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They're Off! 

Brace yourselves for an actual sheriff's race

Wednesday, Jun 10 1998
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So. For the first time in 84 years, we've got a real Los Angeles County sheriff's race. Chief Lee Baca, with 32 percent of the votes cast, will face Sherman Block, whose 36 percent was probably the worst showing at the polls by an incumbent sheriff this century.

The only problem is, the surviving candidates from the primary field of four are the pair with the most credibility problems. First there's Baca, whose widely publicized tergiversations about if, how and when he asked Block to step down quietly may have cost him a primary lead.

Moreover, for the prevailing challenger in the race for the sheriff's badge, Baca has proved to be surprisingly thin-skinned. In the dawn's early light, Baca was mulling over how tough the race had been. And sure, Baca took some pummeling from Block over that purported deal-brokering and more pounding re the same from candidate Bill Baker.

Still, what was Baca talking about? Compared to the rolling-in-the-mud Richard Alarcon-Richard Katz state Senate race, the sheriff's primary was Whiffleball. Was he afraid of further campaign dirt? Or is this just more of the oedipal Desire Under the Elms plot line that's shadowed the campaign so far, with Baca cast in the Anthony Perkins role of doting, unloved son, challenging Block's empowered Burl Ives father figure?

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Maybe, to departmental lifers like Baca and Block, bred and nurtured in a system that has charted its own succession since 1914, any electoral politics is bad. Then Baca finally did what he probably should have done earlier: He turned in his badge and left the Sheriff's Department. Now the race is no longer an extension of office politics.

Baca has a credibility problem, but Block's is far larger. The incumbent must convince us that, at nearly 74, he can still handle the job. Block's more intelligent supporters assert Block still intends, in the department's century-old tradition, to designate his own successor and then retire halfway through his fifth term. Such individuals, with scant apparent faith in the electoral process, obviously think that anyone Block might appoint to succeed him would be a better choice than Baca.

They're kidding themselves. Watching the sheriff on his "victory" night, weakly proclaiming his intention to win, I didn't see a man planning resignation. I saw someone running on empty who's sure he's got a full tank. Block professes that he can handle the job for another four years - or as long as it offers no strains beyond picking up a telephone. But as firefighters like to say, emergency workers don't just get paid for what they do. They get paid for what they are prepared to do.

The Los Angeles sheriff commands a 13,000-member bureaucracy responsible for keeping order in the courts, guarding the jails and patrolling the streets. I suppose one could phone in one's authority in such matters - although you wouldn't know this to see Custody Division's recent disasters. But the sheriff also must be prepared to keep public order through events like the aftermath of a Richter 8 earthquake. Or civil unrest greater than that of 1992. If you think an elderly man who can't even pull 37 percent of the votes in a primary election is up to handling stuff like that - or even picking a successor who can - maybe you'd better think again.

Election NightNotebookScurrying around the Biltmore on the election night that saw the utter triumph of Proposition 227, I kept recalling another old hotel, the one where I used to stay in Mexico City. The Bristol had nice rooms and a cool bar, but like most Mexico City hotels in the 1980s, the only English-language newspaper sold there was the Miami Herald. Why, I asked, with the vast number of Mexicans and Mexican-descended living in California, could I not find a Los Angeles Times or even a San Francisco Chronicle?

We'll return to this paradox presently. Anyway, the latter papers were available at the Biltmore, but that was no night for light reading.

There was too much to see. The Biltmore ceiling decor is supposed to resemble that of the Vatican museums, although to me it more suggests the interior of Nero's Golden House, minus the real marble. But commodious as the hotel is, you could not get into the big room that contained Gray Davis' victory party - it was too crowded, all night.

If you needed a place to sit down, relax and spread out, however, right next door there was Al Checchi's choice election-night party. The free-spendingest, low-scoring gubernatorial candidate had the Biltmore's biggest ballroom. And there was a Charlie Chaplin impersonator, the hottest band in the hotel and the fewest people. After Checchi's loss was manifest, staff and fans of the various victors ended up celebrating on his dance floor, to the music of Checchi's hard-rocking band.

In announcing the turnaround defeat of Proposition 226, county labor leader Miguel Contreras first thanked the 5,000-odd labor-union members who'd pounded the pavement and got out the vote. Then he told the little crowd in the downstairs room that by 10:15 p.m. the tide had finally turned against the measure, and they like to rip off the roof. It just goes to show what you can do if you get the troops out.

And sometimes not. As U.S. Representative Xavier Becerra said while 227 triumphed, "We're losing battles. But Mexican-Americans are prepared to fight a long war - that's a war of votes - for their rights."

It took a recent front-page Times article to recall how little the so-called bilingual-education initiative had to do with bilingual ability. Bilingual education, the article noted, happens when they learn our language and we theirs. As in, for instance, Miami, which the Cuban-American community has made a two-tongued haven. And, incidentally, the national center for trade and cultural exchange with all of Latin America.

Rather the opposite of the reputation this city and state have gained for themselves following the triumph of one anti-Hispanic initiative after another, right? I guess when next I head for Mexico City, I better resign myself to catching up on all that Dade County news. You might say it's earned its way there.

So Long SamBy now, those who knew him for better or worse have tossed their respective bouquets and clods on the grave of the onetime hat salesman who helmed L.A. into both its big-city status and the Watts Riots.

Certainly, he never played hard to get. I interviewed Sam Yorty myself seven years ago at an upscale hillside home that could have been a Bret Easton Ellis novel's party venue after a good cleanup. I most remember Yorty's unfailing quiet courtesy and one celebrity photo among many on his wall that best showed where he'd halted in history. It pictured a band featuring Yorty (was he on drums?) and an incredibly young and sexy Phyllis Diller playing C-melody sax.

For all the occasional scurrilousness of his mayoralty, Yorty was probably at his lifetime worst as a 1950s legislative red-baiter. Indeed, the files of his Sacramento committee were reportedly so libelous that they remain closed. I asked Sam about this, and he allowed he'd maybe gone a bit overboard. But, he confessed, this was due to a major trauma in his own life. He told me quite seriously that in the 1930s a prominent, unnamed communist had tried to recruit him.

The approach, Yorty said, had been made in a Main Street Mexican restaurant. The operative allegedly promised the legislator a key role in the Revolution. Yorty said he turned him down.

Now I wonder. Had Yorty really sought to subvert this city, what with the legacies of Watts, plus his 1960 recycling ban that's filled our canyons with refuse, could he have done a better job?

Council Axes Cat TaxesIt wouldn't be exaggerating much to say the City Council approved Dick Riordan's 1998-99 budget last month in almost every detail but the notorious proposed cat license. Indeed, more ordinary citizens may have showed up to protest the feline impost than on the entire rest of the budget.

So much for that $250,000 line item. You'd think Riordan could have foreseen this was a non-starter. But maybe he dozed through those long-ago Princeton ROTC classes where they taught you to attack the weak enemy before provoking the strong one. Or perhaps the mayor just never guessed the power of the cat lobby.

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