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Tanaka’s low-profile campaign has L.A. County sheriff’s race in limbo

L.A. County sheriff candidates Jim McDonnell, left, and Paul Tanaka.
(Los Angeles Times)

After squeaking into the runoff election for Los Angeles County sheriff, Paul Tanaka posted a message on his website.

He had been trounced by Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell, but his hopes of leading the department where he spent 31 years were still alive.

“We need someone who is ready to lead on Day One,” he wrote June 5. “We have just begun this effort!”

Since then, the retired undersheriff has mostly disappeared from view, throwing the contest to lead one of the nation’s largest law enforcement agencies into a strange limbo.

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He has ignored requests to debate McDonnell. He dismissed his campaign team after the primary and apparently has not brought on replacements. His public appearances have largely been limited to City Council meetings in Gardena, where he is mayor, and his testimony at the criminal trials of sheriff’s officials accused of obstructing an FBI investigation of jail abuse.

McDonnell, who narrowly missed winning outright with 49% of the vote to Tanaka’s 15%, finds himself in the odd position of campaigning against an opponent who, for the most part, has been invisible. In contrast with the primary season, which was marked by frequent debates between the seven candidates, voters may never see McDonnell and Tanaka face off before the Nov. 4 election.

“You have an election but not really a campaign,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles.

At stake is the direction of a demoralized agency battered by a series of scandals, including charges against 21 of its employees suspected of jail assaults and other crimes. Longtime sheriff Lee Baca stepped down in January, leaving the election wide open.

While short on election news, the last few months have been punctuated by reports about the trials and resulting convictions. On the witness stand, Tanaka twice admitted that he is the subject of an ongoing federal investigation.

In the summer heat, McDonnell has been alone on the campaign trail, working the crowds at ethnic festivals and holiday parades. His supporters often address him as “the next sheriff” or a “shoo-in” despite his insistence that the election is not in the bag.

If McDonnell wins, he will be the first sheriff in a century elected from outside the department, which covers large swaths of Los Angeles County and runs the country’s largest county jail system. He has promised to bring a “fresh set of eyes” to turning the agency around and has said he hopes a civilian oversight committee will assist him.

“I’m not really watching his campaign. I’m watching Nov. 4,” McDonnell, an LAPD veteran who has headed the Long Beach Police Department since 2010, said of Tanaka. “I’m going to work as hard as I can until then.”

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McDonnell has a long list of big-name endorsements as well as support from the deputies and supervisors unions. On his website, Tanaka has named local city officials as supporters, among them the mayors of Diamond Bar, Rosemead, Temple City, San Gabriel and Alhambra, and some California sheriffs.

Allan Hoffenblum, a former GOP strategist and publisher of the California Target Book, said McDonnell is “overwhelmingly favored” but still must reach out to voters and show he is not taking victory for granted.

“If he’s already picking out the color of his rug and his curtains in his new sheriff’s office, he’s got to remember that two candidates are going to be on the ballot,” Hoffenblum said.

To address the speculation that he had quietly dropped out, Tanaka tweeted Aug. 5 that he was “still in the race but giving our supporters an opportunity to spend the summer with their families.”

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Recently, his campaign has shown signs of life. Earlier this week, he posted photos on his Facebook page of himself with supporters in El Monte and speaking at a La Crescenta church. He told the Los Angeles Daily News that he is continuing to raise money.

In a video posted on his website, Tanaka alluded to “negative attacks” that would soon be directed against him. During the primary, he was pummeled by his opponents, who blamed him for the problems in the county jails and for fostering a cliquish atmosphere in which loyalty was sometimes a main basis for promotions.

“If I could sit down with you over a cup of coffee, I could tell you a little bit more about the real Paul Tanaka,” he said on his website video, gesturing with a paper cup in one hand as he spoke.

In a recent radio appearance, Tanaka touted his experience in the 18,000-member Sheriff’s Department, where he rose from a deputy to second-in-command.

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“I know that department. No one else has commanded every unit,” Tanaka said Aug. 31 during the Community Show on KDAY-FM (93.5). “When you promote people, you should promote people who will hold themselves accountable more than they will hold other people accountable.”

Tanaka has ignored multiple requests to speak to a Times reporter. An organizer of a debate that would be moderated by Frank Stoltze of KPCC-FM (89.3) said Tanaka has not responded to repeated invitations.

If Tanaka has avoided the limelight as a sheriff’s candidate, he remains in his element as mayor of Gardena. At the Sept. 9 City Council meeting, he beamed as he posed for photos with two girls in frilly pink dresses and a little boy in a suit.

He led the meeting with a practiced hand, listening intently as the police chief gave a report on illegal fireworks, then congratulating a developer who received approval to build a new discount store. Afterward, he dodged questions from a reporter about his campaign for sheriff.

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“I have another meeting,” he said after the meeting, which ended at about 9:15 p.m.

In the Sheriff’s Department, Tanaka was known as a manager whose hands-on style was a counterbalance to Baca’s sometimes vague leadership. In 2013, Baca pushed Tanaka to retire amid concerns about the jails as well as his disciplinary decisions.

Tanaka entered the race for sheriff early and led in total fundraising until recently. Since June 30, McDonnell has raised more than $176,000 in large contributions, compared with Tanaka’s $8,500. An independent expenditure committee supporting McDonnell has raised more than $138,000 since the primary, including $50,000 from the fitness company Burn 60 and $45,000 from the Commerce Casino.

The ongoing federal corruption investigation has added to Tanaka’s problems. Seven defendants accused of hiding an inmate informant from the FBI argued at their trials that they were following orders from Tanaka and Baca.

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On the witness stand, Tanaka said he directed them to keep the inmate safe, but beyond that, he recalled few details about his role in the operation. All seven were convicted on obstruction of justice charges.

Facing Tanaka in court May 20, a prosecutor noted that charges against small fry are often precursors to netting larger fish.

Hoffenblum, the political analyst, expects the Nov. 4 turnout to be higher than the primary’s 17%, but he doubts many people are paying attention to the sheriff’s race.

“Since there’s basically been a lack of a campaign, if you walked down the street and asked who the candidates for sheriff are, most people wouldn’t have the foggiest idea,” he said.

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cindy.chang@latimes.com


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