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Just one more hurdle for the new sheriff

After nearly 30 years in a profession peopled largely by men, Sandra Hutchens has heard it all before. No woman climbs through the ranks of a sheriff’s department or police department without someone suggesting that she sure was lucky she was a woman or it never would have happened.

Yeah, all those lucky women in law enforcement.

Hutchens, who has solid credentials with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, was appointed this week to be Orange County’s next sheriff, but members of our chattering class felt compelled to diminish her accomplishments.

Oh, they’d be aghast to have it portrayed that way. We’re not saying that the lady isn’t qualified.

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They’re just saying she got the job over Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters because she’s a woman.

In some schools of logic, apparently, those aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive observations.

Melding the two strands of thought would produce this union: We think you’re well qualified for the job, but if you weren’t a woman you wouldn’t have been appointed.

After Hutchens’ appointment Tuesday on a 3-2 vote by the Board of Supervisors, the Orange County Register referred to it as an “affirmative action hire.”

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Blogger Matt Cunningham, on his Red County site, called the appointment “gender-driven.”

I normally wouldn’t draw attention to a blogger, except that Cunningham is not a flake or a johnny-come-lately. He’s a serious political observer in Orange County and probably has a good-sized audience. But in Hutchens’ case, he’s committed the age-old sin that is visited only upon the minority member in society who upsets a white male: The minority status made the difference.

He writes: “I think gender was ultimately the deciding factor -- the tipping point -- in Hutchens’ selection, and that anyone denying it played a role in her appointment is blind, dishonest or deceiving themselves.”

Blogger, psychoanalyze thyself.

He’s not arguing that Hutchens isn’t qualified. He says she is, so I’ll take his word on that. But he is compelled to note that her appointment was gender-driven. Since there are only two genders available for sheriff, why make the point unless the bottom line is that she was so clearly inferior to Walters as a candidate that her selection is problematic?

If Walters had been chosen, it wouldn’t have been gender-driven. But it is for Hutchens.

And why does he (and the Register) conclude that?

Cunningham says the California Women’s Leadership Assn. lobbied for Hutchens. Perfectly fine, he writes, no problem with that.

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But now comes the analysis behind the gender-driven conclusion: Supervisors Patricia Bates and Janet Nguyen voted for Hutchens. OK, that’s because they’re both women, right?

Not exactly. Although Bates co-founded the leadership association (and is therefore suspect, I guess), Cunningham specifically noted that “I don’t think Nguyen’s vote stemmed directly from the fact Janet is a woman, or that Hutchens is a woman.”

OK, if Nguyen is taken out of the equation and Cunningham similarly noted that board Chairman John M.W. Moorlach wasn’t affected by the women’s group, the gender-driven logic is. . . ?

Cunningham writes: “Bates and Nguyen tend to be more consensus, go-with-the-flow oriented and believed both candidates to be qualified.” He went on to say, “The smart money was they’d likely vote with Bill Campbell and Chris Norby -- especially Nguyen, since Walters had the support of police chiefs and local electeds in her district.”

But the women’s association lobbying effort after June 3 (when Hutchens and Walters were named co-finalists) was the “factor which changed the dynamic of the selection process. . . .” The association has worked hard for both women, he writes, leaving him with “no doubt” that it was the group’s lobbying that tilted Bates and Nguyen toward Hutchens.

To recap, the “smart money” had them originally going for Walters. But enter the heretofore rather innocuous California Women’s Leadership Assn. and suddenly the women went for the woman.

Neat and clean. It’s obvious, isn’t it?

Forget that Hutchens impressed lots of people, including Moorlach. Forget that neither Nguyen nor Bates cited her gender in supporting her.

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Forget that Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca endorsed Hutchens a while back by saying, “I don’t think the issue is that she’s an outsider; it’s that she has vast experience in solving problems. And that’s really what’s needed in Orange County.”

This is an issue to the Register, Cunningham and others, apparently, because they’re convinced Walters was the clear choice. That’s their opinion, but it doesn’t make it fact. Nor does it give their mind-reading of Nguyen and Bates any credibility.

Of the two candidates, I didn’t have a preference. The arguments for Walters were solid, and all five supervisors praised him. Nguyen and Bates said they had trouble deciding.

Why the outsider impulse to hang their decision on gender?

Why do I go on so?

Because of the inherent unfairness in impugning the Hutchens appointment.

Oh, that’s right, no one is impugning it. But that’s precisely what they’re doing, even if they don’t recognize it.

They’re impugning it because they set up a false construct that can’t be honestly determined. Is it possible Nguyen and Bates voted solely on gender? Of course it is. Can anyone prove it? No.

No one knows what influenced the supervisors, including Campbell and Norby. Perhaps their votes for Walters were gender-driven.

But because some don’t know for sure, they feel perfectly comfortable arguing that Hutchens’ appointment was gender-driven. And no matter how finely they try to parse their words, that amounts to demeaning her selection because it leads to one conclusion: If she weren’t a woman, she wouldn’t have been picked. In short, Lady, you didn’t get this appointment on merit.

And you wonder why it’s tough being a woman in a man’s professional world?

Even when you win, you don’t.

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.


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