Since Lee Baca became Los Angeles County sheriff 15 years ago, defeating an incumbent who died days before the vote, he has never faced a serious challenge for reelection to one of California’s top law enforcement jobs.
But after a series of scandals and federal investigations targeting the department, that might be changing.
Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell said Monday that he was considering a run against Baca next year. McDonnell’s public exploration suggests potential political vulnerabilities amid nearly two years of bad headlines, experts said.
McDonnell, who served as second in command to Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton before moving to Long Beach, would be the most formidable challenger Baca has yet to face. He was on a county commission that recently excoriated Baca’s leadership, depicting him as a disengaged and uninformed manager who failed to stop jailhouse abuse and would have been fired in the private sector.
In an interview, McDonnell said he could offer “a fresh look” at the agency and reforms that “would make a big difference for … the image of the department.” He declined to discuss Baca’s record, saying he wanted to speak to the sheriff first. But as a member of the commission, McDonnell had harsh words for Baca’s stewardship of the agency.
McDonnell’s announcement comes as Baca begins raising funds for the 2014 election, making a bid for what would be a fifth term. The campaign begins as federal authorities have launched an investigation into allegations that jail workers abused inmates and another over whether deputies harassed minorities in the Antelope Valley. The jail investigation has already resulted in criminal charges against one deputy, and federal prosecutors have not given a timetable about when the probe will be completed.
Despite these problems, political experts said knocking the four-term sheriff from his post would be a challenge. Baca, 70, is well-known within the county, and has drawn support from a diverse set of ethnic groups and community leaders. Baca has gained a reputation for progressive law enforcement views, such as helping the homeless and providing education for jail inmates.
His spokesman said he’s already lined up endorsements from the governor, former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Bratton.
Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State L.A., noted that sheriffs have traditionally served with little risk of being unseated, but that Baca has recently weathered an unusual amount of criticism.
“If ever there was a time when a sheriff might be in a certain amount of peril, this would be the time,” Sonenshein said.
But Baca, he said, has more than a year before the election to show he’s made headway in fixing the department’s problems. “He has the advantage of an incumbent,” Sonenshein said. “He can show himself to be in charge over the next year.”
In addition to the federal probes, Baca had been under fire for giving special treatment to friends and supporters, including launching “special” criminal investigations on behalf of two contributors. The department attracted further attention following disclosures of a secret clique of elite gang deputies, who allegedly sported matching tattoos and celebrated shootings.
Baca’s spokesman, Steve Whitmore, said the sheriff has listened to the criticism, and is responding. Last year, the sheriff announced a sweeping jail reform plan aimed at curbing abuses and improving accountability.
“The Sheriff’s Department is probably in the best shape it has ever been,” Whitmore said. He added that Baca is unconcerned about the potential challenge from McDonnell: “It doesn’t faze him.... It’s not a threat. There’s no threat here.”
A recent poll found that 52% of likely voters disapproved of the sheriff’s job performance, with just 38% approving. But when voters were asked whether they had a favorable view of Baca, the sheriff fared better, with 43% saying they did, compared with 24% who had an unfavorable view. The poll was conducted by district attorney candidate Alan Jackson’s campaign, which asked likely voters about several local politicians, including Baca, who had endorsed Jackson’s opponent.
McDonnell declined to say when he would make his decision, saying he was still consulting with his family and “trying to get the pulse of the county.” He said that if he did run, his reforms “would make a big difference in the quality of services and the image of the department.”
McDonnell has eyed higher office before. He was a finalist to replace Bratton, but lost out to Charlie Beck. Seven years earlier, as a candidate for LAPD chief in 2002, McDonnell presented a blueprint for community-based policing that was later adopted by Bratton and served as the foundation for overhauling the organization in the wake of the Rampart corruption scandal.
During his tenure with the LAPD, McDonnell was tasked with helping the department build bridges with the city’s diverse communities and political leaders. Colleagues within the LAPD have described him as a gracious, well-liked leader.
Even if McDonnell decides not to run, Baca, who ran unopposed in 2010, will face at least one challenger next year. Little known LAPD Det. Lou Vince confirmed Monday that he is running, blasting Baca for the scandals he’s faced in recent years.
“Seriously? There’s no cameras in Men’s Central Jail? It takes the media to tell him that?” Vince said, referring to cameras the county had purchased to monitor the jails, but the department had been slow to install.
Fred Register, a longtime Democratic political consultant, said that no matter who runs against Baca, the sheriff comes to any political fight with enviable name recognition.
That leaves any challengers facing long odds unless they can raise millions of dollars to pay for a countywide television ad blitz. Baca has probably been hurt by the jail abuse scandal, he said, but the welfare of inmates and protecting them from excessive force is unlikely to resonate enough to undermine his chances of winning reelection.
“The kind of things that would be more likely to hurt a sheriff,” Register said, “would be a perception of corruption or graft or some catastrophic failure that threatens people’s public safety.”