. John Urquhart of the King County (Wash.) Sheriff’s Department, says the job is “probably personality-driven as much as anything else.” His boss is Sheriff Sue Rahr, who was appointed to fill out the sheriff’s term in early 2005 and then won the general election later that year. In beating two men, she got 76% of the vote.
Her department is probably the largest in the country run by a woman, Wilson says.
Seattle, of course, isn’t Orange County.
“If you look at Seattle, we’re probably as close to San Francisco as you’re ever going to get, and we’re the opposite of Orange County politically,” Urquhart says. “We’re a very liberal county and city, and yet we’re just getting our first female sheriff.”
Until very recently, however, four of the five people who rank just below sheriff were women, he says. At the moment, two are women, he says, including one who heads the division that oversees the SWAT operation.
Even factoring in that Urquhart had better say nice things about his boss, he says increasing the pool of female officers is “one of the best things that ever happened to police work.” He thinks law enforcement’s ranks should reflect the people they serve.
And the rank-and-file reaction to a female sheriff?
It’s no secret that some deputies may not like working for a woman, Urquhart says, but given King County’s recent history of a female-heavy command structure, it’s almost a moot point. If anything, he says, referring to Rahr, “People tend to underestimate her because she’s a woman. And I’ve got to tell you, this is one tough woman.”
I’m not caught up in the notion of Orange County having its first female sheriff. I’ll settle for a top-notch sheriff who runs the department with vision and integrity. Those are gender-neutral traits.
Hutchens, who retired last year after a nearly 30-year career with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, is up against Paul Walters, the Santa Ana police chief and a well-known presence in local law enforcement circles.
To make the final round, both got four straw poll votes from the five supervisors, and the board has indicated it wants to pick a sheriff within two weeks. Supervisor John Moorlach didn’t vote for Walters, and Supervisor Chris Norby, while reiterating his strong support for Walters, didn’t vote for Hutchens.
One of the finalists needs three votes. The board consists of three men and two women.
I took a flier with Supervisor Pat Bates on Wednesday and asked if, as a woman, she was intrigued by the prospect of appointing the county’s first female sheriff.
Nope, she said, adding that she was impressed by both and would review their remarks to the board and try to have a choice in mind by next week. In essence, Bates said, the candidates presented themselves as “gender-less” and she’ll judge them that way.
Good enough for me.
But don’t you wonder whether, given the empire-building potential of the sheriff’s office, Hutchens’ appointment could represent the dawning of Orange County’s first-ever good-ol'-girls club?
Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at email@example.com.
An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.