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McDonnell claims victory in L.A. County sheriff’s race

Jim McDonnell gave a victory speech to his supporters Tuesday night, with early returns showing him ahead of Paul Tanaka in the race for Los Angeles County sheriff by a margin of 75% to 25%.

Campaign aides said they had not received a concession phone call from Tanaka but went ahead with the speech because McDonnell’s lead seemed insurmountable.

McDonnell took the stage at the JW Marriott in downtown Los Angeles with Mayor Eric Garcetti, Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey and county Supervisors Don Knabe and Mark Ridley-Thomas, among other politicians who supported him.

He spoke of his improbable rise from a working-class Boston neighborhood to lead the nation’s largest Sheriff’s Department. He thanked his Irish immigrant parents for instilling the values that have guided him throughout his career.

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The Sheriff’s Department’s past leadership had let down the community as well as deputies and it was time to restore trust in the agency, McDonnell said. He vowed to work with Lacey to better deal with the county’s mentally ill, citing diversion programs that would leave the county’s jails for “those who truly need to be removed from society.”

“Changing ways of doing things that span decades will not be easy,” he said. But he promised to “transform the Sheriff’s Department to one founded on honesty, service to the community and respect for all.”

Garcetti called McDonnell “one of the finest law enforcement officials not just in Los Angeles but the world.” He said McDonnell has both “the heart to find the right way forward” and the “gut to do what it takes to turn this great department around.”

Lacey said McDonnell’s election “gave the men and women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department something they may have been missing for awhile: hope for a brighter future.”

McDonnell, a Los Angeles Police Department veteran and the police chief of Long Beach, was aiming to become the first sheriff in a century to be elected from outside the department.

He was heavily favored in his campaign against Tanaka after almost winning the primary outright against six opponents. Tanaka, a retired undersheriff who has struggled to distance himself from the Sheriff’s Department’s problems, ran a nearly invisible campaign at times and badly trailed McDonnell in fundraising since the primary.

The new sheriff will take office Dec. 1 and will have the task of trying to turn around the department, which has been led by an interim sheriff since Lee Baca abruptly retired in January. The U.S. Department of Justice has said it is moving forward with an effort to impose court oversight of the treatment of mentally ill inmates in the county jails.

The Sheriff’s Department’s 18,000 employees patrol county streets, run the county jails and provide security for courthouses and public transit. They have traditionally been averse to leaders not brought up in the agency’s insular culture.

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But in this election, with the department’s reputation tarnished by a drumbeat of bad news, the unions representing deputies and supervisors backed McDonnell and his call for “a fresh set of eyes.”

Tanaka spent 31 years with the Sheriff’s Department, rising to become second-in-command under Baca. A certified public accountant and mayor of Gardena, Tanaka spent much of the primary campaign emphasizing the need to make crime prevention and public safety a priority.

After McDonnell finished first in the June primary with more than 49% of the vote to Tanaka’s 15%, Tanaka disappeared from view for much of the summer, except for his testimony in the trials of seven sheriff’s officials accused of obstructing a federal investigation into brutality and corruption by deputies in the county jails.

On the witness stand, Tanaka admitted that he was a subject of the investigation even as he hoped to lead the Sheriff’s Department. All seven defendants were convicted.

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Tanaka had taken much of the heat for issues such as deputy cliques, favoritism in promotions and assaults against jail inmates, and he was ultimately forced into early retirement by Baca. Baca himself stepped down after a hiring scandal and a string of criminal indictments against department members. That opened the door for McDonnell, who had declined to run against Baca.

After Labor Day, Tanaka resurfaced in the general election race, making occasional appearances but declining invitations to debate McDonnell, setting up an unusual campaign season in which each candidate touted his own agenda while rarely mentioning the other.

McDonnell joined the LAPD at 21, rising to No. 2 under Chief William J. Bratton. He helped implement a federal consent decree imposed on the LAPD largely as a result of the Rampart scandal.

When he started as Long Beach police chief in 2010, McDonnell had to win over a rank-and-file suspicious of an outsider from the LAPD. He is now popular among his police officers and has built strong relationships with community leaders, but his tenure has been marred by several controversial officer-involved shootings.

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As a member of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, McDonnell helped devise an influential set of recommendations for the county jails, many of which have been implemented. McDonnell has said he supports a citizen oversight commission that would supplement the new inspector general in monitoring the Sheriff’s Department.

For more news about the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, follow @cindychangLA. She can be reached at cindy.chang@latimes.com.


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